Challenges of Constructing Athletic Facilities for Educational and Religious Institutions

by John H. zumBrunnen, Founder and CEO, zumBrunnen, Inc.

In order to prosper and grow in today’s marketplace, educational and religious institutions must not only educate the mind and capture the heart, but also build the body and entertain.  Athletic facilities are an ideal venue to train and strengthen the body and provide entertainment value through sporting events.  Today’s progressive schools and churches have bought into the concept “if you build it, they will come,” by investing in athletic facilities and sporting events.  This paper highlights some of the fundamental risks associated with the construction of these facilities, which are broken down into three categories for discussion:

  • Complexity
  • Political vs. Technical
  • Mitigating Risk – What to Do

In conducting research for this paper, project teams for two recently completed facilities were interviewed.  Both projects consisted of indoor multi and hybrid venue athletic areas, and one included a new track and field.  The interviews confirmed my experiences as a construction monitor as to the primary challenges (complaints) for each team member:

  • Owner: (i) Construction disruption – managing damage to existing infrastructure such as walks, paving, landscape, (ii) overstatement of commitments as to schedule, budget, and quality, and (iii) change orders
  • Consultant:  (i) Owner’s realistic expectations of the project development cycle, (ii) budget short falls, and (iii) understanding and defining the venues and levels of competition
  • Contractor: (i) Contract negotiations for the lowest price coupled with multiple value engineering changes after design and permitting, (ii) design documents lacking construction details, and (iii) lack of proper oversight during construction by the consultants, especially specialty consultants

Setting the Stage by First Speaking To Complexity:

“Let me be very clear – these are not your “A-typical” construction projects where an owner commissions an architect and civil, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing consultants to provide a set of drawings, which in turn are managed by an owner’s executive and the head of facilities.  Building athletic facilities with multiple and hybrid venues and varying levels of use are some of the most complex of projects to undertake.  Indoor athletic centers most often are the “catch-all” facility.”

Even a track and field project at first glance appears as a relatively low-tech, simple project to execute.   But from the very start, a track and field project is a multi-venue project generally designed for various levels of competition including hybrids.  It too will have many of the same challenges as an indoor athletic center, as discussed later.

Considerations from a Risk Management Perspective

Responsibility for functional use goes far beyond what one at first envisions as being under the guidance of the executive department and athletic director.  Why?  These facilities may be used by most or even all departments and require support services such as:  food, security, IT, etc.  They serve every member of your staff, student body members, their families, and the community at large.

Therefore, consideration for proper design, life safety, security, and medical emergency must be foremost in the mind of the owner, consultants, and contractor.  Good consultants should minimize risk factors associated with design and construction, which we will review later.

Political vs. Technical: 

Projects can often get tripped up with zoning and neighbor relationships, both of which can prove to become political and expensive.  This is especially true if a property is landlocked and is also located in or near a residential area.  The most frequent challenges confronted are:

  • Noise:  Although generally not an ordinance issue between 8 AM and 10 PM, this is more likely to be a relational issue with neighbors.  Outdoor events can be very loud.  Such events not only affect residential neighborhoods, but, too, can prove intrusive for other organizations such as healthcare facilities, churches, and even commercial businesses.
  • Traffic control and parking:  These are usually not a day-to-day issue, but become an issue when hosting an event.  Even when properly zoned, they can have a significant impact on any neighbor, whether it is a residential neighborhood or a commercial business.
  • Site drainage:  More and more track and field areas are being converted to synthetic materials.  Use of such materials results in a significant increase of storm drainage runoff, which, if not properly managed, can cause flooding and other environmental issues.  From a design perspective, these have the same effect as a parking lot: 100% run off.  On-site management of storm drainage is the trend nationwide and will have a significant cost impact to a project, whether it is an above or underground detention system.  Additionally, storm drainage under the track and field areas must not only be properly designed but monitored carefully during construction.  Repairs to these systems can prove most costly.
  • Environmental codes:  These codes will only get more complex, stringent, and expensive to deal with in the future.  The latest concern is the environmental impact caused by storm water run-off from asphalt parking surfaces and the various types of sealers and restoration products used for maintenance and repairs.
  • Buffer zones/setbacks:  Your new project may trigger zoning and code changes.  These changes may not just apply to a new project, but may also impact existing improvements.
  • Outdoor lighting:  Placement and levels of lighting must be carefully designed and managed.  Neighborhoods, nursing facilities, etc. are especially sensitive to these issues.

What to Do – Mitigating Risk: 

The very first step to take is finding the national association(s) relevant to the sports facility or track and field events you are planning.  Take this step when you first begin to consider a project, long before interviewing or hiring consultants or contractors.  Associations will help you better understand and define your needs, help guide you in strategic planning, and, ultimately, in the process of building your project team of consultants and contractors.

An example of such an association is the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA), and there are many others.  ASBA is a centralized source for information on tennis courts, running tracks, fields, and indoor sport facilities.  National associations are an excellent source for:

  • Construction guidelines and specifications
  • Maintenance manuals
  • Technical articles and trade journals
  • Qualified consultants and certified builders
  • Products and vendors

To find the best association for your project, search out referrals, but be sure to do your own internal research.  The Internet is a great place to get started!

You have now completed your homework and have affiliated with a national association, completed an initial strategic plan, and have begun the interview process for building your team.  Now, think back to the complaints/risks discussed in the opening paragraphs of this paper.  Read these again, because it is at this stage you put in place the processes to manage these risks, set expectants, and begin to commit significant time and financial resources to the project.

Determine the timetable for interviewing all parties and departments involved – “from the board room to the boiler room,” as most if not all departments may be involved.  Not only will these facilities be used for sporting events, they may also host graduation ceremonies, concerts, dances, fundraising events, science fairs, and art and theater events to mention a few.  Any one of these events may require involvement of all of the support services and departments, from maintenance and grounds, security, food service, medical, traffic control to IT.  In addition to these internal departments, other parties involved may include:

  • Trustees and board members
  • Alumni, parent, and student associations
  • Fundraising committees
  • State, county, and city officials
  • Neighborhood and HOA meetings

To manage your internal and external teams and processes:

  • Set up a matrix to track and schedule each meeting, event, interview, and phase of development
  • Determine what functions, products, systems, etc. that the various departments need involvement in as to input, reviews, and required approvals
  • Determine departmental chain of command for each venue
  • Identify critical actions and approvals, such as zoning and permitting

Concurrent to the above processes, you will want to select your consultants including the architect and specialty consultants. Look at the whole team, member by member, and consider the following:

  • You need consultants with proven experience for the sporting venues and the specific level of the project.  A pool consultant may be great for a recreational pool, but lacks expertise in state or national competitive swimming and diving events.  The same is true for most venues.
  • Identify critical consultants first; your Association will be a great resource for this information.  Below is a partial list of specialties to consider and may vary when considering various levels of use and competition, including hybrids:
    • Track:  indoor versus outdoor, synthetic or not
    • Various field venues:  grass or synthetic
    • Lighting:  venues may have special requirements, in and out of doors
    • Natatoriums and outdoor swimming and diving events
    • Seating, score boards, broadcasting
    • Food and beverage; concession stands or kitchen and dinning
    • IT, communications, and security and life safety
    • Traffic control and parking
    • HVAC:  not only varying heating, cooling, ventilation, and moisture control requirements, but corrosive environments
    • Qualify each consultant:
      • Request a list of comparable projects including level and mix of venues and hybrids
      • What industry Associations they are active in and certifications and licenses they hold
      • Referrals:  check for pricing, change orders, responsiveness, availability, quality, bond capacity, E & O insurance, and experience with local and state governing authorities
      • Fully utilize the consultant by including not only their design services but commission them to provide site inspections and attend critical design and OAC meetings

Design & Construction Contract Method:

Select Design & Construction Contract Method – There are two primary options:

  • Design – Build: shortest time frame – minimize issues with building authorities – still need to be involved to ensure satisfaction – no cost COs after signed contract
  • Design – Bid: Competitive bid implies best pricing – Owner has more control over design (issue can be offset by owner involvement) – CO for changes by authorities after signed contract
  • Stay with standard AIA contract documents reviewed by local council familiar with construction contract law

Venues Require Special Systems and Products:

Be it Design-Build or Design- Bid, you will have hundreds of questions to answer for every venue.  The more venues, the more team effort and choices will be required.

  • This is where your matrix will keep you on schedule – follow your matrix – modify as needed
  • Realize every sport venue requires special systems/products whether it is indoor or outdoor.  The more mixed use and hybrid the venues, the more complex the decision making process becomes:
    • For every system you will have to determine level of use or uses (hybrid), amount of use, and, once these are determined, then you should have a minimum 3 products/vendors to choose from
    • Air-conditioning and ventilation –offices vs. pool vs. basketball vs. weight room, dining, locker rooms, etc.
    • Floor, wall, and ceiling systems – can even vary within a venue – 3 BB courts where 2 are for practice with less expensive floor systems and 1 for competition play with the best possible floor system
    • Structural systems
    • Lighting
    • Acoustics
    • IT, communications
    • Traffic control and parking
    • Other systems and materials: seating, sound, communication, score boards
    • Life safety, access – egress (ADA)

Outdoor Sport Considerations:

Outdoor sports pose special considerations for:

  • Site drainage – synthetic field and track equivalent to a parking lot with 100% run off- if this is not right, your system will not perform – zoning and neighborhood relationships can impact these designs
  • Ground covers for sporting events – natural turf, synthetic field and track, asphalt, concrete – each have special design details and considerations
  • Lighting – meet needs but minimize impact to adjacent neighbors
  • Seating– permanent, retractable – temporary
  • Restroom and locker rooms – permanent but also temporary
  • IT, sound, communication/media, score boards, life safety, security
  • Other systems and materials:  access – egress (ADA), food service/concessions

Closing Comments:

These are not your “A-typical” construction projects, building athletic facilities with multiple venues and with varying venue levels are the most complex of projects a school will ever undertake.  We hope this paper highlighted important issues and serves as a helpful planning tool.

About the Author:

John zumBrunnen is CEO and founder of zumBrunnen, Inc., an independent construction and building consulting firm founded in 1989 with offices in Atlanta, GA and Charlotte, NC. zumBrunnen has a BS in mechanical engineering from the University of North Dakota, completed the US Army Corps of Engineers Training Program in 1972, and is a member of the Association of Professional Reserve Analysts (APRA) and numerous other national and state associations. He has been a faculty member since 2003 for the University of North Texas, Coalition for Leadership in Aging Services (CLAS), a national certification program for aging services professionals (CASP), and authored their “Asset Management” training module. zumBrunnen has 40+ years’ experience in construction, property assessment, development, and reserve budgeting. He is the inventor of the FacilityForecast® software system and a respected industry author and speaker.

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