On Track With Trends

There is so much to think about when constructing a new athletic facility, and it all starts with knowing the latest trends.
By Mary Helen Sprecher

Mary Helen Sprecher is Technical Writer for the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA), a national non-profit group helping designers, builders, owners, operators, and users understand quality sports facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books, and technical construction guidelines for athletic facilities. Its Web site is: www.sportsbuilders.org.

Each year, athletic administrators are faced with decisions. Which styles to choose? What trends to follow? Does this fashion have actual staying power, or will it be outdated in a few years?

I’m not talking about uniforms or shoes, though. The topic here is athletic facilities.

When constructing a new athletic facility, people tend to think about getting the most for their money and building something that will look great for many years to come. At the same time, it’s also important to think about trends. Every industry has fads and fashions, and construction is no exception.

The market is constantly changing. New products and techniques are developed. Different sports become more popular. Partnerships may arise. The economy fluctuates. Changing liability concerns may come into play. And all those factors should affect design decisions.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most important trends in high school and college athletic facility construction. We’ll also reveal which ones have legs–and which are for the memory books.

Nobody needs to be told that earth-friendly, eco-conscious design and construction is huge. Over the course of a few years, the environment has gone from being something mentioned only by fringe groups to a concept of central importance. As a result, many design firms now specialize in building green and have staff who are certified in this area.

One tool many are using to go green is an eco-survey. Eco-surveys are plans done before ground is broken in the interest of lessening the physical and environmental impact of construction. For example, the survey might recommend ways the facility can be oriented in order to preserve existing ecologically sensitive areas and wildlife habitats.

Those interested in having an eco-friendly site will also look into minimizing excavation and storm water runoff and think about blending the facility with its surroundings by using natural materials. Landscaping is also evolving–there is a distinct trend toward avoiding the use of invasive and non-native plants and trying to preserve mature trees. Another huge part of eco-conscious design, of course, is using sustainable materials wherever possible.

Sustainable materials include recycled products, and running tracks are a leader in this area as reclaimed rubber has become a popular material on the market. “A synthetic surface using a black base mat is one of the most common surfaces in use for running tracks today,” says Donald Smith, a certified track builder based in Lakewood, Colo. “On an eight-lane track with normal field events, these systems use about 90,000 pounds of recycled rubber, which equates to 7,500 old tires.”

That’s a lot of tires, and it makes for a pretty impressive statistic–particularly when you remember that it wasn’t always that way. “Historically, those scrap tires took up space in landfills or provided breeding grounds for mosquitoes and rodents when stockpiled or illegally dumped,” says Lee Murray of Competition Athletic Surfaces in Chattanooga, Tenn. “In 1992, there were one billion scrap tires piled up around the U.S. Today, there are only a few hundred thousand. In fact, about 75 percent of all used tires find new life.”

New lighting products can also dovetail with earth-friendly philosophies. “More efficient lighting technologies will dramatically reduce energy consumption while delivering the same or better quality lighting,” says Bruce Frasure, National Sales Manager at LSI Industries in Cincinnati, Ohio. “For example, short term, energy efficient tennis court lighting can be accomplished using higher performance fixtures with lower wattage lamps. You can use an 875 or 750 watt metal halide lamp instead of a 1,000 watt lamp, for instance. Longer term, developing technology such as solid state light sources will provide longer life and dramatically improved luminous efficiencies over conventional light sources.”

While the push to go green seems to only be expanding, trends in other areas can be tougher to gauge. One of the more difficult areas to predict is what sports will be played inside your facilities in the future. You can assume that the teams your school sponsors today will be the same in five years, but that may not be realistic. Times change, and so do the sports students want to play.

In the next decade, the sport with the most potential to expand appears to be lacrosse. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association’s 2009 Sports and Fitness Participation Report shows that lacrosse participation has grown 117 percent since 2000. The NFHS has seen a 280 percent increase in participation in the last decade. In California, the number of high school boys’ teams grew from 40 in 2000 to 173 in 2007. Starting this year, both the South Carolina High School League and North Carolina High School Athletic Association have made it a sanctioned sport for both genders.

At the college level, the number of teams has continued to grow in all three NCAA divisions, according to the association’s Sports Sponsorship and Participation reports. Women’s teams have seen the most growth, with the number more than doubling over the past two decades.

Since most high schools and colleges cannot build a field exclusively for lacrosse, they will need to build fields that can accommodate lacrosse. “This requires larger fields, and short-wide track configurations,” says Jonnie Deremo, President of General Acrylics, in Phoenix, Ariz.

According to many builders, the multi-sport field that can accommodate soccer, football, field hockey, and lacrosse is a trend schools are embracing, particularly those where playing space is limited. However, design professionals say administrators must use forethought when it comes to multiple-use facilities.

“Field areas need to allow for a minimum safety zone beyond the playing dimensions of the largest field,” notes Devin Conway, Principal at Verde Design in Santa Clara, Calif. “This safety zone dimension will vary due to the sport, where the outer edge is, and the needs for team benches and officials areas. Many sports at varying levels of competition have established requirements or recommendations for safety zones, setbacks for spectators and the media, and so forth.”

Consideration must also be given to fixtures that will be permanently installed. “Something to think about in a multi-use field is the inground furnishings for a given sport,” says Conway. “For example, football goal posts and netting poles are items that are typically inground components. In a multi-use field, these furnishings are usually sleeved into permanent footings so that they can be removed and a cover can be installed over the foundation to allow for play of another sport over the area.”

While it doesn’t have quite the same numbers to back it up, tennis is another sport on the rise. Thanks to new player initiatives aimed at children (including the QuickStart Tennis format) to an increased focus on USTA Junior Team Tennis to the USTA’s Tennis On Campus program, the sport is enjoying widespread popularity once again, leading to an elevated demand for court time. As a result, say builders, many high schools and colleges are looking into maintaining or upgrading their current tennis facilities.

One hot trend in tennis courts is color. Several years ago, the U.S. Open courts were changed to a blue-green color scheme. Since that time, builders have been asked to resurface many courts in those same colors. Some players believe the two-tone effect makes it easier to follow the moving ball and to make in or out calls.

As sports facilities continue to go eco-friendly, other new ideas for tennis have emerged. According to David Marsden, Treasurer of Boston Tennis Court Construction Company in Hanover, Mass., managers of facilities with soft court systems (clay or granular fast-drying material) are finding that subsurface irrigation can save 50 percent or more of expected water usage. Because a constant supply of water is drawn up to the surface as it is needed, the surface remains consistently playable without losing as much moisture to overspray, wind, and evaporation.

Builders of hard tennis courts are also doing a great job using reclaimed materials these days. “When reconstructing a court, recycling an existing asphalt surface is becoming more common,” says Marsden. “Savings are realized in less excavation equipment time and trucking costs to haul away the old surface, and piles of old waste pavement are eliminated.”

Indoor facilities are responding to the increased demand for tennis facilities by marking gymnasiums with playing lines and using portable nets so that games can be set up indoors. Many indoor facilities use drop-down netting to help define the playing area and contain balls.

A side effect of the surge in tennis is new lighting needs. Many athletic directors, seeing the increased demand for court time, are purchasing lighting systems for their outdoor courts in order to extend the playing day. The lighting also increases the sense of safety on and around the courts and deters vandalism.

Those who are in the market for a new indoor floor should be aware that different surfaces can have very different characteristics. While in decades past flooring involved simpler choices, today’s buyer has many options to consider.

The most important decision to make? Not waiting, says Robin Traum, former Public Relations Consultant at Gerflor Sports Division in Arlington Heights, Ill. “Sometimes, administrators make their flooring selection when their budget is almost completely allocated,” says Traum. “This limits their choices to cheaper-to-purchase but more-expensive-to-maintain flooring. People tend to see only the initial savings instead of the long-term savings potential. It can also result in installing a floor that is not the best type for the sports being played on it.”

When considering a product, Traum suggests asking a number of questions:

• What programs might be offered that require a durable surface?
• What are the maintenance requirements and how often must they be scheduled?
• How time consuming and costly are maintenance procedures?
• How steady is the usage of the facility throughout the day?
• How does the flooring react to temperature and humidity fluctuations?
• What types of product treatments are available?

The newest choices in flooring focus on sustainability. “The market shows increasing interest in sports flooring with sustainable characteristics and the ability to conserve energy,” says Traum. “More attention is being paid to flooring that saves natural resources, reduces energy use, and includes recycled content.

“For example, resilient vinyl floors are not affected by temperature or humidity fluctuations so they allow climate control systems to be turned off or placed at lower settings,” Traum continues. “Floors with daily mopping routines and occasional automatic scrubbing with an environmentally friendly detergent demand a lot less energy than those which have to be sanded, stripped, screened, and refinished periodically. Floors with the least amount of cleaning downtime also help schools use their facilities to the max.”

Floors with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds) also support the effort to create a healthier environment. “They allow facility managers to not worry about venting the space because of fumes from the floor, its adhesive, finish, or paint applied for game lines or logos,” Traum explains.

What else is new in flooring? “An additional consideration is safety, including improving finishes that minimize the risk of friction burns and help prevent bacteria and microorganism growth and skin-related infections,” says Traum.

For many athletic directors, making ends meet means inviting paying customers to use their schools’ athletic facilities. With careful upfront planning, athletic departments are finding this idea to be a great revenue source.

While an outdoor field or weightroom facility may be totally booked when school is in session, either venue has the potential to generate income at less busy times. “Financially, our clients want us to design facilities that can be used by the schools during the day, but also leased out to community groups and clubs on evenings and weekends and during the summer,” says Jay Beals, President and CEO of the Beals Alliance in Sacramento, Calif.

For this reason, it’s important to understand the trends that may be a little outside of an athletic director’s normal purview. If you are hoping to attract community members, your facilities need to cater to them.

For example, racquet sports are making a comeback and can be a big draw. Ping pong and badminton are becoming popular recreationally and even competitively, and the demand for these courts is starting to grow. Schools are finding they can easily set up badminton nets, for example, and rent their gyms out to players in clubs and recreational organizations on nights and weekends.

Gym components that can help include foldable and movable bleachers and drop-down netting. Many gyms now contain floor lining to allow multiple sports to use the facility.

Another interesting idea some health clubs are starting to add are weightrooms and other workout areas for women and men to exercise in separately. It remains to be seen whether this trend will filter down to college and high school facilities.

For space-crunched schools that want to open their doors to the community, some are looking upwards. Rooftop installations for jogging tracks, tennis courts, and other facilities have long been seen in hotels in urban areas, but as athletic directors continue to look to capitalize on unused space, these facilities might start to turn up in high school and college settings.

In this tough economy, athletic administrators are bottom line conscious, but surprisingly, not all are choosing the cheapest way of doing things, say builders. They are interested in a finished product that will last longer and work better even if it might cost a bit more up front.

“I see a trend where schools are more open to looking at their choices in terms of both longevity and performance,” says Mark Wrona, Director of Site Planning at URS Corporation in Grand Rapids, Mich. “For example, when specifying and bidding track surfaces, our firm has included alternates for upgraded track surface options for decades, but administrators would most often choose the lower end surfaces. Today, upgraded surfaces are being more seriously considered.”

In addition, say industry sources, customers are seeking information up front about maintenance needs. Getting the most out of a new facility (or a recently renovated one) means understanding that nothing–no field, court, track, or building–will ever be entirely maintenance free. And with cutbacks in support staff, many school officials want exact information on what will need to be done to keep a facility in good shape.

“Part of the reason for the upgrades may be due to a more collaborative design selection process where coaches, athletic directors, and community at large get together at a forum to offer their input,” Wrona says. “More than ever, our clients seem to be asking the tough questions: How well will this product perform and how long will it last?”

One of the chief concerns facing athletic administrators is trying to make the call as to whether a sport, a piece of equipment, or a usage trend is a rock-solid bet, or whether it is destined to fall out of favor. After all, through the years, various fitness phenomena have come and gone.

There are no hard and fast answers–no exact scientific method to determine whether a new sport or construction idea is here to stay. That’s why doing some research and analyzing which trends are most appropriate for your particular school is critical. And sometimes, it may be up to you to start a trend of your own.

As architects design new sports facilities, they continue to come up with more and more ideas for making them environmentally friendly. Two recent examples are at Macalester College and Georgia Tech.

At Macalester, the Leonard Center, a $45 million, 175,000 square-foot complex opened in October 2008, replacing an athletics facility that had been renovated twice over the past 50 years. Designed by Hastings & Chivetta Architects, based in St. Louis, its anchors are a 1,200-seat basketball and volleyball arena, fieldhouse with a 200-meter indoor track and 10-lane swimming pool, and 9,000 square-foot fitness center.

Smaller areas include an athletic training room, performance gymnasium, racquetball and tennis courts, locker rooms, coaches’ offices, juice bar, and multipurpose spaces for teaching yoga, Pilates, aerobics, and ballroom dance. Under the same roof, the campus Health and Wellness Center provides professional assistance in helping athletes and non-athletes eat well and create an effective training regimen.

The Leonard Center’s eco-friendly features include windows that are positioned to take advantage of natural light, a synthetic track floor made of recycled materials, elevators that run on vegetable oil, and a state-of-the-art heating and cooling system. And though the old center had to be demolished, over 95 percent of the original materials were reused or recycled in the surrounding Twin Cities community.

“First and foremost, the new building changes the athletic experience for the teams that use it because they now have better facilities for practice and competition,” says Erik J. Kocher, Design Principal at Hastings & Chivetta. “But it also radically changes the spectator experience with improved seating, lighting, sound, concessions, and support areas. And it’s had a clear impact on recruitment.”

At Georgia Tech, Heery International recently designed the school’s new basketball practice facility. The $5 million Zelnak Center, which adjoins the basketball arena, replaces an older practice gym that had room for little more than a single high school basketball court. In contrast, Zelnak has one full court, two cross courts, two three-point shooting areas, a 2,500 square-foot weightroom, an after-hours storage facility, a lobby for trophy cases, and a 20-seat theater for video instruction.

For sustainability, there are insulated windows on three walls, recycled metal trusses in the ceiling, and a rainwater collection and retention system. Other eco-friendly features include adjustable light levels, a low-speed, high-volume cooling and ventilation system, and a roof that’s designed to support a grid of photovoltaic cells.

“It’s a state-of-the-art basketball practice facility that will be an inspiration for players and a positive contribution to the campus,” says Mike Holleman, Vice President and Director of Sports Facilities at Heery. “It gives student-athletes more time to practice, coaches a better opportunity to develop their players, and recruits another reason to choose the Yellow Jackets. It’s an invigorating space to walk inside, and the moment you do, the building just screams Georgia Tech basketball.”

— Kenny Berkowitz