A grand vision for the Ashton Gate transformation

When Bristol City FC owner Steve Lansdown visited Barcelona, he had a vision. Lansdown was not taken just by the club’s iconic Nou Camp stadium, but the plethora of sports clubs that made up Barcelona, which he wants to recreate in the west country of England. Steve Menary reports

Lansdown returned to the west of England intent on recreating that ideal and Bristol Sports was born. The collective now runs the commercial operations for Bristol’s rugby union, women’s football and basketball clubs, along, of course, with Bristol City.

And city’s long-time home, Ashton Gate, is being transformed into a new stadium as a home for Bristol Sports with a striking design by Liverpool-based architects KKA, which aims to unify the old elements of the stadium with the new sections.

Bristol City originally played in Beaminster. The club played some matches at Ashton Gate, before moving to the site permanently in 1904. According to Simon Inglis’ seminal 1996 book on British football stadia, Football Grounds of Great Britain, the original Ashton Gate featured two stands, simply known as number one and two.

The first real development on the site was at the Winterstoke Road End. By the 1920s, a covered stand was built using the proceeds from selling two players. In 1941, bomb damage destroyed two stands. The main Grand Stand was later rebuilt but this was not completed until the 1950s, when the club’s chairman was Harry Dolman, who designed the first floodlights. In 1970, a stand opened opposite the stand named after Harry Dolman, who was a keen bowler and an indoor bowling green was installed underneath with the whole development costing £235,000.

The Dolman Stand opened in 1970 and is architecturally of note as it included a full-length roof suspended from a cross girder mounted on two uprights outside the screen walls. At this time, the Dolman Stand was largest clear span stand in Europe and the design meant that the sightlines are not impaired. Retaining an unimpeded view would be central to the architects brought on board for the latest redevelopment. KKA has won awards for sports projects in the past, notably the Heywood Sports Village. In 2012, KKA’s design for this scheme won the Public Sector Project of the Year Award at the Builder & Engineer Awards and the community benefit category at the RICS Awards for the North West region.

In Bristol, the design brief from Bristol Sports was to ensure that the character of the stadium was not lost, in particular the sightlines, whilst also ensure that Ashton gate remained the south West’s premier sports venue.

“Bristol Sport has worked really hard to bring a 27,000 capacity stadium to the city,” says Bristol Sport chairman Martin Griffiths. “As the construction of the horseshoe-shaped concourse wraps around the southern end it really gives an idea of what the finished build will look like. It is really exciting to think that with this design we will be able to bring so much more to the city.

“Not only is the stadium home to both Bristol City and Bristol Rugby but when it is completed it will become the largest conference and events centre in the south west. The design has to be focused on delivering a multi-use facility that will make Bristol proud.”

The construction contract was put out to tender in January 2014. An experienced field of contractors were shortlisted, including Sir Robert McAlpine, which built the original Wembley Stadium in 1923, Buckingham, which built a new home for City’s League One rivals MK Dons, and also Galliford Try.

The winner was Scottish group Barr, which also has a long track record on major stadia projects across Britain, including relocating Premier League side Southampton, and started on site on June 30 2014. The design brief specified the creation of a parabolic bowl and this, along with a particularly tight site that bordered residential areas on two sides and keeping the stadium open for football and rugby, created a series of trials for Barr.

“It would have been easier to build a new stadium,” concedes Mike Henderson, Barr’s operations manager on the project.

Before matches, Barr has to shift piling rigs from in front of the Dolman Stand and the safety advisory group must clear the ground fit to play prior matches at the stadium. Working on such a tight site meant that Barr had only a tiny goods yard and had to bring in materials using a just-in-time system. This impacted on the buying process. Steel came from Newport, south Wales, while the concrete was shipped in from the Republic of Ireland and the concrete stairways trucked down from Yorkshire.

The existing Wedlock Stand, which was built in 1928 and is the oldest of the four stands at Ashton Gate, has been demolished and a new stand erected to be known as the South Stand. This stand includes banqueting facilities and, on completion, the overall development will also have conference facilities to cater for 1,000 people, which Bristol Sport think will be the largest capacity in the South West.

For this new stand, composite cladding has been specified for the walls of the stadium and single-skin polycarbonate for the top of the roof. Curtain walling has also been specified for the new South Stand exterior along with entrance screens. For Barr, the biggest challenge was the design brief that specified the linking this new stand with the adjacent Dolman Stand, which is being retained.

“The design of the structural steel is very complicated,” adds Mr Henderson. “The structural steel has to fit in with the sightlines. The geometry of the stadium, fitting it into a tight space and on a curve is quite a challenge.”

The design also kept true to the original development of Ashton Gate, which was notable for all the steel work being painted.

Mr Henderson adds:

“The look of the building also meant that the visible steel connections had to be smooth architectural connections, so they had to be sleeved and not the more bolted connections.”

Understandably given its heritage, the Dolman Stand is being retained, but KKA’s design includes creation of a horseshoe-shaped concourse running from the Dolman Stand into the new South Stand.

A column support in the Dolman Stand provides structural support, but retaining this would have both spoilt the parabolic design and the sightlines. To solve this problem, the structural design involves the load from the new South Stand being taken from the Dolman Stand with the introduction of a new truss.

Mr Henderson explains:

“We are using support trestles to hold up the roof then we will de-jack the trestles to allow the roof to take the load again. It’s all about having a clear sightline around the seating bowl. To create the bowl, we are also extending the lower tier of the Dolman Stand to achieve the parabolic effect.”

The Dolman Stand is being gutted and new facilities for supporters included inside. These elements comprise phases one and two, which must be complete by July 2015. In May, Barr will start demolition of buildings behind the Williams Stand. Once the season is complete, the Williams Stand itself will be demolished and Barr will start on the third phase to completely replace this section of the ground with a new area to be known as the West Stand. However, the tight site means that Ashton Gate will not be transformed into a complete bowl by filling in the sides of the North Stand.

Pete Smith, stadium project development manager at Bristol Sport, says:

“Those corners won’t be filled in but will have other facilities there like a media suite, so the wind won’t just be blasting through.”

Elsewhere on the project, solar panels are being considered for the West Stand, as part of Bristol Sport’s enthusiastically search for sought green credentials for the development.

The city of Bristol is the European Green capital for 2015, and as part of this project Bristol Sport is planning to develop a green pathway leading towards the new stadium, which will open for the 2016/17 season.

The capacity then will be 27,000. Not the 100,000-plus Nou Camp perhaps, but the New Ashton Gate will certainly offer twenty-first century facilities for the innovative Bristol Sport collective of clubs.