Murray O Laoire Architects' (MOLA) involvement in the redevelopment of Thomond Park extends back to 2003 with a request by Mr. Pat Whelan to examine significantly increasing the existing 11,091 capacity stadium. This study, carried out in conjunction with Punch Consulting Engineers (PCE) , examined the options of developing within the existing boundaries of Thomond Park and expanding the site to the east into an area occupied by Limerick City Council and private residences. The second option utilising the enlarged site retained both pitches and most of the existing terracing. The cooperation of existing residents and Limerick City Council to agree to sell their properties was fundamental to the feasibility of this option.
Examination of alternative sites
As part of a following study three alternative sites were examined at the University of Limerick, Groody Valley in Castletroy and Greenpark on the Dock Road. The decision was taken to retain the rugby stadium in its existing city centre location. While city centre stadiums present challenges in relation to event management these issues are outweighed by the vibrancy and atmosphere generated in the city on the day of a big match.
Maintaining the atmosphere and close relationship between players and spectators was key. The required capacity was 26,000, with 15,000 seated and 11,000 standing positions. Site constraints included the retention of both the main and practice pitches, the Shannon RFC clubhouse and north, east and south terraces. Following successful negotiations with Limerick City Council and the property owners on the east side the development area extended to Knockalisheen road.
The key design aspirations, in addition to fulfilling the requirements of the brief, were as follows.
• To ensure that a stadium of the scale required had a positive impact on the cityscape and skyline, given its elevated site in relation to the surrounding city.
• The building should integrate with its immediate context. The scale of existing structures in the area is predominantly two-storey with residences located directly to the north and south of the existing stadium. The design challenge to incorporate a large structure in these surroundings was significant.
• The new home for Munster rugby should befit their status as the best supported and leading rugby club in Europe.
These aspirations were set against the backdrop of an extremely challenging project budget where every design decision needed to be justifiable economically.
Exploration of form
The three-dimensional form of the stands is a direct product of achieving optimum viewing for all spectators. The optimum functional layout of a rugby or soccer stadium is generated by accommodating all spectators within 90 metres of the centre of the pitch and within 150 metres of all four corners of the playing surface. This generates an "orange segment" profile where the maximum number of spectators is concentrated on the centreline. This form, curved in both plan and section, provides the maximum height at the centre with the lowest sections at each end. A conventional straight stand option would have produced unequal gables equivalent to a 12 storey building while the scale of the gables of the curved stands is far more modest. The potential impact on neighbours was of paramount importance to the client and influenced the decision to proceed with the less intrusive, functionally superior and more appealing architectural form.
The fact that Thomond Park is not enclosed on all four sides is important so that views into and out of the stadium are maintained. A "bowl" type stadium would eliminate the visual and acoustic connection with the city. The barking dogs of Ballynanty and the hum of traffic on Cratloe road add to the atmosphere when silence descends on the stadium prior to goal kicks. These small but important aspects are an important part of the distinctive character of the stadium.
The long arch or rainbow truss solution adopted, designed in conjunction with PCE, is central to the architectural expression of the building, with the trusses being visible from many parts of the city and on its approach routes. The external rainbow trusses overhead leads to extremely light trusses under the roof contributing to the overall visual lightness of the structure internally. Local press reports have commented that "the trusses that sweep across both stands shine like tiaras".
While the visual impact of the overall form and "rainbow" trusses have the most striking impact at the level of the cityscape, as one approaches the stadium another layer of detail and complexity becomes apparent. The seating bowl is made up of a combination of concrete raker beams with seating units between. The raker beams are supported by inclined steel tubes which, together with the supporting column beneath, form a "tree" structure with "trunk" and "branches" which produces a dynamic fan-like pattern on the elevation. This is enhanced by the decrease in the slope of the "branches" from the maximum angle at the centre to the lowest angle at each end. The end result is ample reward for the exceptional engineering design effort involved.
The other elements of the building such as the cladding materials and fenestration play a background role and are designed to be neutral in expression.
The key materials used vary from solid to translucent and transparent. All materials selected have a self-finished or natural pigment. Translucent materials are used on the front section of the roof slope and rear and end walls of the seating bowl. This polycarbonate material changes in its appearance with different natural and artificial lighting conditions. The curved perforated anodised aluminium screen used to the rear of each stand on the open concourses also changes appearance from solid to transparent when back-lit. This transforms the appearance of the building from non-match day to match day when the stadium is illuminated and inhabited. The lighting design allows for the installation of lighting which would produce a red glow on the translucent material at the rear of the seating bowl. This would result in a red arch or "halo" effect on match day.
The mix of vibrant seat colours in the ratio 60% red, 30% navy and 10% gold corresponds with the colour mix in the Munster logo. This avoids the monotonous effect of a single colour seat. When the seating bowl is not at full capacity the optical illusion generated by the random seating mix makes the stadium appear full.
Construction as an event
There are some projects where the construction process generates interest and excitement. In Limerick the construction of the Clarion Hotel and Living Bridge at the University of Limerick and the demolition of the Ranks silos on the Dock road are such projects. Thomond Park is another. The public in Limerick, in particular, have followed the process closely and have turned out to view the activity on key days such as the erection of the "rainbow" trusses. The website www.standupandbuild.com launched by main contractor PJ Hegarty & Sons during the construction process was also hugely popular. MOLA and PCE, have jointly delivered lectures in Limerick and Dublin on the project which were very well attended.
The time period from appointment of the design team in February 2006 to completion in September 2008 was 32 months with a construction period of 19 months. Delivery of a complex project of this scale in this timeframe was a major achievement. The construction stage was complicated by the fact that the venue was required to accommodate three home pool games of the 2007/08 Heineken cup season. Also, the main pitch was off limits to the contractor, restricting their working area. In addition to the design of the stadium, the preconstruction stage included two planning applications, a fire certificate application, a Material Contravention of the Limerick City Development Plan, the preparation of two sets of tender documents for an enabling works contract and main contract and the assessment of alternative contractor proposals and tender submissions.
Thomond Park is now a fitting theatre for the many great occasions yet to come. Many new stadiums experience a "bedding in" period in the first season when players and supporters alike adapt to the new surroundings. However, the All Blacks rematch has demonstrated that the redeveloped Thomond Park can be as intimidating, intense and overwhelming as the more modest venue that it replaced.