Renovating Outdoor Athletic Facilities

Athletic coaches are famous for burning the midnight oil in an effort to find a competitive advantage. They study film, evaluate their team’s strengths and weaknesses and devise complex strategies — all in the name of being as informed as possible. Successfully renovating outdoor athletic facilities requires a similar level of preparation. Before you start a project, it is important to take the time and answer a few basic questions.

What Is the Largest Event Your Facility Will Host?
One of the most fundamental questions an owner must ask is, “How big do we want to be?” Many school districts expand outdoor athletic facilities with the goal of hosting sectional and regional playoffs, or even state championships. Before taking this approach, it is important to understand the requirements for hosting such events. Criteria will vary by sport and by state. However, they will generally involve the following elements: total number of seats, type of playing surface, press box size and proximity of fan parking. Lighting levels appropriate for broadcasting may also be a factor.

During the planning process, it is important to be realistic about the potential to host large events. Though state and regional competitions can be lucrative, the cost of building a facility to the desired specifications can often be a challenge. The extra expense must be weighed against the potential short- and long-term benefits.  

How Will Your Facility Be Used, and by Whom?
Football fields and stadiums are the most commonly renovated outdoor athletic facilities. However, while your largest draw may be the Friday night football game, it is crucial to consider the needs of all potential end users, including track and field athletes, soccer players, the marching band and local residents. 
When it comes to track and field, be sure to consider the technical specifications and regulations governing these events. The placement and orientation of the track and the individual field events will affect the playability and long-term maintenance of the facility. Using an in-fill synthetic field inside the track allows for improved grading and drainage options, and makes it easier to meet the stringent guidelines for competitive tracks.

For soccer teams, it is important to provide as much playing surface as possible. Remember to keep enough clear space on the sidelines for corner kicks and throw-ins. Although a popular approach is to color the football end zone with intense graphics, this can impact a soccer goalie’s ability to see the ball near the net. If a stadium is truly intended to be a multisport complex, the facility should anticipate the needs of all users.  

The marching band is an important, but sometimes overlooked, stakeholder. Consider proper placement of movable bleachers and the resulting impact on acoustics. Ease of access to and from the field, as well as to adjacent staging areas, is another concern. When selecting a field surface, keep in mind that in-fill synthetic turf can take the abuse of hundreds of marching feet. This allows the stadium to be used by the band for practice and competition.

Last but not least, make sure facilities are properly lighted to allow community use. A new or upgraded stadium can be a premium venue for outside groups seeking to play sports, host fundraisers or simply walk the track.

How Can the Facility Be Improved?
While outdoor athletic facility upgrades can involve significant changes — such as the construction of a new stadium — smaller improvements often make the biggest impact. For example, replacing your natural turf field with in-fill synthetic turf is one of the best investments you can make. In-fill turf fields reduce both maintenance costs and the rate of player injuries. Because of their extreme durability, in-fill synthetic turf fields also increase the number of event opportunities, which, in turn, increases revenue.  

Improvements to parking, traffic circulation and signage can greatly improve the fan experience. Make sure that parking is within a reasonable distance of the facility and that pedestrians have a safe route to the venue. Be sure to correct any traffic bottlenecks near the stadium. This may be the time to address broader vehicular access issues on the site and adjacent roadways. When possible, provide large vehicular access to the locker facilities and field. Imagine a band contest with busses and semi trucks filled with instruments and equipment from 10 different schools. During events such as these, access to facilities is crucial.

Way-finding signage and restrooms are two important but sometimes overlooked components of a successful outdoor athletic facility. Way-finding signage should be placed along main traffic corridors, to allow out-of-town visitors to easily find the venue. Prominently placed signage also demonstrates school pride. On site, be sure to provide appropriate restroom facilities. While you may only need the full complement of restrooms for five or six large events a year, it is important to plan for these periods of maximum usage, either by allocating the necessary amount of restrooms or supplementing a smaller facility with portable units.

Developing Your Plan
After carefully evaluating all the factors, it is possible that you will find that new construction, not renovation, is the answer. Many older facilities are simply not worth the required investment. Possible reasons include a lack of available space, outdated infrastructure or unsafe conditions due to excessive age and disrepair.

But whether you decide to undertake renovations or new construction, preparation is the key to success. Develop a plan that addresses your goals and the needs of all stakeholders, and you will have exceptional outdoor athletic facilities for years to come. 

Stephan Howick, RLA, LEED-AP, is a landscape architect with Fanning Howey. Rodney Wiford, AIA, REFP, LEED-AP BD+C, 
is a project manager with the firm.

About the Authors

Stephan Howick, RLA, LEED-AP BD+C, is a landscape architect with Fanning Howey, a national educational facilities planning and design firm.

Rodney Wiford, AIA, REFP, LEED-AP BD+C, is an architect and project manager for Fanning Howey, a national leader in K-12 school planning and design.