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Building Teamwork

In an era when colleges and universities compete intensely for high-caliber student athletes and for coaches with proven track records, the quality of a school's athletic facilities assumes an importance much greater than in the past. Higher education is pouring a great deal of money into new athletic centers, but how can an administration ensure that its funds are spent wisely, and that the programming, design and construction process will result in a successful facility?

To help attract students and staff, an athletic center must meet the expectations of many constituencies. It must reassure the parents of athletes that the school won't neglect students' academic achievement. It must show all prospective students, including the great number who will not participate in organized team sports, that the school takes their desire for adequate weight-training and other recreational facilities seriously. It must demonstrate that women's sports will be accorded equal value with men's. And it must provide coaches with an environment that allows for privacy and provides opportunity for interaction with colleagues.

The groups within the school community most directly responsible for planning athletic facilities often bring competing interests to the table. For example, the administration may want to spend the lion's share of a project budget on the areas of the facility that the general public sees at conference-level games-the areas most likely to attract fundraising dollars. Coaches may have a different set of priorities, worrying about adequate locker rooms and showers, offices that promote collegiality, and a variety of other back-of-the-house needs.

These differing concerns are equally valid. Experience shows, however, that an administration that chooses to ignore its athletic staff's concerns does so at its peril. Typical planning/design processes in which end-users are seldom consulted after initial programming tend to produce athletic facilities that satisfy almost no one's requirements.

Coach knows best The most important step that an administration can take to prevent this from happening is to make sure that the athletic department is involved in the planning and design process from day one.

Involving the athletic staff in the design process to that extent is relatively rare. Typically, the athletic director is consulted during the programming stage and then forgotten or called in only occasionally to answer a specific question. This is comparable to building a concert hall without consulting an acoustics expert.

There are several ways to ensure an athletic-center project is successful for all concerned:

-Begin the design process with a kickoff planning meeting. Organized as a full-day event, this meeting should bring together all planning-process participants, including administration representatives-especially financial people and the officer in charge of campus planning and design; the athletic director and others from the athletic office, including interested coaches; representatives from the architectural firm that will design the facility, including the project manager and the principal-in-charge; the construction manager (CM) who will prepare bid documents, play the key role in selecting contractors, and see the job through to its completion; other personnel from the construction management company, including those responsible for estimating budgets and schedules; and even the person responsible for expediting the municipality's regulatory and approvals process. (It is not unusual for upwards of 15 or 20 people to participate in such a meeting.)

Some advance work must be done before this meeting occurs. For example, the architect, programmer and CM, in consultation with the administration and the athletic director, should work out a list of the kinds of spaces the center may contain. This list should serve merely as the starting point for discussion.

When a kickoff meeting lasts a full day, it makes sense to divide it into two parts. Devote the morning to brainstorming. In the afternoon, evaluate the wish lists generated during the morning, and rank the priorities architects should follow during design development. Don't underestimate the importance of the brainstorming session. An idea raised during the morning session could end up becoming the driving element in a center's final design.

-Hold biweekly design-development meetings. Of course, the kickoff meeting is just the start of a months-long design-development process. It is essential that follow-up meetings, which should occur at least once every two weeks, continue to involve representatives of all the interested parties. It also is vital that the construction manager play a proactive role, evaluating each design decision's impact on schedule and cost, and coming to each subsequent meeting with that information in hand. During the initial stages, participants should not be discouraged from suggesting new ideas, especially where the original set of priorities proves unworkable.

Including a representative of the athletic department in all of these discussions can be highly educational for everyone. The administration and designers will avoid making decisions that would impair the center's functionality, and athletic directors will learn how every design decision carries consequences for an entire project. Opting to add a feature to one area of a facility might mean cutting another desirable feature from the center's overall program.

In many athletic-center projects, the real trouble comes during construction itself. If athletic-department staff have been mostly excluded from the design process, they are likely to be alarmed when they finally have a chance to walk through the not-yet-completed structure and discover the decisions made without their input.

When this happens, either the athletic department has to live with a highly imperfect facility or, if the administration gives way, a flurry of last-minute change-orders may overwhelm the budget and delay the facility's opening.

Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn., finished the second phase of its athletic center in 1997. In the two years since then, the center's success has been demonstrated in a multitude of ways: in the satisfaction of coaches and students; in the admiration expressed by visiting teams; in the administration's use of the facility as a centerpiece in its recruiting efforts; and in the fact that Fairfield's athletic center has become the standard that the other schools in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference are attempting to match.

One aspect of the new athletic center that grew directly out of the athletic department's participation in the design process shows just how critical an athletic staff's role can be.

The Fairfield University facility, with a total floor area of 52,000 square feet, incorporates an extensive academic study center-2,200 square feet, with computers, reference materials, group and individual carrels, and a tutorial section. This very modern twist on an old-fashioned study hall was accorded central importance in the athletic center's program because of coaches' concern that sports not interfere with academic achievement.

The study center enables Fairfield's nearly 500 varsity athletes to capitalize on short breaks between athletic activities and continue their learning activities, instead of traveling to distant locations (the library, residence-hall rooms). Conceived as the facility's hub and situated in the center of coaches' office suites on the facility's second floor, the academic area also permits coaches to unobtrusively monitor student athletes' study habits.

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