Site visit: Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium

Newly completed stadium counts as a major victory

Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium is an oasis of football in Al Ain.
Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium is an oasis of football in Al Ain.

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Football means a lot to the people of the UAE and the region. Go to a local game and the strength of the noise usually belies the size of the crowd you'll find making it. It's passion for the game and loyalty to a team that makes the noise. It's the crowds that make the stadiums famous.

In the febrile atmosphere of the sporting arena, taking on the construction of a stadium, a project that will be so close to the hearts of so many, is a challenge that could draw opprobrium or applause.

Get it spot-on, though, and there might just be a community cheer. Sports facilities, created with a community in mind, will have a greater purpose and, on a practical level, see more use, than grand gestures built for a single role. Gulf countries have been criticised – sometimes unfairly – for embarking on such vanity projects.

However, in the city of Al Ain, a great example of the right way to develop sports facilities has just been finished. Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, built by main contractor BAM International for AAFAQ Holdings, will serve as home ground for the local football team, Al Ain FC, whose purple colours adorn the seats within.

The stadium, developed to exacting FIFA standards, manages to be both spacious and intimate, a factor enhanced by the closeness of the pitch to the front row; there's no running track. The 25,000 seats have plenty of room to breathe and even in the top tiers of the stand, spectators will still feel close to the pitch. Prospective season-ticket holders need have no fear of obscured views.

Clear sight lines is just one example of the thoughtful design at work. A noticeable breeze moves around the upper tiers, down to pitch level and as Tony Russell, director of Pattern Design, the stadium's architects, explained, helps the grass to grow.

"There's two factors for the breeze," he said. "First is obviously comfort, but also, to get the grass to grow, we had to model the wind flow on to the pitch as well. The open areas that are there are good for access, but also they're there for the grass."

The shape of the steel and fabric roof encircling the stadium, means the ground will always be in shade come the 17:45 kick-off time of the local football season.

The roof, along with the facade, are two of the most distinctive features of the stadium structure and were subject to some significant value engineering during the project's tender phase.

"In the tender stage we've done value engineering on the roof and the facade," said Steven Wilbrenninck, product manager, stadiums, for BAM International. "It was a crucial thing for the project. Originally the facade was designed with GRC elements, which were very heavy, and the structure required made it an expensive solution.

"We started a redesign, keeping the shape as it was, only looking for other materials. We came up with a lightweight design that came in much cheaper than the GRC."

Each individual panel of the facade, designed to be reminiscent of a date-palm's trunk, has an LED light or two. While the panels all look similar, of the 609 that wrap the stadium, only 49 are the same. The LED's each have an 'address' of their own, so different colour commands can be sent to individual units. In combination with crowd-noise microphones inside the stadium, the LEDs will be able to reflect the action, by being able to glow brighter, or in a particular colour, when a goal is scored. Colour changes can also be used for way-finding, directing crowds to entrances and exits as game-time approaches.

"It is a unique installation," said J Udhuman Ali, project director for ETA, the MEP subcontractor. "We engaged high-quality riggers to do all the installations. When you come to the facade every piece of fabric is at a different angle, so you have to ask how the lights will shine."

Critical to the project, given its tight 16-month time frame, was teamwork and shared responsibility. All involved have expressed a belief that it was central to the stadium build's success.

"We mobilised within 24 hours of signing the LoI," said Maged Fares Zaki, project director for BAM Higgs & Hill. "After 48 hours we started excavation, and having started on 14 May , we were casting concrete on 1 June."

"With a built up area of 45,000m2, the story of the stadium is linked to three important points. We plan ahead, we link the plan to safety, and we communicate."

That communication was essential working on a 2500m2 site, with 250 engineers and 4,800-strong labour force at peak. Zaki said following up, reporting back, safety and planning were all key too. It's a plan that has worked, delivering not only a great stadium, but six million man hours without a lost-time-incident. This was pushed down into the sub-contractors too, who all went through a tough vendor assessment process.

Visual simplicity hides the complexity of the design and the challenge faced by the team that lifted the structural components of the roof into place. The extensive use of 3D modelling made the work possible, revealing clashes as the designs were developed and tested. This was especially true for the roof, which the team from EC Harris described as the most technically challenging part of the project. With the biggest truss weighing in at 56 tonnes and only a 3mm tolerance, accuracy was paramount.

"The whole make or break of the project rested with the roof," said Mark Streifler, senior construction manager, EC Harris. "It was designed by a German firm Schlaich Bergermann und Partner, but the connection details were down to Al Reyami Steel Construction.

"They had a tough job, but they tackled it very well and everyone worked together.

"BAM insisted on all of the sub contractors adopting the same model. That made the project; the modelling work was amazing. We tracked progress through the modelling and it identified any coordination issues."

Extensive work was also done developing the roof’s fabric component. The material was bought from a company in France, sent to China – where it was the cut and welded – while a third-party tester in Germany put it through its paces, before the final product was sent to site.

"It looks like a simple cloth," said Steven Wilbrenninck. "But it has had a variety of tests. Same with the seats. We started with a mock-up stand, where all suppliers put their seats, so the client could test them. Then we visited the chosen supplier in China, where the standard seats came from and another supplier in Spain for the VVIP seating."

"There were always three steps: animation, mock-up and then building. We even made a sample package for the grass, including drainage."

While the design and execution of the stadium are world-class, it’s the extras that will cement the venue into its community. A sports hall, playing fields and office building will all add to the venue’s usefulness. Further phased development will see the location expand to include hospitality options.

"There's been a buy-in from the local supporters," said Gary Bressen, senior site engineer for AAFAQ Holding. "A lot of that is coming through in what we're doing. I think it will change football in the UAE; these facilities are going to be fantastic."

Including these elements in the development of the stadium ensures the venue will get regular use that goes beyond the home-game fixture list. This can only serve to encourage supporters to be more engaged with the facilities provided and boost big-game attendance, getting more people in Al Ain to show their colours.

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