Overlay: what’s it all about?

Overlay: what’s it all about?
Samantha Cotterell of Designsport talks to Host City about the challenges of an exciting profession and the misnomer that is the word “overlay”

Overlay is often understood to refer to everything that would fall out if you picked up an Olympic venue, turned it upside down and shook it – basically, it is everything that is not permanent.“But it shouldn’t be that way,” says Samantha Cotterell of Designsport. “If, when you turned the venue upside down, a lot of things fell out, it would mean that the event has not had the right expert input from the beginning and most likely the event is costing a lot of money.”

Why is overlay so important?

Cotterell points out that the very word “overlay” undermines the task at hand, which is a complex exercise in sport event architecture that extends far beyond the final cosmetic touch. The word “overlay” suggests a lightweight veil that is temporarily laid over a complex network of concrete and steel in order to host an event. But this veil is only the final stage of years of planning, designing and building an event.Overlay – or, as Cotterell advocates that it should be called, sport event architecture – is an integral part of the planning of any event, from inception to delivery, from initial masterplanning at bid stage through every phase of preparation, delivery, decommission and, hopefully, legacy. But there is a lack of awareness about overlays, the skills of overlay architects and the role they play in the game.One of the most pertinent issues facing host cities is how to ensure meaningful and sustainable use of the facilities during and after a large scale multisport event. Cotterell says: “Typically, Olympic Games and similar scale events assist in improving infrastructure, developing industrial zones and regenerating lesser quality urban areas. However, in addition to this positive impact, enormous amounts of money are spent on designing, building and procuring facilities that are not successfully integrated into a community or national programme following the event. Experienced sport event architects are the key to resolving this issue.”

Who are sport event architects?

Sport event architects understand major event operations, sport specific operations and architecture. It is these three elements that, combined, fulfil the requirements of major stakeholders to create the excitement of an event.When a city commissions the building of a sport venue or precinct, professional architects are typically approached. The architects apply their skills and they design according to the basic rules and regulations set out by building codes and sporting federation’s technical handbooks. However, the operational knowledge required to stage an event is often missing.An architect has the tools of the trade to understand masterplanning, design and structures. But an overlay architect also understands the industry of sport, has the working knowledge of major stakeholder requirements and understands the nature of the beast that is a multisport event.“Designing a stadium or the masterplan for a host city without the having major event expertise is like designing a car without understanding the engine, the concepts of aerodynamics, or even the role of the driver. When the end users come to operate the facility they find it is not operational – sport event architects are the professionals who have the required knowledge to make this car a fine tuned vehicle able to race in any conditions” says Cotterell.Overlay design is a specialised field which is not approached through study but rather through experience. It is a complex interweaving of disciplines that must be understood, developed and implemented from project inception through to the event itself.When developed as a profession, overlay architecture becomes a series of exhilarating challenges that vary from the creative to the business and from the social to the pragmatic. “When training my staff on an event, I always remind them that while we are sitting in the studio designing, the athletes are out there training for that one chance to make a difference. We are responsible for designing the atmosphere and arena that will host this once-in-alifetime opportunity.” says Cotterell.“Normally architects design static buildings, hand over the keys to the client and move onto the next project.
As sport event architects, however, we live our buildings: we work next to and with the main clients; we design as they evolve, we build as they train and then we host the event and witness our building come alive. When all have gone home, we dismantle our buildings and restore the stadia to the city.”

When to involve sport event architects?

“Overlay design is too often reactive rather than proactive,” says Cotterell. “The stadia are often designed and built without multisport event expertise, which leads to extensive redesign of base buildings and major temporary works. In Doha and Athens, we had some major challenges and had to modify whole sections of master plans and stadia in order to accommodate the operations and additional facilities required to host the Doha 2006 Asian Games and the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.“In Delhi, on the other hand, many venues had initial advice from experts and hence have been well designed, minimising the need for temporary structures. It is encouraging to see this as it ensures less money is spent on the temporary aspects. In such circumstances the overlay designer’s task is more focused on improving projects by redefining overlay, devising new systems and promoting sustainable solutions.”An overlay architect is equipped to advise a bidding nation on how to plan the most appropriate events and can bring expertise on how to carry the project through to delivery. When a city is designing large scale sporting facilities, overlay architects can advise on requirements and analyse potential events to be hosted so that the facility is designed in an intelligent, sustainable and exciting manner.During the planning and design of Dubai Sports City, key members of Designsport were part of a team who were called upon to design hypothetical overlays for the use of the stadia in event mode. These included World Championships in a variety of sports and an Asian Games.“Our overlays went to inform a revision of the masterplan and a redesign of some crucial aspects of the stadium buildings. The architects were brought back to the drawing board to work together as a team to ensure the new multimillion dollar facilities could accommodate the intended and further proposed events.”Sport federations, major stakeholders and main client bodies such as event owners should involve sport event architects at all times, says Cotterell. “International sport federations and event owners generally lack the technical support that is requested of them when an organising committee asks for assistance in planning the specifics of the event. Some international federations are stronger than others and provide highly sophisticated information to support the design and build of both permanent and temporary facilities; however, mostly this expertise is lacking. An experienced overlay architect is well positioned to fill this role and support the sport federations.”Overlay architecture is certainly a profession like no other. “The process is incredibly dynamic and exciting and there is a great sense of achievement and completion,” Cotterell says.

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