Building Barcelona: How the technology behind the Nou Camp renovation is pushing boundaries

Building Barcelona: How the technology behind the Nou Camp renovation is pushing boundaries
SportsPro visits the Nou Camp to find out how Barcelona’s €600 million Espai Barça renovation will create a data footprint that spreads beyond its physical confines.

A city known as much for its architecture as its soccer, the story of Barcelona is etched into its skyline.

From the millennial Torre Glòries, situated at the “gateway” of its technological district, to the Sagrada Familia, its yet unfinished, century-old basilica – these modern monoliths stand among a city of contrasts, built on hundreds of years of Catalan culture.

In a city where tourists occupy trendy tapas bars along streets that hold historic reverence, its multi-million euro soccer stars carry a weight of expectation measured and moulded by the success of the region’s beloved Blaugrana.

It is here, at the Nou Camp, home of FC Barcelona, that the city’s next architectural shift is taking place – and one that has helped bridge a change in building statute across Spain.

William Mannarelli, an American architect and project director of the €600 million Espai Barça development, joined the club in 2014 from Icon Venue Group, a US-based planning consultancy, which was part of the process for the build’s feasibility study.

During his four and a half years in charge, he has helped devise a roadmap for the project, charted using Building Information Modeling (BIM), an augmented reality (AR) planning tool which the Spanish government eventually made mandatory for large public projects on 31st December.

It took a whole year to “scan” the Nou Camp to create a digital model of the venue based on point cloud data. This data was ultimately coded with schedule information and imported into software from Synchro, owned by BIM specialist Bentley Systems. ‘Video sequencing’ technology enabled the club to set out a clear construction pathway, which considers various end-to-end scenarios and predicts potential roadblocks during the development process.

Its contractors are also employing Microsoft’s HoloLens ‘4D visualisation’ headset, which allows them to monitor and interact with the build’s progress in real-time, across mixed-realities.  

Though innovative, Mannarelli admits the move to use BIM “has been frustrating” in some cases and that while Spain hadn’t previously mandated the technology, it has meant that the country’s construction firms haven’t been exposed to its benefits.

Further still, renovation works to the Nou Camp are facing delays of a year or more amid ongoing deferrals between the project’s key decision-makers. This, SportsPro understands, is a solely administrative matter, and is not impacted by the planning and construction of the wider Espai Barça project, which is running to schedule and is due for completion during the 2023/24 season.

Now a requirement in the national bidding process, the Ministry of Development says it values the use of BIM in privately-led projects such as Espai Barça, and that introducing the technology nationwide, in “a gradual and progressive manner”, will improve the demand for Spain’s building sector and raise the appreciation of its architects.

Having committed to the technology in 2015 – the same year the Spanish government launched its own BIM Commission to consider the technology’s future – Mannarelli explains why FC Barcelona’s decision to adopt BIM to help renovate their home could prove to be a milestone for the industry.

“When you think about Barça’s motto ‘Mes que un club’ – ‘More than a club’ – what it is saying, for us, is that we have a responsibility with a project of this size and magnitude to support our local architects, our local engineers, and to help them learn best practice,” he tells SportsPro during a meeting at the Nou Camp in November.

“Because a lot of them haven’t been asked to use BIM before, this is the first time that they have been mandated to do it, so we are trying to educate those people around us, including the contractors.

“BIM is a deluxe deliverable. You need highly skilled people and while the technology is there, the amount of man hours you need to resolve conflicts during planning requires a huge investment.

“Interestingly, some of the Spanish contractors work internationally, so they do have some experience – but they are not typically doing it here [in Spain].

“Unfortunately, in this part of the world, highly skilled and competent people have not been exposed to it yet. We are very proud that Barça is acting as a torchbearer in this area of the industry.”

Mannarelli says BIM was a natural fit “for a project of this size”, and has added several industry awards to the club’s already impressive trophy cabinet.

As well as the redevelopment of the Nou Camp, Europe’s largest stadium which is undergoing its biggest renovation since its third tier was added ahead of the 1982 FIFA World Cup, the Espai Barça project also comprises homes for the club’s other representatives, including the construction of a new 6,000-seater Johan Cruyff Stadium, where FC Barcelona’s women, the Barça B and youth soccer teams will eventually play.  

By 2023, when the stadium renovation is due to be finished, the Nou Camp will have capacity to seat 105,000 spectators, up from 99,354 currently. A new 12,500-capacity Palau Blaugrana arena will also be developed, replacing an existing 7,585-seater venue which plays host to basketball, handball, futsal and roller hockey.

“What’s interesting about this particular project is that this is one of those situations where we are making the venue smarter,” continues Mannarelli, who adds that the Nou Camp will continue to host LaLiga and UEFA Champions League matches throughout the project.

“Through this [BIM] programme, we are able to see all of our 3D models online, which is tremendously powerful for us. It allows us to take incredibly heavy data and to be able to research and look at the information and share it with colleagues.

“What’s challenging, for me, is that some of the projects are new builds while other projects are renovations and, particularly in relation to the renovation of Camp Nou, how you do it while continually operating the facility, that makes scheduling king.

“BIM is a tool that allows us to case study various scenarios and see what the best result is for Barça. Where it becomes even more advanced is where we combine it with pricing and to try to anticipate how much the cost of the building.”

“Managing cost and time are something that run parallel [to each other]. One of the struggles we do have – and to be very blunt about it – is that if the quantities are not represented in the model, then you obviously have some holes.

“That is taking us into 5D technology and is very much a work in progress, though we knew that, coming into it, while [BIM] was not going to be our saviour, we had to dedicate ourselves to it to keep our ideas moving forward.”

The Nou Camp stadium will always be “the mother ship”, Mannarelli says, yet the club plans to build on its 330 million-strong digital following, many of whom may never visit the iconic venue in their lifetime.

Audience figures for El Clásico match-ups between Barça and Real Madrid, Spanish soccer’s two biggest draws, are estimated in the hundreds of millions worldwide. Now, the club is looking beyond its physical assets with a ‘virtual stadium’ concept that will give digital audiences a taste of the matchday experience enjoyed by those in attendance.

“We want to capture moments on and off the pitch,” Mannarelli says. “With a club like Barcelona, which has so many fans who cannot be here, it is about giving them an opportunity to experience the match in a different way.

“That may include camera angles from [Lionel] Messi’s point of view, allowing the consumer to see what he sees when Jordi Alba is screaming for the ball down the left wing.

“It’s one thing to see Messi do his magic from the stand, but recognising his pure instinct on the pitch and to do that live is absolutely fascinating. The technology will only get us closer to knowing what it’s truly like to be at the centre of Camp Nou.

“Maybe someday, someway, somehow, you will make that pilgrimage to Barcelona. There is something powerful there that enables you to take that leap because you know, at some point, it all goes back to the physical infrastructure.”

The debate as to whether FC Barcelona should build a new stadium or renovate their current venue started around eight years ago. When it came down to it, Mannarelli says the club simply didn’t want to alienate the fans of their past.

“Barça, as a club, has a very specific history and we want our project to be about looking back and remembering that history,” he said. “Though it is very important in football to recognise where you came from, our roadmap aims to show how the club is going to evolve.”

That evolution could also include adaptations to the Nou Camp’s branding, with discussions being held around the possibility of introducing the region’s famous red and yellow Senyera – which features on the Catalan flag and FC Barcelona’s crest – across parts of the stadium’s terraces.

“One of our efforts in our development is to make the colours part of the brand,” Mannarelli explains. “Physically speaking, that means bringing our colours to the stadium. For Barça, to have the combination of the Blaugrana and the decorative elements of the Senyera in the stadium is fundamental.

“We want authentic experiences and, while a part of tourism in general, that statement is particularly true of sport. I am sure a Guinness tastes better in Dublin, just as a pilsner tastes better in the Czech Republic and tapas does in Spain.

“So, if I am at Anfield, I fully expect a different experience to that of Camp Nou. Everybody has their colours, everybody has their stripes, and it’s great how football can represent the region. In the world we are looking for, we want distinctive, authentic experiences.”

After winning the Challenge Cup for the first time in their history last season, France-based Catalan Dragons have been invited to play Super League champions Wigan Warriors at the Nou Camp in May, in the first fixture from rugby league’s predominantly English-based club competition to feature at the stadium.

It will become the second time a rugby code will be held at the stadium after the final for the Top 14, France’s top flight for club rugby union, took place at the Nou Camp in 2016.

Asked whether the arena could open its doors to other sports, Mannarelli says the club will “think twice” before committing to something that may “compromise” their core business.

“We don’t have a Wembley,” he says, citing England’s national stadium in London. “Wembley is interesting because it’s built for an international [soccer] team but they have a guest tenant in Tottenham, who are experiencing some delays to [the construction of] their own stadium.

“We are going to affect the number of seats in Camp Nou, which will eventually add capacity. That requires a specific, strategic way to think about the project, which is all about the schedule and is where BIM comes in.

“The project’s decision-making is sometimes related to cost or related to its schedule, though it is sometimes simply to do with the services we want to render to our fans.

“In any given time, certain things will dictate, and relates to Camp Nou in the quality of experiences we want to maintain for our socios and the strategic decisions we need to make around the calendar and are necessary to maintain the facility.

“I think the point is that, while of course we will always have the option, when you decide to host NFL football, for example, you are committing to something long-term.

“Ambiance is king, so we are not going to do something to the extent that it somehow compromises our core business – which is soccer.”

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