Feature Article - February 2016
Find a printable version here

From Simple to Stunning

Trends in Nonconventional Recreation Structures

By Chris Gelbach

As recreation managers consider how to build new facilities to house recreation, sports, aquatics, fitness and more, they're faced with a growing array of options in the form of nonconventional building structures. These include everything from air-supported fabric domes to tensioned membrane structures, translucent daylighting systems, retractable glass roof enclosures, pre-engineered steel and beyond. As the technologies behind these structures continue to advance and diversify, many of these options are becoming more attractive to recreation facilities because of the cost and functional benefits they can provide in a variety of different applications.

The Seasonal Approach

One option that many recreation facilities on a budget are turning to are air-supported structures. Steve Flanagan, president of a company based in Minneapolis, Minn., that manufactures the structures, sees them being used in both seasonal and year-round applications.

In the past, he saw the structures mainly being used as a winter solution for tennis courts and pools that wanted to continue operations during colder months, while being removed to provide the outdoor experience in warmer weather. Today, however, he's seeing the sector's growth being driven more by the multisport industry.

"A lot of facilities are covering a turf field, but it's still their stadium field," Flanagan said. "They don't want the dome up into the summer and fall when they're playing outdoor sports for the school on it. But they do want it up for the wintertime when those sports are done." This instantly provides a cost-effective way to create an additional programmable space in the winter months without sacrificing the benefits of an outdoor field.

An example of such an application can be seen at the Academy of Holy Angels (AHA) high school in Richfield, Minn., which first built its StarDome athletic facility in 1996. According to Scott Daly, general manager of the StarDome, the school normally puts the dome up after the last home football game in November and leaves it on until sometime in April. AHA originally looked at building a full fieldhouse, but this air-supported dome solution cost roughly $1 million less and offered the option for outdoor play on the artificial turf field during the warmer months.

Daly noted that while the dome is costly to heat in the winter because it doesn't have much insulation, the school is able to more than make up for its operation costs by renting out the space when it's not being used by the school's teams. "From that standpoint, it's been great for us," Daly said. "It's an asset for the school that doesn't really cost anything because it supports itself. So it's a win-win for the school and for everybody else who gets to use it in the winter, too, and who wouldn't otherwise have a place to play." These include youth soccer, baseball and lacrosse teams as well as a 55-plus softball league that rents space during the day.

The seasonal coverage from Minnesota's harshest weather also offers the school a competitive edge. "In the spring especially, it's huge for our school," Daly said. "We have open time where kids can come in a month or two before the season starts, to get ready for the season. And when it rains and is so soggy you can't get on the fields, we can get our teams in and play, and it's a huge advantage."

Daly noted that the original fabric dome lasted 13 years, but estimates that it probably would have lasted longer had it not been stored outside during the off-season. The facility now stores the new fabric dome in a pool barn and wraps it for extra protection. Flanagan noted that an air structure should typically last 15 to 20 years unless a special fabric with a life span of 25 years or more is chosen.

"The big benefit of an air structure is cost per square foot," Flanagan said. "It tends to be the lowest cost on the market when you're talking about 50,000 square feet and on up structures." Because of their seasonal use, they also are often subject to less stringent building codes regarding things like insulation than other year-round solutions.