Guest Column - November 2012
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Design Corner

Form & Function
The Changing Nature of Multi-Use Facilities

By Troy Sherrard, AIA

A shining glass and metal tower stands high above the new Ithaca College Athletic and Events Center on the eastern edge of campus. In addition to being a signature design and wayfinding element, the tower serves to provide building ventilation that exhausts excess heat and draws in cool air breezes by making full use of simple thermal dynamics of cold and warm air movement. It acts much like a chimney that allows the building to "breathe" on its own at key seasons of the year—spring and fall. The benefit is this lowers operating costs and helped align the facility toward LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification.

The primary function of the fieldhouse portion of the building is for track and field events. Most athletes prefer the outdoors—the light, the fresh air, etc.—but Ithaca's 66 inches of annual snowfall makes that a challenge. The optimal target is an environment that maximizes the daylight and fresh air as well as provides necessary protection from the elements.

Today's facilities must do more, accommodate more and be designed to be more adaptable to future needs. Design is more than image; it is about solving real functional challenges and creating better, smarter and more sustainable facilities. The tower is just one example of how this facility makes double use of its space and features.

In these tight budgetary times, school, university and community leaders are looking to do more with less. The Ithaca College Athletic and Events Center is a working example of a multipurpose facility that incorporates design elements that hold down ongoing operating costs and do more with less.

Facilities must be flexible and ready for a variety of audio/visual technologies. On the campuses of our colleges and universities, for example, we're now seeing an increasing number of sports facilities that not only offer practice, training and fitness areas for sports and recreation, but also become spaces for convocation graduation ceremonies, trade shows, large conferences, community and similar events. This requires an ongoing shift in design approach to make sure all aspects of design are being thought about from a wider, more cohesive perspective.

The 179,000-square-foot Athletics and Events Center is the largest facility initiated at Ithaca College and offers a place for faculty, students and the community to gather, learn, train and compete. When it opened in the fall of 2011, the facility included the following amenities:

  • A 130,000-square-foot field house with a 200-meter, six-lane track with infield surface designed to provide practice space for most of the college's sports. Its 7,500 seats can accommodate concerts, speakers and graduation ceremonies.
  • Higgins Stadium has a synthetic turf with seating for 1,000 for lacrosse and field hockey.
  • The 47,000-square-foot aquatics pavilion includes a nine-lane 50 meter Olympic-size swimming pool with a one and three meter diving, with seating for 950 spectators.
  • The Wheeler Tennis Courts feature six competition lighted tennis courts.

Taking a look at just one of the features provides a better understanding of how architects incorporated design features to expand use of the facility to maximize flexibility. The college's swim team practices and holds competitions in the aquatic pavilion, but the pool also contains a moveable floor that allows the water depth to be adjusted for aqua physical therapy, water aerobics, as well as other aged-based water programs. An adjacent supportive wet classroom outfitted with special water-resistant finishes allows students to utilize the pool area for classes on water safety, scuba diving and first aid.

Facilities (and their respective operators) must adopt new technologies. As part of the facility's LEED Gold standard certification, a Perlite regenerative filtration system allows the pool to be cleaned without the traditional and inefficient backwash system. This saves more than 1 million gallons of water a year for this project as well as the energy and chemicals to treat those million gallons of water. The tradeoff is savings in the long-term operation costs vs. initial construction costs.

Energy and water savings are critical to a sustainable facility. Technologies that offer operation savings should continue to be tested and balanced against first-time costs. It is short-sighted to value decisions based on initial costs only.

Ithaca College's team appreciated and understood the study of upfront costs and ongoing operating expenses to inform the decision-making process. Many institutions are faced with these tradeoffs—in particular those colleges and universities that depend on fundraising to build a new facility. It's much easier for them to raise money to build a new facility than it is to convince donors to pay for operating expenses. By taking the long-term view of a facility's budget, a project planner is able to incorporate money-saving features into the initial design.

The $65.5 million Ithaca College facility designed by Moody Nolan expanded its potential uses as school officials recognized the flexibility of its design. The growing list of potential users required keen ability to listen to divergent points of view. What started out as a planning process that included coaches and school administrators expanded to encompass professors, instructors, event planners and school finance officials. To see the common ground in their divergent expectations required a focused attention to detail.

We refer to our design process as "responsive architecture" because it involves taking into consideration the needs and desires of the client to produce a design that incorporates all aspects of a project's particular site, budget and specific perimeters. We will make it happen. In this case, it resulted in an athletic and event center that made full use of the pristine air of the Finger Lakes region, while ensuring the facility met the highest standards for sustainability.

Troy Sherrard, AIA, is a partner and project design manager for Moody Nolan, the nation's largest minority-owned architecture firm. He was responsible for overseeing the design of the Ithaca College Athletic and Events Center. For more information, visit