Field construction
Photo provided by the American Sports Builders Association

The Most Important Part of Construction Comes Before Construction Starts

By Mary Helen Sprecher

Whether you’re planning to build a field or improve upon an existing facility, the picture you probably have in your mind is the finished product. It’s lush, it’s green and it’s providing a great game for your athletes.

But those who design and build sports facilities have some advice: try rewinding your expectations. Spend some time on your version of a blueprint by making a list of the following items:

• What is your budget for the field? Does that figure take into consideration ancillary expenses, such as lighting, fencing and spectator seating? If not, is there the potential for these to be added later?

• What is your budget for maintenance? Will you have an onsite crew. Will any maintenance be outsourced?

• What sports do you want to host? Will the field be strictly for one sport, or will it host a number of different sports? Will it include a track?

• Have you decided whether the field surface is natural or synthetic? (If synthetic, have you decided which type of infill to use?)

• Will the field be used just by one user group (such as school students) or will it be hosting multiple events, such as commercial tournaments and community functions?

• What season(s) will the field be in use? 

While nobody likes to backtrack, particularly when there’s a field waiting to be built (or rebuilt), sitting down and defining exactly what you want and need can create a better flow for the project as a whole. 

“The expectations for the field are key when planning a construction project,” said Matt Wimer of Hummer Turfgrass Systems, Inc. “Usage details include sports types and age of players using the field, number of total events and other non-sports potential uses. Usage and expectations should be taken into consideration when planning the type of surfacing (natural or artificial), and other field infrastructure that is included in the construction, such as drainage and irrigation.”

While many field owners want to pay attention to the surface of the field, which is admittedly important, they often don’t take into consideration something equally important: what’s underneath that surface.

“I think one of the big things that should always be considered is the existing subgrade,” added Mike Czeschin of Byrne & Jones Sports Construction. “That is the only way of making sure you start with a good, solid foundation from the beginning. Oftentimes, soil stabilization is required using lime or cement to modify the existing soil to create the proper compaction and base.”

A qualified soils engineer should be brought in at the outset of the project to assist with identifying any potential problems. Ground water level determinations also are recommended, and are critical for sites where the possibility of a high water table exists. If the site for the field is in an area with poor drainage, flooding or seasonal water problems, it is essential to identify this in advance and address the problem in the beginning stages of the project. While soil remediation may add to the overall cost, it is essential to having a successful end product.

Unfortunately, said Wimer, that is sometimes a hard sell.

“On natural grass fields, the first thing that clients tend to cut out is drainage,” he said. “Drainage is an insurance policy for the field in wet weather; it prevents a potentially destructive rain game.” 

Said John Schedler of Baraka Sport, “Shortcuts are the biggest mistake to make in this business,” 

According to builders, a field is only as good as the drainage under it. If one rainstorm renders it unplayable for days at a time, it isn’t worth the cost savings. Although drainage isn’t the most exciting thing to spend money on, it’s one of the most important.

Just as important is the need to approach the job with the right partners – those who are skilled in sports facility design and construction.

“Hire an expert,” said Schedler. “Find someone who knows how to build a sports field.”

Landscape contractors may know the grass, soil, weather conditions and vegetation of an area, but they lack the design and construction knowledge to produce a high-performance sports field tailored to the needs of the specific athletes who will be using it.

“Too many times, we see fields that are specified the same as lawn areas,” said Wimer. “However, the expectations are so much higher for sports fields. The lack of planning and proper construction specifications are major sources of field failure, especially on natural grass fields.”

By choosing a contractor, as well as a design professional, with sports-facility-specific expertise, owners have a better chance of getting what they want. Getting recommendations from colleagues with facilities similar to the one you are planning is one way to obtain good information. Make sure to ask questions about the responsiveness of the contractor to questions, their ability to deal with problems, and anything else of importance.

Another way of finding an appropriate professional is by checking the website of the American Sports Builders Association (www.sportsbuilders.org), the professional organization for designers, contractors and suppliers for the sports facility construction industry. The website includes a lookup feature for builders, design professionals and suppliers, as well as individuals who have become certified through ASBA’s voluntary certification program, and who hold the designations of Certified Field Builder, Certified Track Builder or Certified Tennis Court Builder.

ASBA also publishes its book, Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual, which contains user-friendly but in-depth information that leads the reader through the decision-making process, as well as the design, construction and maintenance of sports fields. This book is also available through the ASBA website.

In all cases, said Schedler, an informed owner is best – particularly one that keeps open the lines of communication and takes time to understand the options that are available on the market.

“Some of the owners I’ve helped recently have had very good questions regarding vendors and their materials and systems, as well as how sport-specific those materials were,” said Schedler. “If someone is putting in a baseball or softball field, for example, and they have questions about which vendor or system best mimics clay or dirt, I know they’ve been reading. If someone has been gathering a lot of information, it shows.”

Mary Helen Sprecher wrote this article on behalf of the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA).

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