Manchester United Football Club is one of the most illustrious football clubs in the history of the game. Hundreds of millions of supporters worldwide follow the club on a weekly basis. Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United Football, is one of the most easily recognisable stadiums in all of sport. Often referred to as the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, the stadium has a capacity of 75,635, placing it in the top 20 largest stadiums in all of Europe.
Built in 1910, Old Trafford is the seventh oldest ground in the Premier League. During its lifespan, the old grounds has undergone extensive redevelopment. Not only the home of Manchester United Football, the stadium has played host to concerts and other sporting events outside of football.
In 2017, Manchester United made the admirable decision to reduce the total capacity of its grounds from 75,635 to 73,300. The move would inadvertently displace over 2,600 season ticket holders but at good cause. The club made this decision in order to create 300 positions for disabled supporters at Old Trafford. The move has been applauded by many including the Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work. Below is how the project transpired.
Manchester United’s accessibility project required the installation of six lifts, which would transport wheelchair users to the newly developed disabled-access areas in the North Stand. Premier Lift Group was honoured and humbled to have been selected to carry out the installation. The contract outlined the need for the six lifts to be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
Working on such an old and unique building, especially one that has has undergone such extensive modifications over the years, presents its own challenges. On top of those challenges came the phased-approached to this project. The project would be carried out over a period of 3 years. This started in the 2017/2018 season and was to be completed in full by the 2020/2021 season. This was due in part to the displacement of 2,600 season-ticket holders, who were given added time to find alternative seating. It was also due to the extensive safety testing now required by football stadiums.
Manchester United wanted added flexibility. Being one of the most followed clubs in the world, utilsing all the space on the grounds is very important. Old Trafford wanted the space to be flexible for the 2017/2018 season, giving them the opportunity to lower the lifts below the floor and reinstate seating over the lifts for certain fixtures and events. The lifts needed to be robust enough to withstand the environment of a busy stadium. They also needed to be safe and practical while causing little visual impact. This added flexibility was only required for that first season. When the 2017/2018 season was over, Manchester United wanted the lifts to be become permanent fixtures with accessible spaces available for every single fixture.
There were 3 main challenges facing Premier Lift Group.
Firstly, Manchester United’s requirement for flexible seating in that first season required an innovative approach. A fully bespoke design would be required to meet the club’s needs. At the same time, as always, safety was a priority.
Following complications elsewhere in the project, Premier’s 14 day installation window was cut to three days. The need to respond to these types of reductions is common but still requires much thought and planning.
Finally, due to the nature of the site, no heavy lifting equipment could be used to transport the lifts. On top of that, the flooring around the pitch was made of ‘wetpour’, soft rubber safety flooring. This easily damaged material ruled out the use of a fork-lift truck.
To accommodate the need for versatility, Premier Lift Group decided to take an alternative approach to handrail and gate design. Both were created so that they could be removed manually. The remainder of the lift could also sink into the floor. The two measures allowed for seating to be placed over the top when required.
This versatility was compounded by using lightweight aluminium material which could be taken apart and then reinstalled easily. Our team also designed bespoke gate latches, specifically for this project. The bespoke design avoided the need for electrical interlock by replacing it with a spring mechanical latch. This measure enabled the lift to be dismantled easily and quickly. Again aluminium was used throughout as opposed to traditional steel.
Since the tragedy which occurred at Hillsborough in 1989, where 96 died due to severe overcrowding, safety is a major concern in football stadiums. Risk assessment is, quite rightly, much more stringent. Every element of the lift design had to assessed from a football crowd standpoint.
When so much of the design was bespoke, installation was met with an entirely unique and rigorous testing process. The balustrades had to be of ‘anti-climb’ construction. The need to remove a passenger in the event of an emergency also had to be considered. This was allowed for by reducing the normal compliant height of 1100mm to 900mm. This aspect of design, along with the bespoke latches, were only made possible as the lifts were to be steward operated rather than passenger operated.
In order to adjust to the reduced time frames, Premier Lift Group doubled the size of its workforce from three to six installers. Lifts were also manufactured so they could arrive flat-packed and then be assembled on location.
During installation, our team had to work around the unavailability of heavy machinery. The flat-packs were pulled by hand via the tunnel. A soft-wheeled pallet truck was used in order not to damage the ‘wetpour’ material underfoot.
The new disabled-access seating was first unveiled prior to the start of the 2017 / 2018 season. The lifts, which at that point were still only semi-permanent, would be made permanent in 2018. A gap in the February fixture list would allow for our team to make final amendments.
During the 2017/2018 season Premier Lift Group designed and manufactured the upgrades to the lifts. There were four main amendments in total. First, the addition of fixed gates to the platforms, which when in the lower position were only 900mm high and lined up with the existing stadium handrails. The locks were changed back to our preferred mechanical and electronic inter-lock design. The platforms were re-fitted to have fixed (non-removable) protection sides. The final amendment involved changing the lift controls from attendant-controlled to user-controlled.
During the closed season the appointed contractors of Manchester United removed the seating and made the disabled viewing area a permanent fixture. Premier Lift Group returned at the beginning of Feb 2018 to then complete the final upgrade. This was finished in three days, ahead of schedule, and handed over to a happy client ready for the next home fixture.
Premier Lift Group was very proud to be part of this amazing project. We commend Manchester United on their decision to re-purpose their grounds, making it more accessible to disabled-users. The resoundingly positive actions of such a well supported club is sure to have a ripple effect worldwide.