Feature Article - February 2013
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Sports Fields in Context

Making the Right Choices in Synthetic & Natural Turf

By Joseph Bush

The debate over whether to install a synthetic field or natural turf field sometimes isn't difficult because the choice is not either/or. The hard choices sometimes come years after a school or park district or pro sports entity elects to add synthetic fields to a collection of natural turf fields.

A New Look at Natural

Stantec Sports Group leaders Meg Buczynski and David Nardone say they are seeing a re-focusing on natural turf fields after a boom in synthetic field building or conversions at the start of the 21st century. Clients who five years ago were so focused on adding synthetic fields to relieve pressure on their natural fields have recently been switching their attention back to the original natural turf areas.

"Synthetic turf really started taking off in 2000, 2001," Buczynski said. "Synthetic turf is a large upfront cost, but what we're seeing now is, with our clients, those people who have synthetic turf, they're realizing they need to do, rather than just maintenance, some actual reconstruction work for their natural grass fields—amending the soil to get better grass growing conditions; increasing the pitch on the fields to get better surface runoff; different types of things to get better drainage and better grass growth on your fields."

Nardone said field caretakers today are savvy and learn fast when experts advise them.

"Maybe they don't know what the best seeding ratio is or exactly what they want for amendments, but they tend to understand more of the process," Nardone said. "We get very site specific. We walk the field with our client, have some additional surveys done if they don't have any to really understand what's happening with the existing field, the existing topography and drainage. We take soil tests, send those out so we can understand the physical makeup of the soil, but also the organic content in the soil, and we can kind of assess and make recommendations what those improvements might need to be."

Part of the problem with maintaining, renovating or overhauling natural turf fields is that many have been established in communities for decades, Buczynski said. Maybe soil tests have never been done, and new staff is trying to take advantage of all that is available.

"So, you're really kind of starting from scratch, especially in municipalities," she said. "These fields were built in the '70s, the '60s—they're just old. That information's not there. Over time, depending on the maintenance practices, they've added things to the field or maybe they haven't added to the field, so there are things that happen over time that you don't necessarily know about when you want to get a read on what's in there now."

Though you'd get just as many folks in the industry touting synthetic as natural for its ease of maintenance, return on investment, playability, safety, etc., Buczynski and Nardone said one attribute synthetic turf does not boast is sentimentality.

"People still like to play on natural grass," Buczynski said.

"There definitely are purists," Nardone added. "Even though there was a trend the past couple of years where a lot more synthetic baseball fields were built, purists, especially at the community level, would rather be on natural grass. The trend is to take a look at their natural grass fields and do some renovations to them."