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Wrapping up the Olympics

November 1st, 2012 / By: / Fabric Structures, Feature, Projects

Strict sustainability guidelines encouraged intense collaboration in the research and manufacture of the fabric panels that wrapped London’s Olympic Stadium.

It was estimated that at one time or another during the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England, a total of nearly four billion people tuned in to watch the Olympic triumphs and tragedies. Much has been said about the training, preparation, glory and heartbreak that the athletes experience, but there are other medal-worthy efforts from these games. One of the most interesting involves a dedicated team of internationally and nationally known companies that worked together to produce a sustainable fabric wrap that encircled the iconic Olympic Stadium.

As a major American corporate sponsor of the Olympics, The Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich., was committed to the rigorous sustainability and environmental standards set forth by the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). Dow stepped in to sponsor the wrap originally called for by the stadium architects after public funding was withdrawn for that portion of the project in early 2011. (Construction of the elliptical-shaped stadium itself began in May 2008 and was completed nearly three years later.)

The next step was identifying the right partners in this eco-conscious mission, with its strong focus on sustainability—and at that point, the clock was ticking. “Thus began the collaboration with the Cooley Group and Rainier Industries,” says Nicoletta Piccolrovazzi, Dow’s technical director of Olympic operations. “To meet the fire performance and other sustainability and performance requirements required a breakthrough. That’s when we started the intense collaboration because we were charged with supplying the materials and manpower to help complete the Olympic Stadium as its architects had intended.”

Footprint for the future

To meet the design and sustainability requirements, Cooley needed to come up with a PVC-free, low-carbon footprint, recyclable wrap to be used in what would end up as 306 hourglass-shaped panels approximately 90 feet tall by 8 feet wide.

“There was also a very strict standard for fire retardancy,” says Dan Dwight, CEO of the Pawtucket, R.I.-based Cooley Group. “That’s where it started to get really complicated .… [However], the Olympic committee stuck by its commitment to sustainability throughout the process. It can be easy to lose sight of those goals due to economics, but they did not waver.”

The challenge came in the chemistry involved in meeting those standards. “The Cooley and Dow chemists worked on the project collaboratively for almost eight months, nearly full time,” Dwight says. “We had Cooley chemists in Rhode Island, combined with Dow chemists in both Europe and the United States. They worked in separate research labs and then came together in our facility.” Subsequently, the panels were mass-produced in Cooley’s Lancaster, S.C., facility.

Dow turned to Rainier Industries, Seattle, Wash., to print and fabricate the innovative panels. Rainier was involved in both the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. “This became one of those breakthrough jobs in so many ways,” says Bruce Dickinson, Rainier vice president. “It broke new ground in terms of the fabric and manufacturing and in terms of the ability to combine color and print on the fabric. It really required a team to make it all happen.”

As Cooley and Dow developed a new piece of material, it would be sent to Rainier for testing. Ultimately, the Rainier team found it could work with the heavier-base polyethylene fabric for the panels, and fabrication of the panels began in April 2012, Dickinson says. “It took 24 hours a day for 45 days to complete,” he says.

Rainier printed the vibrant panels on Durst equipment using UV-curable inks (replacing conventional inks) to decrease emissions during the printing process and eliminate volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “Then we shipped 50 to 60 panels a week to London. Each panel weighed in at about 150 pounds,” Dickinson says. To manage the fabric through the machines, Rainier had four sewing machine operators on each panel. “We had to really work with the printers to get adhesion onto the material,” he says. “It was untested fabric, so an enormous amount of testing was involved.”

Partnering success

Piccolrovazzi says of the extensive collaboration required by the three companies, “This partnership didn’t just provide the wrap, we took the opportunity to leverage our knowledge and expertise to bring a ‘first’ to market.”

“Fabric solutions are far less expensive than hard structure, and fabric can do a lot more as far as creating shape and movement,” Dickinson says. “The future is bright for fabric applications.”

This breakthrough product, comprised of Cooley’s engineered-fabric membrane coated with resins made by Dow’s performance plastics division, made its debut on July 20, 2012, showcasing its durability, printability, fire retardancy and recyclability. The compound that coats the polyester fabric is based on the latest generation Dow elastomers. Dow says the coating technology contains highly efficient flame retardants and high-performance additive technologies (colorants, processing aids and stabilizers).

The resulting new-generation fabric is now an active part of Cooley’s EnviroFlex® line, taking the global lead away from PVC to polyethelene. According to information shared by the companies, the wrap is 35 percent lighter than earlier materials and boasts a lower carbon footprint due to its improved manufacturing procedures that require fewer processes and chemicals.

“To see a product at the very heart of the Olympics and to understand what the team had gone through to get there was unbelievably gratifying,” Dwight says, adding that the company is already in discussions related to the 2014 and 2016 Olympics.

The stadium’s second life

To accommodate the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events, the stadium was built to hold 80,000 people; however, going forward there isn’t a need for a structure that large. As such, it was designed so that the top half of the stadium, which held approximately 55,000 people, could be removed and physically reassembled somewhere else in the U.K. The stadium remaining in the Olympic Park will then hold about 25,000 people and serve as a community athletic stadium as well as a science and medicine training center.

Dow announced after the conclusion of the closing ceremonies that it has partnered with U.K. building and development charity Article 25 and recycling company Axion Recycling to repurpose and recycle the entire stadium wrap. “All of the stadium wrap will either be recycled or reused,” says Dow’s Piccolrovazzi.

Two significant repurposing projects will involve reusing some of the panels in Uganda and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as shaded shelter solutions for at-risk children. “We developed a list of screening criteria for the repurposing initiative, and Article 25 engaged with us to find an opportunity,” she says. “This project, as a whole, truly was a global effort, and what better way to acknowledge that than by bringing some of the London spirit to another part of the world.”

Amy Orchard is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

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