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The Richmond Oval in suburban Vancouver was designed to hold the long-track speed-skating competition at the 2010 Winter Olympics but has transformed into a multiuse facility for recreational athletes in sports ranging from hockey to badminton.

Amanda Lowe/The Globe and Mail

Whether considered from the standard of design innovation or public popularity, the 2010 Winter Olympics' most successful venue was the $178-million Richmond Oval, and the world of engineering agrees.

In October of 2009, this brilliant piece of engineering in wood by the Vancouver firm Fast + Epp (produced in association with Cannon Architects) was a finalist for recognition as the best worldwide example of sports-related engineering design. The I Struct E Prize is to the world of structural engineering as the Pritzker Prize is to architecture, or the Nobel is to literature or medicine.

The speed-skating Oval's long-span roof of wooden beams, set with composite ceiling panels of salvaged beetle-killed B.C. pine, won the prize, and moreover, it defeated a much more prominent finalist, the Beijing National Stadium or Bird's Nest, created by the world's most prestigious engineering firm, Arup of London, for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

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How did this small Vancouver firm – best known previously as landlords to Arthur Erickson and favoured engineers to Vancouver's best architectural offices – beat one of the largest, most media-savvy concerns in their field? The answer turns solely on issues of design innovation – engineering details worth describing in some detail.

The Richmond roof covers 2.6 hectares and is as green as any big sports complex gets, because of its use of wood for almost the entire Oval's roof, not the more typical steel and concrete. The public might not realize that wood is the only truly renewable building material; clearly, no one is sowing plantations of glass, harvesting bosques of I-beams, or recovering cement from sugar beets – nearly all other building materials are diminishing resources on a shrinking planet. We once thought the future would be made of exotic plastics and carbon-fibre hybrids; it turns out the future of architecture and engineering is maturing in a sylvan grove right now.

As the best engineers and architects always do, design engineers Paul Fast, Gerry Epp, Derek Ratzlaff and team turned a tough challenge into the source of their inspiration – a request from their clients at Richmond's municipal government and local Olympics organizers that they use not just any wood, but some of B.C.'s mounting harvest of beetle-killed pine. Because warmer climates had reduced winter die-offs of the voracious beetles, huge tracts of British Columbia first turned rust red, then the trees died off after their trunks had grown to small diameters, suitable only for making two-by-four wooden studs. How could a small-dimension piece of wood typically used in framing tract houses be shaped into the uninterrupted 95-metre-wide spans needed by the speed skaters, then adapted, post-Olympics, into use by the citizens of Richmond in many other indoor sports?

The answer to this question is known to any kid who builds an elaborate structure out of toothpicks or Popsicle sticks – glue lots of little things together, and they function just as well as one big thing. The Fast + Epp breakthrough was to nail staggered runs of two-by-fours into V-shaped curving troughs, then bind the troughs together by topping them with a plywood diaphragm. These created structurally efficient roof segments, which Fast + Epp have lovingly labelled "wood wave panels." These were lifted by crane to nest between long sweeping beams made of glue-lamimated (glulam) composite wooden beams.

Pipes and conduit for fire sprinkler and power supply could be woven out of sight within the V troughs, and even the 2.1-metre-deep glulam beams did double duty; they were built into pairs forming another, bigger V arching over the entire ice surface, and inside the V was the hidden source for the building's flow of heated air. Thus, a roof that would have normally required a metal-smiths' convention was largely preconstructed in sister company StructureCraft's Delta, B.C., engineered-wood factory, then shipped to the Fraser River-side building side for surprisingly quick erection.

Similarly, understanding a bit more about the design details of the 2008 Bird's Nest stadium highlights why the Vancouverites got the global design prize over the Londoners. Chinese artist and architect Ai Weiwei (a subconsultant on the project) first suggested the bird's nest idea, largely based on a North American Chinese restaurant convention of fried baskets of string potatoes or noodles to hold delicacies, something that he knew from his years as a struggling artist in New York(the technique is less common in China itself).

As implemented by Switzerland-based stadium architects Herzog and de Meuron, working with Arup, the bird's nest is made from tonnes and tonnes of "woven" steel plate and beams. But the rows of bleachers and shading canopy within the stadium itself are not supported by all this expensive steel, but rather are an independent structure made of concrete. The bird's nest supports nothing more substantive than pedestrian ramps, and is what it is: a built metaphor, a marketing symbol or, as architects tend to describe superfluous but photo-friendly design elements, "eye wash."

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The I Struct E jurors – some of the world's leading structural engineers – knew that the Richmond Oval was the green engineering of the future, while the Beijing Bird's Nest, while visually engaging, did not intellectually advance their discipline. Such faux-sculptural works as the Beijing stadium (or much of the latter works of Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry) are coming to be revealed as the architecture of a receding past, times when we could afford lots of superfluous steel, concrete and glass merely to satisfy a promotional need by clients and their designers to fashion unique, would-be artworks. I wonder how many of the indoor joggers and basketball, volleyball and badminton players in Richmond who daily gather under that great wooden roof realize they recreate under a globally lauded example of the engineering of the future?

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