Right now it’s a huge building site. Before long it will be a big player in the international exhibitions, meetings and entertainment space. EventsBase gets a guided tour of the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre facility from project manager Nigel Munro
It feels a little bit like Minority Report. At the gates of one of the largest building projects currently underway in Scotland, a worker produces a specially-adapted tablet computer, to scan our fingerprints. It’s sub-zero temperatures and the snow is thick in the air outside; the machine takes its time to capture the biometric information, a safety net to ensure everyone is accounted for as they move on and off the site.
It’s not explained where this sensitive personal data will end up, and I hope, for the sake of my future wellbeing, if the country falls into anarchy (which seems increasingly likely these days), that I’m not first on the list for whatever fate awaits us.
Our guide for the tour of what essentially is a giant hole in the ground is Nigel Munro, Project Manager at Henry Boot Developments, the development firm which alongside Robertson Construction are currently charged with the delivery of the new £333m new Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) facility at Bucksburn, on the outskirts of the city, which will open in 2019. It is a time of genuine excitement for the city, which is undergoing something of a repurposing, as it invests in new and emerging industries in a bid to diversify its economy away from a heavy dependence on oil and gas.
If all goes well, the 540,000-square foot development – offering four times the exhibition space and conference facilities compared to the existing AECC at Bridge of Don – as well as two hotels (and possibly three) – will become a big player in the international exhibition, meetings and entertainment space. The first thing I notice, though, is the roar of aircraft as they come in to land at Aberdeen International Airport, whose runway is directly adjacent to the site.
The conversation is interrupted by a twin-prop engine as its wheels come down and rumbles over the top of our heads. “With the noise of the helicopters and planes, some days it feels like Vietnam,” says Nigel, seemingly impervious to the deafening sound. “There’s quite a thickness of a roof going up to stop the noise coming in – and at night when the birds are chirping in the trees to stop the noise coming out. It’s a relatively traditional system inside. It’s just the scale of it.”
The building is surprisingly low rise; from a distance, you might not even notice the centre as it blends into the landscape. I’m sure that’s partially due to the fact that everything is covered in snow, but Nigel reveals that the design has been deliberately constrained in height terms because of the flightpath. Unlike the typical exhibition centre, the sculpted rooftop, which resembles the rundeck of an aircraft carrier, is different, in a good way. It’s Grand Designs meets George Clark’s Amazing Spaces.
Nigel steers the 4×4 vehicle across the muddy terrain, past earth movers and diggers, to the entrance of what workers call the ‘Sub-T’; it’s the vast 33,250-square metre subterranean space – the size of 26 Olympic swimming pools according to Nigel – beneath the main public space that houses 1,250 car parking spaces and can be adapted to function as an exhibition space. With vast pillars propping it up, I struggle to imagine it as an events arena but Nigel assures me it is configured on a grid system offering standard exhibitor slots.
It could accommodate the likes of the huge oil and gas exhibition Offshore Europe or a Caravan and Motorhome Show. We move on towards the main exhibition halls, where steel frames are currently being put in place. The roof will be completed in late spring, Nigel says, which will be great comfort to the workers, who are toiling away despite the freezing conditions and winds whipping across the exposed expanse of land.
Today, there are 570 operatives on site, which is the largest number on the project to date, which is a surprising fact given the cold. The build has had to contend with the in and out flows of labour in the construction industry; it is never easy to retain experienced contractors of a size that can deliver a project of this size but – in spite of the challenges – everything is on schedule.
“We’re on programme at the moment,” says Nigel. “If somebody had said to me after 16 or 17 months you’d be on programme given we’ve had to divert huge drainage pipes, high voltage electric cables, gas cables, plus small rivers across the site that we had to divert, we’ve got through all that and large parts of that were outwith our control because of the bureaucracy that surrounds utilities, but it’s gone well.”
He adds: “It’s the biggest project I’ve been involved with and I’ve been involved with some big projects. If you add up the various phases that happen over a five or seven-year period, it would probably add up to this size, but in terms of a one-off it’s certainly the biggest one.”
Each of the exhibition halls is 20,000-square feet in size; the one we are looking at will have partitions allowing it to be divided into thirds depending on the requirements of an event. There are a range of ground and first floor traditional meeting rooms, everything from a room for 10 people to something the size of a tennis court. The flexibility and configurability of the building will be central to its appeal as an events and entertainment space, something the venue operator SMG will be using to maximise its appeal to a diverse local, national and international market.
As we continue to circumnavigate the site Nigel points towards the developments that will sit alongside the main building; there are two hotels going up – one is a 150-bedroom A-loft hotel, by Starwood, which Nigel describes as “industrial and retro”, and the other will be a 200-guestroom four-star Hilton hotel with bars, restaurants, conference and spa facilities. There is a third plot for a hotel, which has a design and can be picked up again with any new interest, Nigel says.
Nearing the end of the tour, we pass the hydrogen fuel cell energy centre, which will be the largest fuel cell installation in the UK and on a par with the largest in Europe; Doosan Babcock will supply the low emission cells, which will provide a total electrical output of 1.4MW, supplying power, heat, and cooling to the buildings across the site on a district system. It is as advanced – and ‘sustainable’ – as power generation gets and will feed into the AECC’s ambition to be recognised by the British Building Research Establishment (BRE) in terms of its sustainable design.
It has been a rewarding project to be part of, Nigel says; he knows how hard it can be for the building trade to be really invested in the work it does – given the fact that contractors have travelled from all parts of the country and have no personal affiliation to Aberdeen.
Nigel himself is living in the city during the week and travelling back to Edinburgh, where he’s from, at the weekends. Despite that, he says the comradery on site has been one of the more positive aspects of working away from home. “I think genuinely it’s a bit of a worry because if people who are not from Aberdeen and travel up here and live up here, it’s easy to get a bit disillusioned and not enjoy it, but everybody seems to have really bought into it. I’m enjoying it,” Nigel says.
He adds: “It’s your job and it can be an awful lot of hassle and grief but you work away at it, and sometimes it’s an anti-climax when you finish, but I don’t think this will be like that. I think it will be pretty exciting when it finishes. As long as we get a chance to practise on the stage!”