"We've got a worm farm here somewhere. 300,000 of the things. The trouble is, nobody seems to know where it is," so confides Marcus Heneghan, Building Services Manager of ExCeL London. He's worked in this vast building for over a decade, but still admits to the occasional surprise discovery.
It's all par for the course at one of London's largest buildings. What might seem from the outside like a grey, featureless box is actually a whole ecosystem in which people with utterly different backgrounds and interests come together daily.
On the morning we visited, the events centre played host to an oceanography show, a pest-control trade fair and a UCL graduation ceremony. It welcomes clients as diverse as Pokemon players, liver specialists and the G20 leaders. All told, the centre runs around 400 events per year and is already fully booked for 2022. After the worst of the pandemic, live experiences are back with a bang.
We have to remember, though, that this isn't just a fancy shed for events. In its time, ExCeL has served as a movie set, an Olympic venue, a field hospital, a vaccination centre, a racetrack and even a socially distanced exam hall. It is rich in human stories and — for a building with only a couple of decades under its belt — packed with quirky interest.
Here we pull out a few of the more unusual aspects of the building and its history.
1. About those worms...
Why would an exhibition and events centre need a worm farm? It's all about sustainability. The estate has over 30 bars and restaurants, all of whom generate food waste. Any vegetarian leftovers are thrown into the wormery, where the vermicular tenants break down the food. The resulting mulch is used to fertilise the plants and trees around the venue, including a recently installed living wall at the Custom House entrance.
These are surely London's most secure worms, hidden away behind multiple locked doors in part of the building most staff members don't know about.
The wormery just one of many green initiatives at ExCeL. All electricity is sourced from renewable supplies, and gas is carbon-offset. Waste is never sent to landfill. In 2021, 71% was recycled and the rest was used to create refuse-derived fuels (and feed 300,000 worms).
2. And about that name...
Why's the building called ExCeL? We've always wondered, so we asked. It's shorthand for Exhibition Centre London, which sounds a bit generic so everyone says "Excel". Officially, the place is called ExCeL London, so it's tautological: Exhibition Centre London London. The mixed-case spelling is helpful, as it differentiates the place from a well-known Microsoft product... but is often disregarded.
3. Home to the Avengers
In Avengers: Age of Ultron we get our first glimpse of the Avengers HQ building in upstate New York. Only, it wasn't filmed in upstate New York. The exteriors were largely shot at the Sainsbury Centre at UEA, Norwich. But the interiors are all ExCeL. Above, for example, is Nick Fury navigating his way toward the exit for Prince Regent DLR station. And below, Tash and Cap are silhouetted against a rich woodland view. In real life, the only arboreal feature is the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel.
4. It is a simply vast building
The superlatives connected with ExCeL are themselves large in number. The building covers 100,000 square metres of space and has an interior volume four and a half times that of St Paul's Cathedral. It's so long that it needs a station at each end — Custom House (DLR and Elizabeth line) and Royal Albert (DLR). Should you have the time, inclination and licence, you could park 742 double-decker buses in either of the two exhibition halls. They get through 15,000 litres of paint every year, just keeping the place looking fresh. Some 4 million people visit every (non-pandemic) year, accounting for something like 25% of all inbound business tourism.
5. With the longest corridors...
Ever walked along a corridor the length of four football pitches? This 400 metres long example runs along the south side of the building and proved frustratingly difficult to photograph. Imagine fitting the carpet.
6. And has an impressive roof to match
If there's a bigger roof in London, then we're not sure where it is. The vast, gently sloping roof over ExCeL is more of a landscape than a covering. The endless cream canopy is punctuated here and there with support structures and skylights but, if we ignore those, it feels like standing on a giant mesa. The comparison was helped, in our photographs, by a cloud of Saharan dust that had blown north over London.
7. And it's about to get even bigger
As if ExCeL London were not big enough already, it's set to get 25% bigger again with the imminent construction of Phase 3. This expansion will be to the east of the existing building (blocking those bosky views enjoyed by Captain America and Black Widow). The new facilities will allow ExCeL to increase still further the number of large-scale events they can run at one time.
8. Power is handled by 25 substations
All these activities can be very power hungry. The building has a state-of-the-art electrical system which can be rapidly tweaked to meet the needs of exhibitors. The venue is home to some 25 substations (one of which is pictured above) that handle electricity flow. In the event of a power cut, the building automatically switches over to a secondary supplier. All the site's electricity comes from suppliers who use renewable sources, and energy efficient bulbs are fitted throughout.
9. It has an enormous car park
To continue the superlatives, ExCeL is built over what might just be the largest basement car park in London, if not beyond. It's actually twin car parks, to the north and south of the building. These stretch on for such a distance that you could probably measure the curvature of the Earth. It's gigantic in a way that photographs can't do justice. The only way to make it look even bigger would be to place a tiny man like Tom Cruise in the car park. And that's exactly what they did for Mission Impossible Rogue Nation. Other films shot here include Batman Begins and Mortdecai.
10. Speaking of cars, ExCeL had the world's first indoor/outdoor race track
There aren't many buildings in the UK that could support a 3km racing circuit, but ExCeL London is certainly one. In 2021, a track was built around the perimeter of the building for the London ePrix, a race featuring 'Formula E' electric cars. Uniquely, the course involved a stretch inside the building, which required special floor covering to stop cars from skidding.
11. It transformed into a hospital in just 10 days
This one's not so much as secret, but a key moment in the building's history. In March 2020, as the Covid risk became apparent, ExCeL London was rapidly converted into a crisis response hospital. It took just 10 days to transform the building. The venue drew upon 20 years of experience of rapidly and regularly reconfiguring its interior. As it happened, existing hospitals handled most of the strain, and only 54 patients were admitted. Had things been even worse, ExCeL could have provided care for up to 500 patients, rising to 4,000 with further reconfigurations. The site also played a large part in the vaccine roll-out from January 2021.
12. You can grease Boris Johnson's palms
ExCeL also played an historic role in the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, hosting 13 events. These are commemorated on a wall towards the eastern end of the building. After reading up about Team GB triumphs within the venue, you can press your palms into the handprints of athletes such as boxers Nicola Adams, Luke Campbell and Anthony Joshua, and the first Brit to win taekwondo gold, Jade Jones. Seb Coe's hands are also there, along with a certain Boris Johnson, who was Mayor of London during the Games. If you feel the need to clean your hands after touching his paw prints, a sanitiser dispenser sits alongside.
ExCeL London is served by DLR, Elizabeth line and is a short walk from the cable car. Browse upcoming events here. With thanks to Tom Phillips and Marcus Heneghan for granting us access to the off-limits parts of the venue.