Building type:

Sports and Leisure



Project Status:


Gross Area:

24500 Sqm


BREEAM New Construction 2011 (UK) Very Good

Climatic zone:



Thumbnail First Direct Arena / 0 © Giles Rocholl
Thumbnail First Direct Arena / 1 © Giles Rocholl
Thumbnail First Direct Arena / 2 © Giles Rocholl
Thumbnail First Direct Arena / 3 © Giles Rocholl
Thumbnail First Direct Arena / 4 © Giles Rocholl
Thumbnail First Direct Arena / 5 © Giles Rocholl
Thumbnail First Direct Arena / 6 © Giles Rocholl


The First Direct Arena is a multi-purpose facility capable of seating 12,500 people. The varying activities and occupancy levels required a flexible design which could be easily operated to meet the changing requirements of a diverse event schedule. The design intention was to create a rewarding experience for spectators & participants – maximising revenue generating potential, while achieving a strong identity, sense of fun and celebration of the facility.

The competition for a new arena in Leeds was won by Populous in 2009. The proposed site was located to the north of Leeds City Centre and surrounded by a wide range of land uses including office, retail, leisure, and residential development. The development brief for the arena was guided by a number of key project objectives:

- Improving the cultural offering of the city
- Increasing economic impact through arena-visitor spend
- Generating employment opportunities and raising the profile of the city by establishing a performance venue capable of hosting world class artists and events
- Regenerating a brownfield site to be a gateway location for the city centre, creating a sense of place and vibrancy around the Northern Quarter of the city centre and beyond

The key to Populous’ design approach was to create an iconic catalyst for the area; a marquee venue for Leeds, engaging the existing urban fabric and reflecting the character and confidence of the city itself. Work began on site in April 2010, with the arena opening to the public in September 2013.

Whilst a fantastic opportunity to re-energise an existing urban space, the city centre location imposed several challenging constraints. The size of the available site was particularly small for an arena, while the proximity of residential buildings meant that the facility’s envelope had to be designed to achieve a very high acoustic attenuation.
The resulting fan-shaped bowl means that all seats face the performance area, creating an engaging spectacle for every audience member, whatever the event. The main material used for the envelope is aluminium shingles in five shades, while the plinth section is finished in three colours of facing blockwork.
The main method of construction was steel frame with a pre-caste concrete internal face to the bowl and structural steel framing to non-acoustic-critical areas. The roof is a double roof on steel trusses and the top section is a concrete deck with an insulated single-ply membrane. The lower section is an acoustic perforated metal liner sheet, with additional acoustic material added to create an incredible auditory experience and world-class venue.
The building incorporates the latest thinking in terms of sustainability and attained a BREEAM Very good rating, making it the UK’s most sustainable venue. Restaurants and bars serve the arena interior during events, opening out onto the new public plaza on non-event days, drawing visitors to the new plaza throughout the week.
The plaza has also improved and enhanced public accessibility to surrounding areas with a new access road and improved pedestrian footpaths. The access road also provides direct access to newly-built disabled parking spaces from the arena. The arena design includes a range of accessibility provisions, including disabled person toilets on all levels, wheelchair spaces and seats with additional space for assistance dogs.
The completed arena has become a focal point for Leeds, attracting some of the world’s most popular music artists and sporting events, creating a lively and inclusive cultural area and increasing the economic viability and sustainability of the area.


2015 RIBA Regional Award - Winner



Water-saving sanitary appliances

Occupancy sensors

Innovative wastewater systems

Sustainable transport


Part of the initial design brief for the First Direct Arena was that it should involve a sustainable construction process, as well as a design that would help it to remain environmentally sustainable into the future. The chosen site was a brownfield in the city centre, the location of a former university campus. Upon completion the arena has since been awarded a BREEAM ‘Very Good’ rating, making it the highest BREEAM-rated arena in the UK.

As part of the design process, a three-dimensional structural modelling and extensive BIM strategy meant that the arena was constructed with minimum waste generation and materials use. With 82% of all construction, demolition and excavation waste diverted away from landfill, a construction waste production ratio of less than <9.2m³/100m² was achieved.

As well as permitting a sustainable construction process, the design of the arena took into account future sustainable water use and energy system requirements. Low-flow sanitary fittings were installed throughout the building, along with a water meter and leak detection system to minimise water usage and wastage. This pre-emptive approach was also translated into the energy usage proposal. A specially-designed Building Management System (BMS) continually monitors energy usage in the arena, allowing it to maintain an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of ‘B’. An example of this system in practice is a passenger sensing device fitted to escalators for automated operation, to reduce energy usage outside of peak activity times.

As well as integrating sustainable practices into the design of the building, the site’s location also allowed for sustainable transport solutions to be incorporated into the initial plans and consequent construction. Situated within walking distance of national transport hubs, including Leeds’ rail and bus stations, the city centre location meant that it was possible to plan excellent public transport links into the arena’s design, including regular local bus services.

In light of these provisions, only disabled car parking is provided on site. There is also a dedicated taxi rank to the right of the main plaza. The First Direct Arena also has covered and uncovered cycle stands available for use by visitors, and Leeds City Council is currently developing a network of core cycle routes in Leeds that will improve conditions for cyclists throughout the city.


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Leeds City Council





POPULOUS . , Caroline Mills , Emiliano Cevallos , Gurminder Saraon , Jacobs


Access consultant:


Acoustical consultant:


Cost consultant:

Davis Langdon

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Lighting consultant:



Davis Langdon

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