The Olympic Complex in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan might be the biggest building construction project underway anywhere in the world today. The three-phase project covers a 1.57 km2 site in the southern part of the capital city, and comprises seven major indoor sporting venues with capacities from 5,000 to 45,000 spectators.
Also included in the project are outdoor venues, hotels, restaurants, car parks, an Olympic village with capacity for 12,000 competitors and a 5 km monorail to connect them all together. In all, there are 52 major construction schemes within the project.
With a contract value of more than US$ 5 billion, all three phases of the project are being undertaken by Turkish contractor Polimeks on a turnkey basis, with Arup also contributing design services.
Work started in 2010, somewhat against the normal run of things, as at that point, the city was not in line for any major sporting events. However, by the end of the year it had won the competition to host the 2017 Asian Indoor-Martial Arts Games. This is a new competition first held in 2013, combining the previous regional Indoor Games – comprising more than 30 events, including athletics, basketball, boxing, cycling and swimming – and Martial Arts competition, which comprises nine combat sports.
The 2017 event will be the first time in the history of either the individual or merged events that they have been hosted by a Central Asian country.
According to Polimeks’ deputy regional manager and project manager for the scheme, Osman Karakus, the project has been difficult from the start.
“The first challenge we faced was that this area was an old quarry. The material had been extracted and the site back filled with rubbish and rubble. We excavated about 3 million m3 and back filled it with engineering material. So we worked for about 16 months without making any real progress. We had 44 months for Phase I and we used 16 months doing that, so we were under pressure.”
“We had to work day and night on that. We have had two shifts on this project since the start,” he said.
Since then the contractor has completed Phase I of the scheme. This is contained within the southern portion of the site and comprises three major indoor venues, the 6,000 seater velodrome, a 5,000 seater arena for combat sports, and a 15,000 seater venue for basketball, gymnastics, badminton and table tennis, among others. As well as the public areas, these facilities also include training and warm-up areas.
Also on this part of the site is an 800-room hotel for the press, a ‘VIP’ hotel, numerous outdoor sports facilities, car parks, restaurants and cafes.
All the buildings on the Olympic Complex are in the striking architectural style that can be seen throughout Ashgabat. Shortly after gaining independence from the USSR in 1991, a distinctive style was developed for the city, which sees new buildings clad in white marble with dark-tinted windows – often in dark blue to contrast with the marble. Gold is used to highlight architectural features and for lettering on buildings.
By and large, the buildings are of a steel frame construction design, but they are also complex because they need to meet a variety of requirements and design specifications.
“We held a lot of meetings with international federations and local representatives because Olympic facilities need to meet certain standards, but they also need to meet the needs of local athletes,” said Mr Karakus.
He added, “Another challenge is that we are building so many different types of building – arenas, indoor venues, hotels, the VIP hotel, the monorail, the Olympic Village, and so on.
“We hit a lot of existing services on this site, plus all the utilities on this project are inter-linked - so you can’t just pick one structure and go and build it.”
And within each venue there are different challenges. The sheer size of the buildings and their roof spans are perhaps the most difficult. For example, the Velodrome has a 130 m span end-to-end, which involved placing a 350 tonne steel roof truss.
“Planning that lift alone was a real challenge in terms of ensuring health & safety, the method statement and so on,” said Mr Karakus.
When iC visited the Olympic site in February, construction work on Phase II of the project to the North of the site was in full swing, with Phase III – the central portion containing the 45,000 seater outdoor arena and Olympic Village underway, but at an earlier stage. The Olympic Village will comprise some 57,000 m2 of accommodation across 14 tower blocks.
The three main venues in Phase II are the 5,000 seater indoor athletics arena, the aquatics centre, which also seats 5,000 and features both indoor and outdoor 50 m racing pools as well as deep diving pools, and the 4,000 capacity indoor tennis arena.
In addition to the venues, spread across the three phases of construction, there is 5 km monorail being built to link them all together in a loop which also crosses a main arterial city road to the Olympic Village complex.
So while a 1.57 km2 site may sound big, and in the case of the Olympic Complex there are a lot of open spaces at present which will later be landscaped, there is not much room to work. “It is such a congested site that it is very difficult to handle,” said Mr Karakus.
Indeed, aside from the construction challenges of the project, the logistics are formidable. Mr Karakus said there were 14,000 people on the city-centre site when iC visited in February, which by now will have risen to 15,000.
“We even need to plan how to get people on and off the site at the start and finish of shifts, because we are in the middle of a city and we only have a few access points to the site. Things like the cafeteria and meal times take a lot of work - we have to get 14,000 people sitting down and fed,” he said.
And the list of equipment being used on this scheme is formidable. Mr Karakus listed more than 330 major pieces of equipment in use on the day iC visited the scheme. The lifting equipment alone includes 66 mobile cranes up to 250 tonnes capacity, 31 tower cranes and 32 loader cranes.
Meanwhile, there are more than 100 on-highway trucks on the project, 40 taking material off site and 60 just moving it within the confines of the project. Off-highway equipment included 12 wheeled excavators, 25 tracked excavators, 31 backhoe loaders and 22 telehandlers.
And although Polimeks does not own the equipment itself, here again is a logistical headache.”Most of the machines are rented, so maintenance isn’t an issue for us, but getting enough diesel to keep them fed is a challenge,” said Mr Karakus.
Indeed, almost every aspect of the project involves mind-boggling numbers. The total excavation and earthmoving is about 9 million m3, total truck journeys total 22.5 million km to date – almost 60 times the distance from the earth to the moon – and so far there have been 81 million man-hours worked on the project.
Despite all this, the scheme is on track. According to Mr Karakus, Phase II is 75% complete, with the final deadline of December this year. “We expect to finish 4 months ahead of schedule,” he said.
Mr Karakus puts the success of the project down to careful planning and resource allocation, accompanied by lots of monitoring. “The team on this job is very experienced and we monitor things on a weekly basis,” he said.
And in addition, he said the constructive attitude of the client – the government of Turkmenistan – had been essential.
Mr Karakus said, “Getting payment on time is critical because the amount of money is huge. You can’t go to a bank and get credit for those sorts of amounts. So the government’s support and their timely payments have been essential.”
Indeed, Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is said to be taking a personal interest in the scheme, having visited the site seven times since the start of work, according to Mr Karakus.