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Planning, Designing and Building Your Sports Field
By: Chad Price

Over the past 20 years of increasingly complex design challenges and the growing, high-use demands on athletic fields, sports field design and construction has emerged as a uniquely specialized craft. It requires not only years of experience to be able to meet and master these challenges but also a substantial investment in the development of the highly specialized work force and custom-designed equipment it takes to perform this work properly, as envisioned and designed…and to do it on time and on the money.

In short, today's athletic field, to which must be designed and built to stand both the test of time and high usage, is simply no place for on-the-job training of untested designers and contractors. Unfortunately, that is precisely what is happening time and time again, as owners turn to landscaping, grading, and civil contractors with little or no experience in the field for their sports field construction needs, often tacking an athletic field project onto a larger campus construction project. And, a private institution certainly wants to utilize “friends” of the school to keep costs down. Many times, however, the end product is a field that has long-term problems at a price that exceeds the cost of doing it right the first time. 

This article should help you in your quest to know what you have to know, by asking the right questions and getting the answers, when planning your athletic field project. Here are some considerations for making your project a success.

Why a Sports Field Contractor?
As with any “new” trade, sports field contractors have borrowed equipment, techniques, and technical information from other industries, primarily the grading industry. It is tempting to pull in a local contractor that builds roads or buildings, thinking that the principles of grading and drainage apply equally to sports fields.  One major difference is that, in road and building construction, you are controlling subsurface or underground water at a foundation or under a highway. In athletic fields, you are controlling water at the surface, for footing, safety, and playability. 

A common problem is a drainage system installed by a grading contractor that has beautiful pipe and stone layout, but is covered with 6 inches of topsoil and the surface water never reaches the pipe. This makes sense with road construction, but not with athletic fields. Even a 1-inch clay sod layer can fail a drainage system.

Grading techniques are also an important factor. With the introduction of automatic laser-controlled grading systems, tolerances are lower and expectations are greater. Even though a grading contractor may use laser-guided equipment, they most likely don’t have the custom-built equipment of the weight and size to get within the tolerances expected for athletic fields. Equally important is that the field is designed with the proper grade and layout, so that surface water moves consistently off the field or into the drainage system by the shortest means possible. This holds true for synthetic turf as well as natural turf projects. 

Planning can make or break any project, and sports field construction and renovations are no exception. Start by identifying sports field design (SFD) firms and sports field contractors (SFC); some contractors do both. Pre-qualify these firms based on experience and references.  These firms can be found through organizations such as STMA (Sports Turf Managers Association) or AFBA (American Field Builders Assoc.). Discuss your project with prospective firms to get ideas concerning your project and informal quotes for “ballpark” pricing.

The next step in effective planning is a site evaluation. At a minimum, this should include evaluation of grading and land use issues, site drainage, soil conditions, neighbors, lighting, pedestrian flow and parking, available space, traffic flow, truck and maintenance equipment access, water sources, and current and potential use needs. Meeting with the end users (coaches & field managers) will help to understand what the expectations will be for field performance and use.

Field Design
Interviewing of firms should begin in the design phase. Many firms may be well-qualified to design an entire site or facility, but they may lack the knowledge or expertise to design and write specifications for sports fields. This can be an opportunity to use a “friend” of the school to help with erosion control and grading design, as long as you have a qualified sports field contractor advising the design. 

Oftentimes, the decision to hire a design firm is driven by the procurement process. We usually see three types: design-build, design-bid-build, or Request for Proposals (RFP). 

In the design-build scenario, it is wise to interview SFDs and SFCs. Again, some SFCs have in-house CAD capabilities and can turnkey the design-build project. In the design-bid-build scenario, very detailed specifications and field contractor qualifications should be included in the project bid documents. You may want to consider pre-qualification of field contractors: experience and references, percent of work self-performed, financial stability, bonding capability, insurance program, Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) and agronomist on staff, owned equipment list, length of time in business, etc. The pre-qualification process becomes more valuable in an RFP scenario. The benefit of an RFP process is the wealth of knowledge gained from the interview/presentation process. The challenge is trying to compare proposals as you would be able to in an “apples to apples” bid situation. 

How and when you sign a contract with the field builder varies, but, generally, the sooner, the better. Make sure you include a detailed schedule, warranties, guarantees, project management meetings, and any specific requirements concerning work hours and facility access in the contract documents.

Once design is complete, the permitting process begins. The length of time to make this happen can be surprising. This process is often started in the design stage, and this is an area in which having a good local connection definitely helps expedite the process. Requirements vary depending on state and local laws, but you may have from 3 to 10 departments to seek approval. Depending on the scope of the project, this process could take from 1 to 4 months and may involve reevaluation of parking, access, noise, dust, stormwater, and other departments you never knew existed. So, allow for some time.  Costs outside of the field, such as water source, should also be considered. 

The best-case scenario is to have the field contractor already on board to help you work through the process. Submittals detailing all materials used in the project and any testing prior to construction can be provided by the contractor now so that there are no questions or discrepancies once construction begins. 

You should require a detailed schedule, warranty, construction progress meetings, and as-built drawings in the contract documents.

Have an assigned owner’s representative between the owner and contractor. It is often the facility director or board member or maybe a third-party hired manager. Many times, in private schools, the money comes from donations or gifts, and the “gifters” want a say in the day-to-day construction process and can misdirect the contractor, leading to a big mess. If the contractor communicates and takes direction from one person, the potential for confusion can be greatly reduced.

If all of the above has gone well, then you should be working with a good design, capable sports field contractor, and quality materials, and are ready to break ground. The construction should be the easy part, other than dealing with weather. As with any project, worry about things you can control by making the best preparations prior to construction and then deal with things you can not control, such as weather, as it comes.  

Chad Price is president of Carolina Green Corp., an athletic field design, construction, renovation, and maintenance firm based outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, www.cgcfields.com.

School Athletic Buildings
By Megan Monson

Multi-purpose sports fields are an increasingly important part of a school’s athletic offerings and, so, too, are the buildings that service them. Restroom and concession buildings are a very visible public presence and a significant investment. For those reasons, it’s important for any school to get the right building for its needs.

“The most important thing is to do your homework,” said Bruce Cooper, facilities and operations director for the Spring-Ford Area School District in Pennsylvania.

The district recently added three restroom buildings to its 35-acre sports complex, which has nine fields for soccer, lacrosse, baseball, and softball. With no sewer lines serving the sports complex, the school’s top priority was to find waterless restrooms that were both attractive and durable.

“Instead of the porta-johns and trucks, we went with pre-engineered block buildings,” Cooper said. “They look nice, with a neutral tone that blends into the area.”

The Pre-Engineering Advantage
Each of the three restroom buildings, placed in strategic areas, is handicap accessible. Two of the buildings have two single-user restrooms, and a larger structure contains four.

“That way, we can lock some of them up when sports time is over,” Cooper said.

At the Yuba City Unified School District in central California, the top priority was speed. The school needed three restroom/concession buildings open for the new school year, with two of them for a brand new high school. 

“We went with the pre-engineered buildings because of the time savings,” said Steve Plaxo, the district’s director of maintenance. “With that type of building, the planning and engineering are already done for us. Our local contractors did the construction, but we didn’t have to spend the time doing the design work locally.”

Consider Sharing
If a new building seems out of financial reach, partnering with another organization could be the solution. A city-school partnership in Concord, California, for example, resulted in construction of a restroom/concession building and an equipment building for use by both the Mt. Diablo Unified School District and the City of Concord parks department. The buildings are located adjacent to both the city’s sports fields and El Dorado Middle School. During school hours, the fields and buildings serve students; after hours and on weekends, they serve the public. The pre-engineered multi-use building provides four ADA-approved single-user bathrooms and a concession area.

Make Maintenance Easy
Durability and ease of maintenance are important considerations for every project. 

“It’s a school environment—you have to be prepared for anything,” Plaxo said. “We gave our booster club a nice solid concession area. It’s very secure, with sturdy rollup guards over the windows.”

Popular building options include steel doors, graffiti-proof FRP interior finish, concrete floors with drains for easy wash down, and stainless steel plumbing fixtures.

Customizing the floor plan can also make maintenance chores easier. At Yuba City, for example, the plumbing and fixture mounts are behind a chase wall.

“It makes it pretty easy for maintenance, and that’s pretty important,” Plaxo said. “Maintenance staff members are hard customers to please when it comes to quality and durability—we have high standards.”

Megan Monson is a professional writer who works for Romtec, Inc., www.romtec.com, a leading supplier of pre-engineered public restrooms and multipurpose buildings that offers architectural design and turnkey supply and installation throughout North America.

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