The Appelfeller Report, Part II

Editor’s note: This is the second part in an ongoing series of articles following the progress of building a new soccer pitch for the Austin FC franchise that will begin play in 2021. Weston Appelfeller, CSFM, former STMA board member and an informal international ambassador, was hired by the club late last year to oversee the planning and design of the new surface. Appelfeller will share his experiences as the process plays out.

By Weston Appelfeller, CSFM

Hello! I hope everyone had a successful 2019, and is ready for what 2020 has in store. It’s been a few months since the introduction to this series, and the progress of our project continues to move along. I am extremely excited for the next year. Having no grass to maintain has its positives (no weekends, no worries about weather, etc.) but also has its negatives. For the past year, I’ve had so many people question and comment about not having work to do because of not having grass. Trust me when I say, this may be one of the busiest years I’ve worked.

What’s kept me busy? I’ve been working alongside our project management team (CAA Icon), our architect (Gensler Sports), construction partner (Austin Commercial), and our leadership group here at Austin FC to review everything regarding our stadium and training facility. This includes the researching, design review, budget management, and now, the build. I spent countless hours in meetings discussing most things not related to turf, waiting for that one moment we may discuss turf, oftentimes only for a minute. 

A lot has happened with our field since the last article (in the May 2019 issue of SportsTurf). We have finished the schematic design (SD) portion, gone through the design development (DD) phase of our project, and straight into the closing documents (CD) process. For those unfamiliar with construction projects there are three phases – SD, DD and CD. During the DD and CD phases, our field designer Dan Almond with Millennium Sports Technologies, Colorado, put our ideas onto paper, and it was passed on to field contractors who were bidding our project. The work that we have done finally has a feel of reality. 

Since the last article, we’ve also been able to use our architect’s (Gensler) drawings and information to gain an estimate on what our shade will look like in the stadium. From the outset on this project we knew that we would have a large roof. The Texas heat can be brutal, and we needed the supporters of our club to have a shade structure that would provide some relief from the sun. Like a few other stadiums currently being designed and built in MLS, we will have a roof that covers every seat in our building. 

How does the shade affect our field build? Our roof is solid, blocking all sunlight from going through it. Our shade studies show that in the middle of the summer, with full sunlight, the center of our pitch will see about six hours of natural sunlight a day. Our South end will have significantly less than that. With the light requirements of bermudagrass being significant, this info provided a clearer vision of the decision we would need to make. 

Coupled with our architect’s shade renderings is our lighting needs analysis that we received from the lighting company Stadium Grow Lights (SGL). During the past eight months, we have worked closely with Simon Grumbrill, Matt Williams and the rest of the staff at SGL. We have passed on our stadium location, orientation, roof size, and projected event load, and received back their detailed analysis. This information helps us understand the amount of power we will use and what our field condition could be with and without lighting. We believe with the lighting our pitch will be roughly 25-30% better overall than if we didn’t have the lights. Working closely with that group has been valuable in the design phase.

Having grow lights will help, but we can’t have the lights on all the time. For understanding how to deal with that, I’ve leaned on Dan Bergstrom from the Houston Dynamo. Dan has worked through shade issues at both the Dynamo, and at his previous position at the Houston Astros. From day one of my move to Texas, Dan has preached for one key aspect that he believes will help Austin FC offset some of the shade issues – Platinum TE seashore paspalum. This grass was developed by Dr. Ron Duncan more than a decade ago. In the last year, I’m not sure there’s another person on the planet who has studied information and talked to more people regarding this species and variety of turf. 

Why seashore paspalum over the more commonly used varieties of bermuda? That is a question I’ve lost many hours of sleep over. I currently have samples of three different bermudagrasses (Latitude 36, Tahoma 31, and TifTuf). Each of these varieties are unbelievable and extremely impressive. The developers of these varieties should be extremely proud of the advancements they have made in the lives of groundskeepers. But, the amount of sunlight bermudagrass requires is significant, and I fear we won’t have proper sunlight to provide a quality turf over 100% of our field. Sure, the lighting helps to offset this, but, as mentioned, I won’t be able to run the lights all day, every day. I also won’t be able to provide artificial lighting to the entire surface at the rate we would need it to be for the shade we will have.

Pasplaum is a strong, dense grass that was designed for hot, cloudy areas of the world. Its biggest asset is that it requires less light than bermudagrass to be successful. Most people would say is its biggest drawback is that it is slower to recover than bermudagrass. I have four samples of Platinum TE, and haven’t seen that to be the case. The paspalum with six hours of natural sunlight has recovered at a good pace in my trials.

The toughest part of making this turf decision is the second-guessing. Telling people that you’re going with seashore paspalum in an area that only uses bermudagrass on sports fields is like telling people the name of your unborn child. Some people will like it, some will be confused by your decision, and some people react in a way that you know they think you’re an idiot. Whenever I start to second-guess my decision, I call Dan Bergstrom. Each time, he reminds me that I shouldn’t let anyone who has never tried to grow grass in extreme shade tell me how to grow grass in extreme shade. This has been my motto now for several months.

Picking a sod farm to supply the turf is also an extremely hard process. Very few farms have a Platinum TE license. We have researched Platinum TE sod from four different states. All of these farms have unbelievable sod, operations and staff. We’d be lucky to have sod from any of them. In the end, we decided to go with West Coast Turf in Scottsdale, Ariz. We chose them because they are experienced with doing a custom sod grow, and it’s a convenient non-stop flight for me from Austin to Phoenix to check out the sod as its grown in. The staff at West Coast have been phenomenal to work with thus far.

The fun part of this process is getting to tour facilities and talking with peers about what has worked and hasn’t worked. I’d like to thank the following facilities and their groundskeepers for taking the time to show me their fields. 

  • Baltimore Orioles – Nicole Sherry
  • University of Texas – Weston Floyd
  • NYCFC Training Facility – Chris Fox
  • New York Red Bulls – Dan Shemesh and staff
  • Portland Timbers Stadium and Training Center – JR Wyman
  • Arizona State University – Brian Johnson
  • LAFC Stadium and Training Facility – Gio Murillo
  • Orlando City SC – Matt Bruderek
  • Houston Dynamo – Dan Bergstrom
  • Texas A&M University– Craig Potts and Nick McKenna
  • Houston Astros – Izzy Hinojosa
  • New York Mets – Bill Deacon
  • Baltimore Ravens – Don Follett

If I’ve failed to mention anyone who took time to give me a tour, thank you. Also, thanks to the groundskeepers from the 36 different states and four different countries that I’ve discussed this project with to this point. I’ve taken something from each conversation to make this as successful as possible. 

Looking ahead, the first portion of 2020 will be focusing on the design of our new training facility, the Saint David’s Performance Center. As we get to the middle of the summer, I will begin the hiring process to build our crew, and by mid-summer we’ll be installing fields. Things are starting to get exciting and I look forward to sharing the next portion of the journey.

Weston Appelfeller, CSFM, is senior director of grounds at Austin FC.

Above: Artist’s rendering of the new stadium.