Raising the Roof

How the speed-skating oval for the 2010 Winter Games might just make engineering the new architecture – one two-by-four at a time.
By Trevor Boddy
Published in the July 2008 issue of enRoute

Rain streams around my yellow plastic hard hat, down my collar and under my orange safety vest. Blinking away the relentless drops, I gaze up at the half-built wooden roof of the speed-skating oval for the 2010 Winter Games. I’m in Richmond, near Vancouver, with structural engineer Gerry Epp – one-half of innovative engineering firm Fast + Epp – watching a crane lower into place one of the last of these 13-metre-long roof panels, curving plywood plates on top, grooved trusses below. The bottom trusses are fashioned from a filigree of two-by-fours, which from this distance look like toothpicks. When it’s finished, the roof will cover 6½ acres, roughly the size of four and a half football fields.

The Richmond Speedskating Oval for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver

The Richmond Speedskating Oval for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver

Epp, succumbing to the cerebral joys of engineering, is relieved and excited as the last pieces snap into place. “Just think: We’ve spanned this enormous distance using ordinary two-by-fours, the same kind you can find in every house in Canada,” he says. “We couldn’t have designed or built this even 10 years ago.”

As our ideas of buildings and cities evolve, engineering has the potential to supplant architecture as the engine of change. Fast + Epp’s engineered wood roof is a mission as much as a membrane, a beacon in a world running short on natural resources and carbon-based energy. This has never been more true than now, when sustainably harvested wood is becoming recognized as one of the greenest materials available. Compared with aluminum, steel, glass, concrete or even brick, wood has the least energy input of any material, Epp tells me. Even better, growing trees fix carbon in the ground, what he calls “carbon off-setting by nature.”

Leaving in its wake a rust-red swath of destruction three times the size of Switzerland, the mountain pine beetle has ravaged the British Columbia Interior for about 10 years. (The spread of this insect, which is no bigger than a grain of rice, was formerly kept in check by colder winters.) Epp and partner Paul Fast decided to use 1 million board feet of salvaged two-by-four pine studs for the pioneering $16-million oval roof. The pair even had to create a new digital machine to manufacture panels for the roof, which is one of the world’s largest clearspan wooden structures. (Mould found in the roof membrane means that portions of the insulation must be replaced, but it will neither delay completion nor affect the structure. Gerry Epp, who says Fast + Epp was involved only in the structural side, adds, “It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens in other roofs, but most of them aren’t as high profile as this one.”)

Engineering is no longer about simply constructing buildings the way a child assembles Lego bricks, and Paul Fast and Gerald Epp thrive because they are the rare engineers who speak the language of architecture. (Their mission statement proclaims: “Good structure is good architecture.”) Vancouver’s architectural elite, such as Arthur Erickson, Bing Thom and Peter Busby, like working with them because they understand an architect’s desire to shape never-before-seen designs but have the focus to ground such visions in material reality.

Both raised as Mennonites with roots in rural Manitoba, Fast and Epp bring a moral and almost spiritual dimension to their work. They start every meeting with a prayer, and they believe that engineering can, if not save the world, certainly make it better.

The complexity of their mission becomes evident as we walk around the oval (designed by architects at Cannon Design), arriving at a spot where we can clearly see the arches that hold up wood-wave panels. Made from twinned 1.6-metre-deep glulam (glued-laminated) wood beams, the arches curve up and vault over the spot where, in 2010, Olympic skaters with bulging thighs wrapped in spandex will streak to their medals. Each set of arches is fitted into a steel seat that supports the roof. Epp turns to me, a light in his eyes above his upturned grey moustache. “Do you get it, Trev?” he asks and then waits a few beats: “Sharp steel blades hovering over centre ice… in a speed-skating oval!”

“Get it?” Gerry Epp asks. “Sharp steel blades hovering over centre ice… in a speedskating oval!”

Trev had not gotten it. Like much engineering, the oval is both simple and complex. Simple, because it’s a big wooden roof built from little studs, plywood and glulam beams standing up under the force of gravity, and complex, because, just for the heck of it, the lowest point of the arches looks like a rack of gargantuan skate blades.

Our coats soaked through, Epp and I finish the tour in Richmond with a look at the soaring end sections, where the roof’s feathered edges spread out and upward like a gliding hawk. (The oval can be seen clearly by travellers making westbound approaches to nearby Vancouver International Airport.) Just then, a construction-site safety officer strides up to Epp, points at his soaked hand-tooled English brogues and asks, “Are those steel-toed?” Moments later, I’m busted for my Italian hiking boots.

We’d gone from the sublime heights of engineering to being frogmarched off the construction site by a scowling safety official. “No wonder he’s steamed; that’s gotta be the third time I’ve been booted out of here,” Epp says. “I just get so excited by the project, I forget these things.”