Ep 32 The Big O

Engineering News – More Cladding Fires (0:15)

This week's engineering failure is The Big O also known as Montreal Olympic Stadium (9:50). The Velodrome, located under the stadium tower had problems before construction even began (13:35). And those problems spilled over into and were exasperated by the sheer size and complexity of the stadium project (22:00). The stadium wasn't complete until after the games and has had ongoing problems ever since (33:30).


Engineering News

Montreal Olympic Stadium

Episode Summary

Hi and welcome to Failurology; a podcast about engineering failures. I’m your host, Nicole

And I’m Brian. And we’re both from Calgary, AB. And only one of us has a dog.

This week in engineering news, cladding fires. Again.

  • Similar to Grenfell Tower Fire, these are unfortunately more common than I had thought

  • Fire destroyed a high rise in Dalian China on August 27th

    • The fire started on the 19th floor around 4 pm and quickly spread upward, burning for 7 hours

    • There are 419 units in the building - no death or injuries were reported

    • One of the signs the fires are related to cladding is that large sections of burning cladding fall off the building.

  • Fire destroyed a 20 storey tower in Milan, Italy on August 29th.

    • NFPA journal published an article that we will link to on the website, failurology.ca

    • The fire consumed the entire outside of the building in just over 3 minutes!

    • No death or injuries were reported - there are about 70 units in the building

      • Happened during the middle of the day, there wasn’t a shelter in place order

    • Built over 10 years ago

    • The frequency of classing fires in large buildings has increased by 7 times in the last 3 decades

      • 59 fires between 1990 and 2018, with 36 occurring after 2010

    • Quote from Brigitte Messerschmidte, director of Applied Research at NFPA - “It is important to recognize that there is an opportunity to learn from failures, and even successes, and develop strategies based on real-world fire incidents. The education of stakeholders, growth from previous failures, and quantification of this global issue demand much more data than are currently available today.”

Now on to this week’s engineering failure; the Montreal Olympic Stadium. Also referred to as the Big O, we’ll pause for 10 seconds so you can make your own innuendo jokes. Or the Big Owe in reference to the ridiculous costs. How much over budget was it? 19.9 times over budget! Which, I would like to point out, is substantially more over budget than any of my projects have ever been.

The first self-financed Olympic games paid off 30 years after the games finished. This one has it all, poor planning, fraud, corruption and a freewheeling architect with a fixed deadline and no consequences for cost overruns. What could go wrong? Let’s find out.


  • The Montreal Olympic Stadium was built for the 1976 Olympic Games.

  • Montreal won the right to host the games in 1970 over competing bids from Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984). Montreal, Canada was seen as a neutral site between both sides of the Cold War.

  • Games were to be solely funded by the city of Montreal, no outside financing was required. This is probably their first mistake. Jean Drapeau, the Mayor of Montreal has become enamoured with architect Roger Talibert’s Parc des Princes in Paris. Talibert is selected as the architect without a competitive bid process.

  • The tower next to the stadium, which supports the roof, is the tallest inclined tower in the world with an angle elevation of 45 degrees and a height of 175m.

    • The Olympic Swimming Pool is located under the tower

    • The Olympic velodrome was also housed at the base of the tower - this has since been converted to the Montreal Biodome, an indoor nature museum

  • Located in Maisonneuve (how do we say this?) Park on the Island of Montreal. Did you know it was an island? (16 bridges in/out) I did! It is also the most populous island in Canada! Thanks Jeopardy!

  • Big O has a max capacity of just over 69,000 seats (nice) and is the largest stadium in Canada. This is just sporting events, it can expand to over 78,000 for concerts

    • McMahon Stadium where the Calgary Stampeders play is 5th on the list, after Edmonton Elks, BC Lions, and the Blue Jays.

  • Housed the Montreal Alouettes, Montreal Impact and Montreal Expos who have since moved to Washington to become the Washington Nationals. It is sometimes used for events with large capacity or when the weather restricts outdoor play but hasn’t had a main tenant since 2004 when the Expos left.


  • Montreal had committed to hosting the World Cycling Championship in 1974 and needed a suitable velodrome facility (a steeply banked, oval, indoor cycling facility)

  • Design in metric, construction in imperial. That’s never been an issue before, right?

  • Velodrome - Bid based on semi-complete plans - first structure awarded by competitive bidding.

  • Wasted so much time, all of the subsequent structures had to be awarded directly to contractors with no time for bidding. That’s never been an issue before, right?

  • Looks like a cycling helmet, a unique design that ultimately would prove to be very costly and difficult to engineer due to high horizontal forces thrust forces (H Load=(Uniform Load * Span^2)/(8*Height))

  • The base of one of the arches is on really rock subsoil and isn’t strong enough to support the arch - drive tendons into the ground and grout - huge impact on budget and schedule - foundations cost almost 60% of the budget - if arches were higher, this would have been significantly reduced, if not mitigated entirely.

  • Taillibert is slow to release plans

  • World Cycling Championships in 1974 but they miss this deadline and have to build a temporary facility at the University.

  • Cost-plus arrangements are granted due to a tight schedule. Overtime and strikes take up almost 100% of the original budget.

  • 6x original budget


  • Mayor Drapeau wanted to build a covered stadium with hopes of bringing a Major League Baseball team back to Montreal.

    • A lot of our stadiums in Canada are outside. Obviously not hockey, but most of the football stadiums are. Try watching a football game in -20C; not a great time, beer helps.

  • He selected an architect, Roger Taillibert, without contest, after becoming enamoured with a previous project he completed in Paris. The project, Parc des Princes was 300% over budget.

  • The intent was to build a stadium with a retractable roof using cables suspended from the tower

  • Awarded to the same contractor that’s having all of the issues as the Velodrome

  • The stadium was designed to be an elliptical dome with a retractable fabric roof. The dome was designed to use precast complex ribs, with each pair of ribs being a different size – resulting in alignment and post-tensioning complications. The ribs were precast, put into place, held in place during construction, then post-tensioned together. They needed cranes to hold in place (200 cranes at one point). Due to all different shapes, the misalignment was common. There were also issues with water running into ribs post-tension ducts and freezing. It’s Canada, it gets cold in the winter!

  • Additionally, the design of the stadium did not leave room for actual construction. There was no room for interior scaffolding – forcing construction employees to resort to using cranes to hold ribs, workers, materials, and tools. At one point of construction, over 200 cranes were on the project site. Was very difficult to work, more workers, cranes, and scaffolding slowed the project further.

  • Expected to be complete by 1972.

    • Construction workers strike headed by Andre Desjardins kept the site in anarchy until Desjardins was bought off in 1972 by the Premier

    • Further delays caused by Taillibert’s refusal to adjust materials or his vision under escalating costs of materials

    • Taillibert quoted - “that’s all Canadians and Americans talk about. Money, money, money, it doesn’t interest me at all.”

    • Trudeau and Associates, the original project manager, seemed incapable of handling some of the most basic construction tasks.

      • Couldn’t find anything to tie Pierre or Justin to this company - It was Regis Trudeau, not sure if any relation to Pierre or Justin.

    • 1975 - costs are out of control - province takes project away from Montreal - Taillibert and Drapeau were removed from the project and the province tells contractors if they don’t speed up they will shut down the project and move the games elsewhere - productivity increase of 500%

    • Montreal’s brutal winters also hindered construction

    • Was not complete for the opening of the 1976 Olympics

  • Roof materials sat in a warehouse in Marseille until 1982

  • Tower and roof were not complete until 1987

  • The Kevlar roof retraction, designed and built by Lavalin, was completed in 1988, but could not be used in winds above 40kph. - it only opened and closed 88 times.

  • Construction resumed after the Olympics - a multi-storey observatory was added, accessible via an inclined elevator, opening in 1987. The elevator travels up the outside of the inclined tower.


  • In 1970 they thought it would only cost $134 million to construct. By the time it opened, which, remember, wasn’t a completed stadium, it had cost $1.1 billion.

  • Quebec added a tobacco tax in May 1976 to try and make some of this money back. Once paid off, the ownership would transfer to the City of Montreal. Which didn’t happen until 2006; 30 years after they added the tax. And 2 years after the Expos left.

  • All said and done, (repairs, renovations, construction, interest and inflation) the stadium cost $1.61 billion. - at that time, the only stadium that cost more was Wembley Stadium in London.

  • The stadium can generate $20 million in revenue in an average year and $50 million for large events like the grey cup. For you non Canadians out there, Grey Cup is our Canadian Football League finals, football being the American style. So it’s like the Canadian Superbowl but the commercials aren’t as good.

Ongoing Issues

  • We are going to give a summary of the issues.

  • the Olympics came and went and the stadium wasn’t complete. They resumed tower construction in the 80s.

  • August 1986: Explosions and fire in unfinished tower interrupt Expos game. Nobody was injured but the game is rescheduled.

  • Also in 1986, a large chunk of the tower fell onto the playing field during an Expos game.

  • April 1987: Kevlar roof completed and installed, only 10 years later than planned.

  • June 1989: Roof lining rips during tractor pull event, forcing the evacuation of about 8,000 people.

  • June 1991: Roof tears during a windstorm, leaving a gaping hole of 30 metres by 15 metres.

  • In 1991, to make the stadium more appealing to baseball, they removed 12,000 seats and moved home plate closer to the stands

  • September 1991: Fifty-five-tonne beam crashes to the ground, closing the stadium for 94 days. No one hurt, but Expos had to move their final 13 home games

  • 1992 Expos season at risk until the stadium was certified safe, which they eventually did, but it took longer than it normally would have because the roof was badly ripped in a June windstorm. They decided to keep the roof closed to the entirety of that season

  • August 1992: Riot erupts at Guns N' Roses concert when lead singer Axl Rose ends concert after just 55 minutes. Eight of 300-odd police officers called to the scene received minor injuries amid clashes with rock-and bottle-throwing rioters who use everything from uprooted street lamps to metal barriers to smash windows. Sounds like it wasn’t Paradise City. Hey, that’s a Guns N’ Roses song!

  • January 1994: Interior wall collapses. No one hurt.

  • January 1998: Ice damages stadium roof, sending snow and water onto floor and forcing the cancellation of two Rolling Stones concerts. I guess You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Hey, that’s Rolling Stones Song!

  • May 1998: Kevlar roof removed and sold for $1 to a company specializing in research and development of industrial machinery. The stadium was open air for the 1998 season. Topless if you will.

  • End of 1998 - a $26 million non-retractable opaque roof was installed

  • January 1999: 350m2 section of nine-month-old roof tears and pieces rain down along with ice and snow on 200 people preparing for an auto show. Five people were slightly injured.

  • Pipes were installed under the roof to help melt snow

  • There was a few lawsuits between the roof manufacturer and designer and the contractor; ultimately, the contractor won about 10 years later

  • In 2009 a report deemed the roof unsafe during heavy rainfall or more than 8cm of snow and rips 50-60 times per year. In fact it has ripped 7,453 times between 2007 and 2017

  • April 2012: Concrete slab falls from the ceiling of the underground parking facility. Nobody injured.

  • They have been trying to get a new roof since 2009. They keep flipping between retractable and non-retractable. Obviously, they want it retractable, but that option comes with a lot of risks. They even talked about demolishing the stadium, and that was estimated to be 2-3 times the cost of a new roof.

  • The new roof, with a price tag of $250 million is supposed to be complete in 2024. We found reference to a study on whether they could build a retractable roof or not, but from what we have been able to gather, the new roof will not be retractable.

  • One of the biggest challenges is that they can’t impact the aesthetic of the building, because Tailliberts

So there you have it, the Montreal Olympic Stadium, the first self-financed Olympic games that were paid off 30 years after the games finished. This failure has poor planning, fraud, corruption and a freewheeling architect with a fixed deadline and no consequences for cost overruns. And over 45 years later, Montreal is still paying for it, literally.

For photos, sources and an episode summary from this week’s episode head to Failurology.ca. If you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, please rate, review and subscribe to Failurology, so more people can find it. If you want to chat with us, our Twitter handle is @failurology, you can email me us thefailurologypodcast@gmail.com, or you can connect with us on Linked In. Check out the show notes for links to all of these.

Thanks, everyone for listening. And tune in to the next episode where we take a deep look into the Arecibo Telescope!. Bye everyone, talk soon!