Finn Valley Leisure Centre – Crossing the finish line

In the pipeline for nearly 40 years, the 5 million Finn Valley Centre complex opened its doors earlier this year.


The project has an interesting history; residents in the community can count the years they have waited for the new  facility in decades, ever since a committee of local people came up with the idea and took up a door-to-door collection  about 35 years ago. Main contractor on the project was BAM while Atkins provided full multidisciplinary services  including architectural design, civil & structural and mech & elec engineering. Atkins also looked after the landscape  architecture, fire engineering and project supervision at design stage while Atkins’ sister company, Faithful+Gould,  were the QS on the job.

Located between the twin towns of Ballybofey and Stranolar in Co. Donegal, construction on the new leisure facility and  swimming pool began in January 2012. In terms of finance, the Department of Sport approved a grant of €3.8 million;  alongside this, a significant contribution from Donegal County Council went a long way to making the project a reality.  The completed Leisure Centre involved the doubling in size of the existing Finn Valley Athletic Club to create Finn  Valley Leisure Centre; this was achieved by adding a 2,500 m2 extension incorporating a new 5 lane 25m pool together  with a children’s and toddler pool, spa facility, 300 m2 changing village, gym and fitness area, ancillary facilities, a  cryotherapy pool, a new fitness suite, changing rooms, a viewing gallery and an extensive aerobics area. A new entrance  and enhanced reception area also made up the works. External works included the realignment of the adjacent Railway Road, a new car park and and external landscaping.

The brief to Atkins evolved over the years; originally designed as a stand-alone building, this developed into an integrated sports centre. Following further discussions with the local athletics club, this changed yet again to accommodate the swimming pool and leisure centre on the Finn Valley Leisure Centre’s site. “The project ended up being a new build leisure centre which attached to the Finn Valley athletics club building and included partial refurbishment of the old athletics club as well. It was kind of a realisation of the original concept for a centre of sporting excellence. That’s how the project evolved over 10 years,” according to Denis Crowley, Director at Atkins. There were lots of times when all teams involved thought the project would never see the light of day. “It would stop for large periods of time. Then when funding became available, it would start and then stop again. It called for people to readjust their perspectives and for us to resdesign the building as well.”

The biggest challenge for all teams involved in the project was maintaining works while the existing centre remained open. According to Padraig Walsh, project manager at BAM, in the end it didn’t turn out to be the major obstacle they feared it could be. “We really had an excellent relationship with Finn Valley Athletic Club. From the outset, we recognised that they had to function on a daily basis and this was made possible through seamless planning and a high level of cooperation between us and the Club in making sure the facility operated as normal on a daily basis, while at the same time making sure we delivered an intense building programme.” The existing road network also presented its own set of challenges. “We were pretty much confined on four sides of the building by the existing infrastructure in place. To get around that, we had to realign part of the Railway road to accommodate the works. Health and safety was obviously paramount with the public passing around the site and people using the centre internally as well. It was quite challenging,” says Justin Norman, Director at Atkins.

For the local community, the addition of the swimming pool has to be the icing on the cake. For BAM, the pool presented its own set of unique challenges. “A major consideration for us was to make sure we provided a good quality concrete structure for the pool. This would ensure exact alignment to surfaces and achieve a completely waterproof structure,” according to Luke Gibbons, Contracts Director at BAM. This was achieved through extremely tight quality control procedures on site, carried out by the BAM team. Demanding pre-pour checks to every pour, exacting standards to waterproofing details and making sure placing and compacting of concrete was to the highest standards are just some of the procedures implemented to guarantee the highest standard possible. Achieving a ‘best in class’ facility was top of the agenda for Luke and Padraig. “One of the key elements in making sure this happened was to achieve a very high quality of finish on the tiling package,” according to Luke. “So we appointed the tiling contractor and grout & adhesive specialist very early on in the project to work collaboratively with the design team in tile selection, setting out etc.” As the RC structure was being constructed, regular visits were made to the site to inspect and confirm that required tollerances and surface finishes were being produced to ensure a high quality end product was achieved.


Before the tiling of the pool and pool hall could commence, works to the fabric stretched membrane ‘wave effect’ ceiling had to  be completed. These high level works were completed from a bird cage scaffold to make sure the very highest quality was  achieved. The wave effect ceiling is one of the reasons the pool has been attracting so much attention and was something Atkins  was determined to include in the design. “I think that sometimes the ceiling in a pool lets it down and in my own opinion, they  can be too low. We articulated the ceiling with a wave effect which gives a nice reference to water and mirrors the surface of the  water below too. So you get a very nice dynamic going on in the pool hall. To get some connectivity with the old building, we  opened up the wall to the old building on first floor level so you’ve got the gym and spectator area overlooking the pool. The  marriage between the old and the new building works really well,” says Denis Crowley, Director at Atkins.


Funding from the SEAI allowed the designers to take a look at all available sustainable systems and conduct cost exercises and value engineering. A very proactive client meant a sustainable approach to the design was taken from the start. “Nowadays sustainable design elements are almost taken for granted but back then the funding helped us because then people knew it was worthwhile,” according to Denis. “Quite a number of the technologies we investigated made it into the final design. The main source of energy is a biomass boiler driven by wood pellet fuel. The building is also provisioned for rainwater harvesting and solar collectors. We have wired or conditioned the building for these, they weren’t actually installed at the end due to funding. The structure, the energy system, the building management system, the lighting system, all has been designed with sustainability in mind.”

According to Padraig Walsh, the BAM team were particularly pleased with their health and safety record at completion. “We had zero incidents or accidents for the entire construction period. We put a lot of effort into our health and safety plans and considering this was such a long, phased-out building period (70 weeks), we’re delighted that we had nothing to report on that score.” The Finn Valley Leisure Centre was very much a strategic project for BAM; traditionally prevalent in Munster and Leinster, it has allowed the firm to expand its operations into the west and north west of the country.


Atkins, BAM and Faithful+Gould credit the excellent working relationship they had with Donegal County Council in finally realising the  project. According to Denis Crowley in Atkins: “They were a terrific client and we had a very good working relationship with them. The  results speak for themselves. The feedback we’re getting is very good, both from the management team in the centre and from the  public. That’s the proof in the building. People were reminding us that their communion money has gone into funding the pool; there  was tremendous goodwill in the town.” Kevin Murphy, Director of construction management and consultants firm Faithful+Gould said:  “I am delighted that working with Finn Valley, DCC and the design team we were able to bring our constructive expertise to this project  and demonstrate that team work is not just in sport.”  According to Padraig in BAM: “The project goes back to 2002 and we know it  means a lot to the community. To be involved in that and to be a part of the team that delivered the Centre means a lot. From the start,  we were very engaged with the community and got to know a lot of individuals who really wanted to see the Centre come to life. We’re delighted to have delivered such an impressive Centre in Donegal that has created employment and will serve the people in the area for many years to come.”

This Article first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Irish Building Magazine, click here to read the full issue.