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Model view camps out on new image

Butlins camps are getting a smart new image in time for the Millennium. Kristina Smith talks to the engineers behind the design of the new Skyline Pavilions

TO SOME, the idea of a holiday in Butlins would be on a par with the suggestion of a week in Hades: '60s accommodation, Red Coats and beered- up revellers on a mission to enjoy.

It is easy to assume that the £139 million being invested by parent company The Rank Group on its camps at Minehead, Bognor Regis and Skegness is to bring Butlins in line with competitors like Centreparcs. But that is really missing the point explains Mark Potriadis, an architect with S&P, the firm which is overseeing the project. Butlins has a successful formula which works.

'These places are throbbing with life and what we are trying to do is understand what brings people back year after year,' says Mr Potriadis. 'And what it boils down to is customer loyalty.'

So the revamp will be focussed towards the things at which Butlins excels: a family atmosphere and excellent entertainment.

'The entertainment is better than anything I had expected,' admits Mr Potriadis. 'I love jazz, and the jazz they had there was better than what you hear at Ronnie Scotts.'

At the heart of the upgrade are the Skyline Pavilions: tent-like structures which will cover the spaces between existing buildings to create communal areas.

Engineer Buro Happold which specialises in such structures is design- ing the three pavilions.

Paul Westbury, group director for Buro Happold's special structures team, and engineer Craig Schwitter are working on the Butlins project. In order to design something like this, the engineers make models, both physical and computer-generated.

Mr Westbury explains the concept with the aid of one of the models which looks a like a miniature asymmetric circus tent. The structure is supported on poles which poke through the fabric, extending towards the sky, apart from one large stage area where there are no supporting poles and the 'flying cones' are supported off adjacent poles.

This is not an unusual job for Buro Happold. Even the fact that all three sites are different, with different heights and positions of existing buildings to cope with is not a problem.

'The language of detailing and structures is the same,' says Mr Westbury. 'You just massage the boundary conditions to suit the site.'

Work on the project for Buro Happold started in July this year, although Mr Westbury had spoken to the client about the job in September 1996. January through to March next year - Butlins' quiet time - will see the installation of the foundations and enabling works.

Detailed design work will start early next year, completing in the summer and the structures themselves will go up in the first three months of 1999.

The work at the three locations will go on simultaneously but Mr Westbury has not decided whether one or three contractors will get the £6 million project.

The building will rest on concrete piles and will have steel masts 30 m to 40 m in height. The structure itself will be polymer-coated polyester membrane.

The perimeter of the building (the 5-m to 12-m gap between floor and tent) will be enclosed with a combination of cladding and glass panels in selected areas.

The only contact the structure will have with the existing buildings is a weather seal. The space inside will be naturally ventilated (assisted by fans in places).

However, the erection of the pavilions will not be a long process.

'This thing looks massive to you,' says Mr Schwitter.

'But the installation process for this is a couple of weeks: everything is prefabricated, every last little bit.'

'Provided you put the right bit of the jigsaw in the right place,' cautions Mr Westbury.

As the pieces of the Skyline Pavilions are put into place, the set-up beneath them will be changing too with bars, restaurants, family entertainment and sport.

'The overall character we are trying to create is more active where people have more things to do than just watch,' says Mr Potriadis. 'The new structure will create an ambience similar to the plaza concept which people are able to experience when they go abroad on holiday,' he explains.

But the structure itself was important too. 'We wanted something that was forward looking and strong,' says Mr Potriadis.

For the loyal Butlins customers, the ambience and experiences they love will be retained. And to those people who would not go to Butlins on holiday, the Skyline Pavilions will make a very different statement to the garishly painted system-built huts they see now.