Early turf manager input valuable for successful field construction

We caught up with Chris Franks, CFB, executive vice president for construction operations for SCG Fields, while he was in Kansas City for a regional meeting of the American Sports Builders Association in March (CFB = Certified Field Builder). Franks had a hand in building his first field in 2002 as a laborer while he was in high school and has been at it full-time for the past decade.

When we spoke the company was working on four projects totaling seven fields; Franks said SCG Fields targets to complete 50 projects annually. “Of course our biggest crunch is in the summer; the high school market is still really big for us, especially for football and soccer, and everyone wants their fields ready for August.”

Other projects for 2018 Franks mentioned include Allianz Field, home of Minnesota FC of the MLS, and the new Atlanta Braves spring training facility. And the company is the official field builder for the United Soccer League.

STMA and ASBA member Franks is on the road a lot, 3 days a week on average and more in the summer. “It’s challenging, yes, but we focus on customer service and satisfaction, which includes being as upfront as possible, especially if there’s a problem,” he said. “Face time is important. We work together with customers, and that doesn’t end when the contract is completed. The hardest part is being away from my family.”

While SCG Fields can do an entire project—design and build—with their in-house registered architect and multiple work crews, they also work with architects and contractors local to specific projects. Asked if SCG more often bids on contracts or has potential customers come to them directly, Franks said, “We find a combination of both, but most of our work is through relationships. We work regularly with a lot of national architects and general contractors. We also perform a lot of design-build projects with private clients and work closely with them to deliver projects that meet both their needs and budgets. We take pride in our ability to get client referrals because it means we did what we said we would do—build an excellent field on time and on budget.

“We’re fortunate to have a successful track record working with professional teams on NFL, MLB, MiLB, MLS, USL and other high-profile projects, so a trust has been developed,” Franks said. “We don’t do a lot in the public bid market; those ‘low-bid’ scenarios don’t allow us to bring any added value to the process, which we fell is extremely important.”

We can’t get through an interview without a dumb question; for Franks, it was “Where do specs come from?”

“It depends on that project’s process; if the client already has an architect on board it’s different than if we are doing a design/build. If the latter, we start with asking the client for a pre-design “wish list.” Do they have a concept in mind or perhaps an existing field that they would like to mimic? What materials do they want? What turfgrass species? From there we can use our template to develop the specs and price it out without knowing the budget. After that we work with the client to tailor their wish list based on available budget. Some things might have to be left out to get it to the price [they want]. It’s a balancing act but a transparent process.

“You can’t get cookie cutter specs from Google; we tailor ours according to the needs and wishes of the client. Every field is different, regardless if it’s the same sport. Existing conditions, ability to source the proper materials, geography, microclimate, and estimated use are a few of the elements that must be considered. Our drawings and layouts are all custom-fit for that particular client.”

At what point in the process do you normally begin to work with a customer’s turf manager?

“As soon as possible. At the end of every project we build, we turn the “keys” over to the sports turf manager (or facility manager in some cases). Our most successful projects are a result of working side-by-side with the sports turf manager throughout the entire project,” Franks said. “We want to indoctrinate them on their field; where and how the field drains, what the material composition looks like between subgrade and finish grade, how the irrigation system is routed, how the sod was installed and the fertility plan used during initial grow-in.

“Having sports turf managers’ input is critical when it comes to how long the field will last. If it doesn’t last as long as expected it reflects poorly on both the turf manager and our company. Take the rootzone mix for another example; we want to tailor a project to how the turf manager wants to maintain the field. The turf managers are extremely valuable assets for us.”

“When the sports turf manager knows how the field was built, experiences that process with our construction crews, and has input on initial fertility and grass management practices during grow-in to align with their post-establishment maintenance plan, they are more knowledgeable and better prepared to take it over and maintain the field,” he said. “An issue we commonly run into is the sports turf manager being left out of the construction process, but to me that is one of the most important parts of the project. You don’t want to get to the end of the project and be introduced to a sports turf manager.”

In all reality, we want to build a field that is perfectly tailored to the manager’s maintenance philosophy. The components of a properly built field can function well for decades, but only if it is properly maintained (our oldest professional field is in MLB and is going into it’s 25th season; only the grass, top layer of rootzone, and track surface has been replaced in that time.).

No construction or renovation project goes smoothly 100%; how does Franks handle communicating with the customer about problems?

“There’s probably a Top 10 list of common problems; most issues are relatively similar. We strive for upfront, open communication and honesty. Good news is always easy to share but bad news should be shared properly as well,” Franks said. “We’ve honestly lost jobs before they started because we saw issues, expressed them to the client, and it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. It’s unfortunate but we have comfort knowing it was addressed upfront and not swept under the rug until construction started. We discuss the schedule every week either on site or in a conference call; if we’re not on the published schedule we talk about why, and what the plan is to get back on schedule.

“For example, let’s say we rip out an existing grass field and discover the subgrade is not stable. No one knows that until you’re there. So we’ll get the entire project team on site and bring in a third party, perhaps an engineer, to give two opinions to the customer,” he said. “You have to nip potential change orders in the bud. Ninety percent of our projects are on tight budgets so we need to provide a lot of information to the customer if they might need to come up with more money or adjust the scope of work.

“You have to be transparent when issues come up, you can’t mislead the client. It’s easier to explain what’s happening upfront. We are open to a fault.”

We asked Franks what turf managers should do before and during the actual project.

“Immerse themselves in the drawings/specs as to how the field will be built/renovated, and then ask a lot of questions. For example, the turf manager may want to slightly tweak the field to make maintenance easier on them and increase aesthetics. All of the little tweaks are simple to coordinate in the beginning of the project and 9 times out of ten don’t add cost, but when the turf manager isn’t brought on until after the project, these tweaks to tailor the field to their liking gets expensive,” he said. “I try to learn something new each day, and whether the turf manager has 30 years experience or 1 year, I feel they can always learn something new about field construction because they don’t see it every day. In the same light, I don’t perform field maintenance every day, so I try to learn new tips, tricks, and theories from every turf manager I’ve worked with, and it’s of great assistance to my staff and me.

“My first question to a potential client (if not a sports turf manager) is ‘has the sports turf manager been involved in this process so far?” At the pro levels we hear from the turf managers upfront, but often at the university and high school levels, where we’ve negotiated the project through the athletic director, he or she tells us what they want. And this can be problematic, for example the athletic operations budget is not the same as the facilities operations budget, and you can have situations where one party isn’t communicating with the other.

“Turf managers certainly want to be involved; at the pro level they are the decision makers but when you start working at the college, high school, and recreation levels, there are different departments involved that don’t always communicate well with each other and it can get complicated.

“Hearing from the turf managers before we start the project is very important, especially to avoid the ‘If only I would have known . . .’ Getting small details right in the beginning eliminates the need for a big fix at the end. For example, there are different infield configurations (base path widths, base cutouts, umpire cutouts) in baseball—which is preferred? Do you want the grass round or square on the warning track at the outfield corners and arcs? Depending on the field access points and track width, this minor detail allows maintenance equipment to get in and out without having to drive on the grass constantly, and that makes a huge difference for a groundskeeper. Or, can we identify heavy wear or shade areas specific to the field and modify the construction to improve performance and reduce maintenance? Tweaks of details like these, at the behest of the turf manager, can make their jobs easier and are often hard to fix after the fact.

Eric Schroder is editor of SportsTurf magazine.