Levelling the playing field

When Saracens rugby club set out to produce the most sustainable and energy-efficient stadium in the UK, the plan was to revive, recover and regenerate one of the "green lungs of north London". Saracens rugby club community director Gordon Banks talks to Leigh Stringer about achieving a "truly sustainable" stadium and how the clubs new artificial pitch is starting a revolution.

Saracens artificial pitch being laid

Saracens artificial pitch being laid

Located in the London Borough of Barnet, Saracens' new stadium is situated on a green belt, making it imperative from the outset that environmental considerations were taken into account every stage of the plan.

From the selection of the site, the design of the building and the construction process, all the way through to the final occupation, the aim was to transform an increasingly dilapidated site into a vibrant and sustainable sports hub, used for rugby, athletics and community sport.

And, says Gordon Banks, community director of 10 years, the structure had to blend into the site's green environment. The result of this commitment to minimising environmental impact, is the only stadium in the country that has been designed and built to BREEAM Excellent standards.

Pushing the build further, the stadium, Allianz Park, has met the requirements of the building Regulations 2010 Part L policy and surpassed the stringent 2011 London Plan target of an additional 25% reduction in carbon over Part L, with a 28% reduction.

Achieving such accreditation has required an in-depth knowledge of the area and careful consideration of some of the consumption issues that come with any major sporting venue. Aspects such as energy efficiency, water, waste and recycling, bio-diversity and transport, have all been built into the planning phase.

When scoping energy efficiency for the site, the team decided to install more than 500 photovoltaic panels on the roof of the new East stand, which will recover 50kWp (kilowatts peak), generating power to be used within the building and fed back into the grid.

The floodlights and the sound system, two of the most energy-intensive areas of any sports stadium, also received significant investment to ensure consumption is minimised. Banks stresses that, because the technology has only recently been installed, exact data on energy and cost savings is still being gathered. However, both systems use new efficient technology, which also reduces lighting and noise overspill, diminishing the impact on local residents and improving the environment for the nearby Mill Hill Observatory.

However, the stadium's game-changing initiative came when scoping ideas on how to reduce water usage. Irrigation was targeted as it is such a water-intensive activity, but rather than reduce water needed for irrigation, Saracens eradicated the need for it altogether. They opted to install a bespoke, entirely artificial, turf pitch, which requires no water. Ever.

Banks says: "The artificial pitch will provide massive water savings simply because we don't have to water the pitch at all. It's not even like some of the artificial hockey pitches where you have to sprinkle them with water occasionally, our pitch needs no water.

"This is especially significant once you understand how much water sports stadiums and sports facilities, such as golf courses and football pitches, use," he adds.

According to Sustainability in Sport, a pitch requires on average 20,000 litres of water a day to keep it in 'prime condition'. However, as with information on potential energy savings, Banks says he is currently waiting on data to show the exact water and cost savings the stadium will achieve through the new pitch, compared to the previous grass turf.

The bespoke pitch has brought interest from across the country, says Banks. "This pitch is a one of a kind. It is the newest artificial rugby pitch built so far, although we are aware there are about eight similar pitches planned across the UK over the next twelve months".

Some of the initiatives carried out at Allianz Park, such as energy-efficient lighting, are "no brainers" but the state-of-the-art pitch is going to dramatically improve the sport's environmental status and commercial viability, says Banks. "This is a real proposition and now you have sporting venues such as the Millenium stadium and Cardiff Arms Park who have come out publicly saying they are looking at artificial pitches.

"The technology we can use for the pitch is at a point which makes it a serious commercial proposition. We've had three other premiership clubs visit here over the past few weeks, specifically coming down to look at the pitch and to find out more about our project".

"Although there are some clubs and individuals who are very traditional and their natural instinct is not to have such a pitch at their club, there are a lot of clubs that are saying they want to play more games at their stadium and a completely artificial pitch allows them to do so.

"Commercially, this makes sense because every big event is a commercial opportunity, but this is also producing a good brand of rugby. Fast, exciting with lots of tries being scored and then you have the environmental aspect and community usage on top of that," adds Banks.

Because of the robust nature of the pitch the stadium hosts far more rugby matches than is possible on a regular grass pitch. "We played four games of rugby back-to-back here, three RFU academy games and then we hosted the British university trophy final. You can't do that at other stadiums. We also have signs around the outside of the pitch saying 'Keep on the pitch' rather than 'Off the pitch' because unlike most stadiums, using our pitch will not cause any damage and we want it to get maximum usage," he says.

"Even we were surprised by how good the pitch was. What we have developed is a bespoke rugby surface so we knew we were investing in the best product available. The blades of grass are oil coated so there is less friction and they are 65mm long rather than the usual 50mm, which gives you a deeper infill. The shock pad under the carpet is twice as thick as the standard artificial pitch that you might play five-a-side football on for example".

Banks says that "doing things differently" from other sports clubs has paid off commercially and environmentally but the biggest win has been the knowledge transfer to other clubs. Although there is very little legislation in place for sports clubs to incorporate sustainable practice into their stadiums and venues, it could be "just around the corner", says Banks.

"Applying these initiatives puts us ahead of the game and motivates other clubs to consider their environmental impact. We have learnt from other clubs that have used environmentally considerate measures - we have just gone a step further. But hopefully others will now follow our path and so far it looks like it has sparked significant interest across the UK".

Pushing the boundaries has been Saracens objective from the start. The stadium is likely to drive innovation, particularly around pitch and surface technology.

But the aim is to set a benchmark for all sporting venues when in the midst of the designing and building phase.

Leigh Stringer is edie's energy and sustainability editor


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