ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Athletic fields and facilities...Not just extracurricular, but extra value for schools
by Kevin Havens, Byron Wyns and Craig Polte
Kevin Havens is senior vice president and director of design, Craig Polte is construction project manager and Byron Wyns is director of land development
for Wight & Company, Darien, Illinois.
School districts across Illinois are constantly challenged to do more with less and tighten their fiscal belts. Yet, at many high schools, the largest part of their campus (besides the main building) typically receives scant attention, even though it’s often both costly and wasteful.
We’re talking about competition athletic fields made of natural grass, which lack durability, have high maintenance costs and require large volumes of water for irrigation. Depending on the region, a typical grass sports field can use between 500,000 to one million gallons of water or more each year. Although space for outdoor activities is limited at many high schools, this expansive piece of real estate often lies unused for all but 400 hours or so each year.
Such shortcomings are the main reason why many schools are replacing their sod with synthetic turf. This conversion turns a part-time gridiron into a multi-purpose venue for other sports, PE classes, marching band practices and community events. Some synthetic fields get more than 3,000 hours of use each year.
As districts look for ways to continue offering students a variety of extracurricular activities without depleting their shrinking budgets, school boards and administrators might want to consider various creative strategies to get more value from all their athletic fields and related facilities. Replacing sod fields with synthetic turf is one obvious option, which often involves upgrading running tracks, bleachers, lighting and/or scoreboards. Renovating field houses is another possibility that can provide opportunities to build fitness centers for students and the community.
These projects usually are on extremely tight schedules because they can be done only during summer break. The keys to success for such projects are 1) planning to avoid problems likely to occur, 2) adapting quickly to the unexpected and 3) anticipating future needs for students, as well as the infrastructure. Here are some of the insights gained and lessons learned from our experiences on projects for high schools throughout the Chicago area.
Why synthetic turf
With high schools giving students more options for extracurricular activities in sports, the arts, and special interest clubs and groups, space limitations and scheduling are knotty issues. At a number of schools, it’s not uncommon to see track athletes running in the corridors after regular hours. Rain or inclement weather can exacerbate the problem.
The solution: multi-functional spaces. As noted, one of the best ways to “gain” flexible space is by converting grass fields to synthetic turf. This provides a consistent year-round, all-weather playing surface built to withstand extended use without downtime for recovery.
The latest generation of synthetic turf replicates lush natural grass in appearance, function and safety for athletes. Its biggest advantages over grass are durability and versatility. A heavy rain can render a grass football field useless for days, and natural grass cannot withstand getting trampled down and compacted by hundreds of feet in tight formation. (Now you know why marching bands usually practice on paved surfaces!)
In contrast, high schools can put synthetic turf fields to good use from sunrise until late in the evening. They can be used for PE classes, or as makeshift practice fields for other sports such as baseball or softball when, for example, dirt infields become too muddy following a rain. Other uses might include middle school sports programs, community groups, summer camps and local youth football programs.
Also consider that synthetic turf fields are less costly to maintain and have environmental benefits. The Synthetic Turf Council estimates that, in 2010, the use of synthetic turf conserved between three billion to six billion gallons of water. It’s no wonder that more than 6,000 multi-use synthetic turf sports fields are now being used at schools, colleges, parks and professional sports stadiums throughout North America.
Athletic field renovations are not as simple as re-sodding your lawn. A number of factors must be carefully considered and effectively managed throughout the design, project management and construction phases for such projects. These include:
• Turf product selection, procurement and installation
• Accommodating the needs of other sports, especially track and field, and soccer
• Athletic schedule coordination
• Upgrading bleachers, concession areas, lighting and other amenities
• Comprehensive scope considerations
• “Under turf” utilities coordination
• Regulatory compliance regarding drainage and stormwater detention
• Applying sustainability best practices in design, construction and maintenance
Extremely tight construction schedules demand careful planning and preparation to avoid costly delays. For example, it’s important to procure the turf as early as possible (we usually purchase our turf systems for clients the previous December) and schedule the installation with contractors.
Since all high schools are doing their field renovations at the same time and the top turf suppliers get the lion’s share of this business, locking down your installation dates means you won’t have to wait on contractors getting tied up on other projects.
An integrated approach
Thoughtful planning and an integrated approach to design and construction not only gain efficiencies in project management, but also can provide significant financial benefits. At Community High School District 99, for example, extensive athletic field renovations at Downers Grove North and South high schools were part of a comprehensive site master plan that touched all areas of their campuses.
By integrating planning, architecture, engineering, estimating and construction management for new football fields, running tracks and other synthetic grass and hybrid surface athletic fields at both schools, District 99 was able to work through some difficult planning circumstances beyond its control.
This integrated design-build project approach helped the school successfully resolve a sticky permit issue. Although local stormwater ordinances were expected to change in the district’s favor, District 99 could not get a construction permit for the field at South High unless its plans complied with the existing regulations.
Our solution was to design the project for two scenarios — one if the changes didn’t occur and the other if they did. This enabled the district to proceed with construction as scheduled, and, when the new, less restrictive ordinances did go into effect, it was able to switch plans and consequently did not have to build an underground detention vault.
“We avoided spending more than $500,000 on this, which gave us the funds for an extra athletic field,” said Martin Schack, director of physical plant and operations for CHSD 99. “We also saved money by following a .recommendation to recycle demolished concrete and asphalt materials on-site or ship them between schools instead of to a landfill.”
Both projects involved widening and striping the synthetic fields for soccer games, resurfacing the running tracks and enhancing the plaza areas. These upgrades were a factor in the IHSA’s decision to select the schools to host boys’ and girls’ soccer sectionals, which enabled booster clubs to make additional revenues from concession stands.
As extracurricular activities proliferate (Who could have anticipated the popularity of pep flags?), a shortage of space can be problematic, even for schools with several auxiliary gyms. Rethinking areas in terms of their potential functionality can sometimes lead to adaptive repurposing that better suits a school’s current needs.
For example, York High School in Elmhurst CUSD 205 converted its auto shop into a fitness center. Lemont THSD 210, however, went in the opposite direction with an old spectator gym by inserting a mezzanine level, which doubled its available floor space at Lemont High. One level is used for dining and food service, while the other has practice areas for band and orchestra programs.
At Joliet Central High School, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, field house additions designed to blend with the character of the existing campus enabled the school to expand its athletic and intramural programs from a joint program with Joliet West to two separate programs in Joliet THSD 204.
Common areas also are prime candidates for repurposing, as Naperville CUSD 203 learned. The student commons at Naperville Central High School (created from a newly enclosed open courtyard) was cleared out after school and used as a practice area for pom-pom squads and cheerleading teams, which require high ceilings for their pyramid routines.
Here are some additional ideas gleaned from our experiences that may be helpful to high school administrators and facilities managers involved in these types of projects:
• Take a big-picture view of your project, encompassing current and future needs regarding:
- Stadium structure, bleachers, press boxes and concession areas;
- Lockers and training facilities;
- Utilities infrastructure, including electronics for scoreboards and timing systems for track and field;
- A/V feeds from press boxes back to the school facility for future use;
- Pedestrian and vehicular circulation and parking.
• Get construction and project management professionals involved during the design phase to identify and address potential problems before they occur in the field.
• Make sure you and your construction partner are familiar with all applicable regulatory ordinances, as stormwater and drainage issues will likely be your biggest challenges.
• Put bids out early, no later than January for a June installation.
• Be aware of neighborhood lighting thresholds if you’re installing new lights.
• Put in markings that that will make it easy to add temporary striping for other sports (e.g., lacrosse, which is becoming more popular), when installing a new field.
By thinking through the district’s current needs and anticipating other possibilities, school boards will be able to optimize their expenditures while increasing their options for student activities and community use.
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