One company still heads the field in swimming pool and leisure complex design and construction. Mike Beardall reports.
In the world of swimming and sports centres the growth of excellence in community facilities has been driven by a few key players. At the forefront of the design and delivery of some stunning buildings – including the Olympic Aquatics Centre – is the number one company, S&P Architects. With dozens of prestigious projects under their belt throughout the UK and Ireland it is difficult to comprehend the size of their operation, with regional offices in London, Nottingham, Glasgow and Dublin. They are soon to open an office in Birmingham. At the helm of today’s company, founded by two architects in 1982 – Peter Sergeant and Mark Potiriadis – is a man who admits he is hardly ever in the same office two days running. Chief executive Keith Ashton lives in Gloucestershire with his wife and two teenage children and takes sport and the leisure industry very seriously. He is heavily into kayaking and walking, with running and cycling also on his fitness agenda. And this passion for fitness extends into his professional life where he drives forward a company that ‘creates answers’ for communities developing new sport facilities.
“It’s a challenge in this shrinking market to show the benefits to local authorities of making investment in new facilities,” says Keith, who is a 45-year-old with the clear vision of making sport attractive and available for all. “We have to show that by investing in local facilities there will be benefits for the community with economic mid and long-term savings.” As an independent board member of the ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) and chairman of Business In Sport, Keith spends time travelling the country talking about sports facilities. He can be found talking to the Government Sports Minister one day and local organisers of mobile pool facilities the next. “Our biggest challenge is to keep children interested in sport, particularly swimming, when they reach 14,” he says. “Working on keeping the 14 to 24-year-olds interested in sport means providing the best facilities.” Keith, who works closely with Sport England, says it is important to “maintain pathways” that encourage investment in the best facilities. All the major projects, such as Olympic-size pools, are a catalyst for other projects such as regional and community sport centres. “It’s about a good understanding of local issues,” says Keith. “We have masses of expertise and have done plenty of research and development.”
The company, with more than 70 staff – some with 30 years’ experience – does not take its reputation as ‘number one’ for granted. “We go through the same tendering processes as everyone else, particularly with regards to local authorities where the European Procurement rules apply,” explains Keith, who has been with S&P for 11 years, the last two and a half as chief executive. “Private clients will come to us because of our reputation and we foster relationships both in the private and public sectors. “With our experience we can cost a project accurately and derisk the process by looking at all the factors involved.” S&P has a large network of suppliers, including mechanical and electrical engineers. “Because we have an incredibly diverse range of people we work with – between 20 and 30 partners – it is a very large supply chain,” says Keith. “The way we work is to have a regional bias and then foster key relationships.” The key themes that drive projects are: • Reducing capital expenditure. • Driving down costs • Encouraging new-build facilities. • Recognising that reviving older stock can become costly. • Putting new facilities in place to drive up potential future revenues through increased public use. “The building of new facilities,” says Keith, “encourages people to use them – particularly young people. “Sports facilities are central to a community and it has to be a combination of activities for them – a sports hall, a gym, a pool and, in some cases, outdoor sports facilities.” Keith practices what he preaches as a management board member of the Chartered Institute of Sport and Play Activities (South West Region).
S&P are the architects appointed to oversee the Olympics legacy developments including the Velodrome, the Aquatics Centre and the Multi-use areas, plus the Broxbourne white water area. “The Olympics success was not just about the sport but about the quality of UK constructors,” says Keith. “It is the regeneration and transportation systems that have benefitted.” The list of current projects is too long to list but on the pools side they include Becontree Heath, Horley Leisure Centre, New Brighton Lido, Northolt Library and Community Facilities, Royal Commonwealth Pool, Edinburgh, and Westminster Lodge at St. Albans. Top of Keith’s highlighted list of current projects are the Redcar Town Centre development, regeneration of the Elephant and Castle in London, a new sports centre in Perth, Scotland, and the building of a community project including a stadium for Rotherham United Football Club. In Northern Ireland, S&P are working on Bangor Castle Leisure Centre for North Down Borough Council – a project costing £42 million. Says Keith: “The quest for architectural innovation inspires every project. It’s a philosophy that enables us to deliver truly visionary design solutions. “The quality of our thinking is an important factor too. Considerations like the physical performance of our buildings and their ability to survive a rapidly changing world are always at the forefront of our mind. “We enjoy nothing better than sharing our passion and enthusiasm for the creative process with our clients. Our goal is not simply to meet expectations, but to far exceed them.”
While a report by the Local Government Association warns that there will be big cuts in non-statutory services by 2020, leisure facility design continues to focus on cost-savings and income generation from attracting more people – particularly the young – into sporting environments. “We know there is a big squeeze all round on local authority funding in the current financial climate but in the future the trend will be towards consolidating ageing facilities. We may get fewer facilities – but of much better quality,” says Keith. “Today’s sports establishments have to be attractive to youngsters. They want high ropes, climbing equipment and challenges to keep them coming through the door, as well as good pools. “You only have to look at the successful venues – such as the K2 Crawley – to see increasing numbers coming through the doors. Everything has to be on offer so that you keep attracting those people and peer pressure will keep the numbers up at those venues.” He says the big difference now in the pool industry are the number of new 50m pools – 12 since the London Olympic bid was announced in 2005 (eleven of them designed by S&P). “There are a lot of challenges facing the industry,” says Keith. “The building of leisure facilities and pools is all about working together and working closely with governing bodies, ensuring there is appropriate funding available. “Leisure managers must be able to drive investment by increasing partnerships. “Ageing buildings will not inspire people to swim or take part in sport and it is important to capture the current government thinking that we need to enthuse everyone involved to produce the best possible facilities for communities.”