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Field Notes

Field Notes

Tips for planning and designing athletic fields at schools and universities.

The importance of athletic fields has increased in today's society because of the popularity of sporting events. As a result, education administrators face challenges when dealing with their athletic facilities. Decisionmakers constantly are being second-guessed in regard to outdated, overused facilities and lack of budget. Some of the questions being asked by administrators:

  • “How do we make the right decisions about our athletic facilities?”

  • “How will stakeholders react to athletic improvements?”

  • “How can we pay for the project?”

  • “How will improvements affect the safety of the student athletes?”

  • “What would be the expected life-cycle costs of improvements (installation, maintenance, repairs, etc.)?”

  • “Who are the appropriate experts to help us make these decisions?”

Embarking on a new or upgraded athletic complex can be daunting. It is important to select a professional that understands the process, issues and considerations that must be addressed; analyzes needs and provides tools to help schools make informed decisions; and has site design and athletic field experience.

On the field

Key issues that should be considered when initiating an athletic facility project:

  • Evaluating and recommending the solution that best meets athletic program needs (e.g. natural turf vs. synthetic turf).

  • Evaluating the proper placement, based on facilities and the master plan. Representatives from the campus, neighborhood and other stakeholders should be involved.

  • Blending the project site into the surroundings through landscaping and site lighting in order to satisfy environmental concerns.

  • Designing roadways, access ways, sidewalks and parking for vehicle and pedestrian circulation.

  • Designing stormwater management to maintain fields, and addressing stormwater quality and quantity for the runoff associated with fields.

  • Evaluating the proper placement of the field based on potential environmental impacts, soil investigations, access and future planning.

Each of these issues complements the others and contributes to the success of a project. For example, the design of roadways and sidewalks must be planned before landscaping decisions can be made.

In addition, the following important components for athletic field projects should be considered:

  • Safety for players, spectators and officials.

  • Adequate, safe and convenient parking.

  • Proper surface and sub-surface drainage.

  • Safe and efficient lighting for the desired purpose (e.g., practices, night games and televised games).

  • Impacts to the neighborhood (e.g. aesthetics, noise and traffic).

  • Access for emergency vehicles.

  • Easily maintained facilities.

  • Unobstructed, safe viewing lines for spectators.

  • Fencing and walkway systems that guide pedestrians and enable quick exits during emergencies.

  • Clear, audible sound systems and visible scoreboards.

  • College and high school sporting standards (e.g., NCAA, NTSFB, NFHS, IAAF).

A truly magnificent athletic field should be safe and functional; it should be aesthetically pleasing and complement its surroundings.

The successful approach

Here are six steps that can help administrators achieve a winning design for their athletic fields:

  1. Selecting an engineer

    Prior to determining solutions for its athletic needs, a school should seek assistance from a qualified, impartial professional. Just as a team's success depends on selecting the right player for a particular role, a project's success depends on selecting the most appropriate professional to lead a design team. All too often, administrators try to get a head start by searching out companies that can provide a variety of products for their athletic needs. However, the overall process should begin by completing a needs analysis in order to provide a proper design.

  2. Identifying stakeholders

    The second phase consists of identifying and engaging stakeholders. For education institutions, this group should include business administrators, athletic directors, coaches, athletes and community members. It is imperative that this group be diverse enough to represent the different perspectives of the project, yet small enough to make decisions quickly. A group of 10 to 15 people is likely to meet this goal effectively. Bringing these individuals into the process as early as possible helps ensure a clear communication and decisionmaking path. After the stakeholders are identified, representatives are brought together through focus-group meetings.

  3. Establishing goals and objectives

    Focus-group meetings enable stakeholders to establish common goals and objectives by developing a project mission statement. During this step, the group establishes a project timeline and a tentative schedule; it will be monitored closely by the design professional in order to make any necessary adjustments. Through regular meetings, the focus group delineates needs vs. wants by referring back to the project mission statement. Focus-group meetings also are the appropriate forum to address issues and concerns about the project. A collaborative solution can be reached through honest and open discussion in a supportive and respectful environment.

  4. Value-added recommendations

    The most critical task in the process is making value-added recommendations, which are written descriptions of the program that include ideas about how to improve the project or reduce its costs. These recommendations should always align with the project mission statement. The ability to provide value-added recommendations is derived from being knowledgeable about technological advances; construction practices; testing; needs of players, trainers, coaches and facility operators; expectations; and prior experiences with playing surfaces. Informal interviews with interested parties, along with on-site reviews of existing facilities, also can be valuable tools in the process of developing value-added recommendations.

  5. Design

    The design phase takes the approved recommendations and develops a plan that addresses needs, expectations and a budget. In addition, a tight performance specification is developed. The final design incorporates all recommendations and written programs developed by the focus group.

  6. Implementation

    The implementation, or construction, phase is necessary in order to ensure that the selected contractor possesses the experience and technical capability to complete the project. A significant component of this phase typically is the bidding process. The key to a competitive bid is to use a performance specification to ensure the desired results. Prequalification of system manufacturers and general contractors must be part of the bidding process; this affords a win-win situation for the parties involved.

Parrone, PE, is president and CEO of Parrone Engineering, an East Rochester, N.Y.-based engineering firm that has completed several athletic field-related projects for education institutions. Montalto is project manager with the firm. 


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