Ireland's only dedicated building services engineering journal
Ireland's only dedicated building services engineering journal

Gary McKeown — Postcard from Ajerbaijan

Gary McKeown, posting from Azerbajain
Gary McKeown, posting from Azerbajain

So, early in 2013 I moved to London to work for ME Engineers and began a new phase in my career that brought plenty of challenges. I really liked the project portfolio that ME Engineers had. The company has a strong brand and its project profile included world-renowned stadiums like the Aviva Stadium, Wimbledon All-England Tennis Club and Twickenham Stadium. The latter two I had the pleasure of working on myself. I particularly enjoyed my time working on the Twickenham Stadium project as I had the opportunity to combine my love of rugby with my job. I even got to see firsthand how they take a prototype of a squash racket and develop it into a better product.

The opportunity to work in the home of rugby in its preparation for the 2015 Rugby World Cup was remarkable and I’ve learnt an awful lot about event overlays and stadiums through this project. Unfortunately, I also had the opportunity to experience Ireland lose to England in that very same stadium during the last Six Nations. Happily enough though we did win the Championship.

Having worked in London with ME Engineers for just over a year the opportunity arose to work with them further afield. My Managing Director, Darren Briant, offered me the chance to work in Azerbaijan on the inaugural European Games, Baku 2015, which is being staged there by the European Olympic Committee. These Games will be staged every four years to fall between the World Olympic Games and will be held in various capitals throughout Europe

When I was asked if I was interested in moving to Azerbaijan I firstly said yes and then, like most people, followed that confirmation with a question … where is Azerbaijan? As I soon discovered, Azerbaijan is located in the Caucuses and borders Iran, Armenia, Russia, Georgia and Turkey.

The capital city where the games are being hosted, Baku, has a population of approximately two million people, an average temperature of 35ºC during the summer, and is known as the “City of Winds”. Azerbaijan itself is known as the “Land of Fire”.

I began work here in May and my experiences so far have been quite interesting. My role is that of Lead MEP Consultant responsible for the MEP services on the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) and the Games overlay for the National Gymnastics Arena. This involves planning and designing alongside the architect and the Baku European Games Operation Committee (BEGOC).

The IBC connects all 60 venues to the international press to beam the sporting events directly into peoples’ living rooms all over the world. It is one of the most important sites within the Games package and it must not fail from a services perspective as it brings in the revenue for the Games through television rights.

The construction processes here are not too dissimilar to Ireland and the UK, and the standards being used are British and European, so I’m finding it quite easy to settle in on site. There are, however, some differences including the language barrier with local workers and unfamiliarity with the local materials used for building. For the most part though Turkish and European materials are used and many of them can be recognised straight away.

There are regular earthquakes in Baku which we must be mindful of in our design. Also, poisonous snakes and spiders are a constant hazard on site. A live snake was found in our office one particular day and I’ve been checking my site boots before I put them on ever since!

Baku is attracting more and more international events and straight after the European Games, in 2016, the first Baku Formula One (F1) takes place. All of this follows on from Azerbaijan winning one of its first major events in 2011, the Eurovision. At that point in time they had nowhere to host the contest so, within a construction period of seven months, a 25,000 seat stadium was built. It is named the Crystal Hall. This was an impressive achievement and involved building many other infrastructural elements around that competition also, including a 4.5km boulevard to the new arena.

There are plenty of ex-pats working in Azerbaijan. They are mainly in the oil industry and many of them work for BP. Most of the oil workers are located on the oil rigs in the Caspian Sea while others, like myself, are involved in the major construction  boom that has swept Baku. The amount of work that has been created in this oil-rich peninsula is mind-boggling and a lot of it has to be finished for the European Games next year.

The country itself is in the process of being recognised on the world stage and this is the reason revenue from oil is funding many of the projects currently underway. They are doing a great job and any locals I’ve talked to are proud that their country is hosting these world-class events. There is plenty to do in the city. Baku has been hit with the globalisation stick and I find myself walking into shopping centres with well-known retail brands like Debenhams, Next, Massimo Dutti and even WH Smith. The Azerbaijani people are a very friendly bunch and they are very respectful towards each other, and ex-pats alike.

In the evenings I usually go running along the 10km or so boulevard that stretches along the Caspian Sea. The temperature can be up as high as 28ºC, even at that time of day, so it makes for a very tough run! When socialising in Baku there are a lot of options, including Irish bars with Finnegan’s being the most popular. Most pubs have great live music in the evenings and at the weekends. There are also great restaurants in Baku and most, if not all, are very reasonably priced. I enjoy trying the local Azerbaijani food and other types of food which can be hard to find back home, such as Iranian and Turkish dishes.

I still consider myself new to this city and I am looking forward to the next year working here, exploring the country of Azerbaijan, and helping to make the inaugural 2015 European Games a success.

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