Lean & Green

Trends in Sports Facility Design

By Dawn Klingensmith

In the education sector, "lean" and "green" are the dominant trends in sports facility design. On college campuses in particular, green design features are almost a given, although the degree of greenness varies greatly from one facility to another. The "lean" aspect includes everything from minimal water and energy usage to making the most of a skimpy budget. Likening these facilities to the student athletes who use them, it's all about getting the best performance out of what you have to work with.

In some fashion, the college and high school sports facilities featured here are lean, green and at the top of their game.

Green Thumbs Grow Squash

Perhaps it's fitting that the new Squash Center at Middlebury College in Vermont offers a view of the Green Mountains in the distance. That's because the facility itself is "green" in the eco-friendly sense of the word—so green, in fact, that it's LEED Platinum certified.

Sustainability and environmental context were important design influences for this project, according to a case study by Architecture Resources Cambridge (ARC), the firm that designed the 17,775-square-foot facility.

Funded by donors, the Squash Center provides a new home for the men's and women's squash programs. The facility now has nine international-size squash courts with ample seating to host major tournaments.

A light well was designed to suffuse the spectator area with natural light, minimizing the need for artificial lighting. Existing squash courts were re-used. But the greenest feature of all is the Squash Center's vegetative roof, which allows it to "integrate more seamlessly into the surrounding natural landscape" including the adjacent outdoor athletic fields, according to ARC. The live roof system consisting of plants and soil retains and filters rainfall and naturally cools the building for cost and energy savings.

Since opening in October 2013, the project has won awards and recognition including the highest LEED certification and an AIA Vermont Citation Award for Excellence in Architecture Design. But perhaps the best measure of the building's success is the growing interest in squash among students and faculty members since it opened.

Small Field Big Dreams

Thirty years ago, Georgia Southern University unveiled what became known as "the prettiest little stadium in America." The stadium had 14,400 seats plus four grass banks to accommodate up to 3,600 more spectators. It wasn't enough.

Likening these facilities to the student athletes who use them, it's all about getting the best performance out of what you have to work with.

"We knew we needed to grow. We knew where we needed to be," former Georgia Southern punter Terry Harvin told the local press. "Now how can we do that without losing sight of where we've been?"

The resulting stadium is both a tribute to the past and a forward-looking recruitment tool of sorts, as it provides a memorable game-day experience for kids.

Open in time for the 2014 home opener, the renovated stadium increases overall capacity to 25,000. The new videoboard boasts five times the square footage as the previous board. Although the project was an expansion—and a significant one at that—in at least one respect Georgia Southern thought small. Since Paulson Stadium opened in 1984, kids have slid down the hills and played football in the end zone on game days. The renovated stadium carries on that tradition with the new "Field of Dreams," a miniature turf football field for kids 12 and under where "future generations of Eagles can play a pickup game while watching our Eagles and dreaming about one day becoming an Eagle themselves," according to a university release.

When not overrun by children, the synthetic turf field is used by student athletes for workouts.

Roll Out the Green Carpet

Green space can be hard to come by in dense urban areas, but Philadelphia gained some green when the University of Pennsylvania completed Penn Park, featuring a stadium, athletic fields, tennis courts, jogging paths, trees and open space. University president Amy Gutmann called it a "beautiful, sustainable, green oasis."

"It also functions as a public park and a front door to the campus," making a positive first impression, said landscape artist David Nardone, a principal at the design firm Stantec.

One challenge was the limited size of the space, hemmed in by a railway, highway and other urban features. "It was complex getting everything in there," Nardone said. "You'll always have pinch points when dealing with tight spaces," but Penn Park does not feel cramped or crowded.

Nardone attributes the sense of openness to a "very organized" layout.

Indeed, the university's website describes the space as "a fabric of tightly interwoven recreation and athletic components," with formal and informal playing fields "framed and subdivided by patches of canopy trees extending the familiar landscape of the campus."

Stantec "selected appropriate materials and surfaces to provide NCAA-quality facilities that will withstand heavy use as an urban park open to and heavily used by the public," a company case study says.

That means synthetic turf for the athletic fields, but the runoff is collected and used to irrigate the natural turf and landscaping.

On the whole, the 24-acre park manages to "fully integrate the facilities into the intimate scale of a park setting," according to Stantec.

Steve Bilsky, the university's director of athletics, believes the $46.5 million project will benefit the athletic programs by magnetizing people to its facilities.

A Not-So-Square Deal

Cherry Gulch boarding school for boys is located in Idaho's Treasure Valley, but that doesn't translate to beaucoup riches. When school officials determined that an indoor gymnasium was necessary to expand recreational activity programs for the students, they were undeterred by their limited budget. And while just about anything was an improvement over the outdoor basketball court they had been using for every program, they weren't about to settle.

They didn't have to. After researching economical options, they decided on a tension-fabric, truss arch structure measuring 65 feet wide and 100 feet long.

The new gymnasium's arched shape fits with the hilly surroundings and offers some advantages over traditional, square buildings. The fabric lets in natural sunlight. There are no interior columns or supports to interfere with activities, and its ample size makes possible a wide array of sports.

Most important for the school, though, is the relatively low cost for this type of building. Materials and labor are cheaper, and the brand that Cherry Gulch chose has a proprietary anchoring system allowing for minimal excavation and even quicker installation of the structure.

"We selected [it] because of the combination of low cost and quality," program manager Kahn Borge confirmed in a case study.

Though Cherry Gulch didn't list looks as a driving factor, said company spokesman Zack Hummel, "the school is in such a pristine, untouched part of the country, they wouldn't want a structure that ruins the feel and mood that they want to exude at this getaway boarding school."

All That Glitters

Although the metaphor doesn't stand up to scrutiny, it's tempting to call Missouri State University's new recreation center a diamond in the rough. The facility's design actually was inspired by a geode, at least conceptually, and the result is a building that has cast-stone panels on the outside; a "crack" to make way for an outdoor pedestrian walkway; and "a beautiful, glistening" space that makes up the "fracture" and is composed of shiny materials, like a geode's crystal innards. Aluminum panels pick up the sky's varying colors throughout the day, and 4-foot strip lights mark the path at night to achieve a nighttime glistening effect.

Because the school colors are maroon and white, some of the windows are tinted a deep red "to pick up those colors and give the space a really unique glow at night," said Reed Voorhees, a senior vice president at Cannon Design.

While the effect is jewel-like, it's not like a diamond, nor was the site considered "the rough." In fact, it was a centralized place on campus, but its effect wasn't unifying. The new Bill R. Foster and Family Recreation Center was conceived as a means of connecting the north and south parts of campus in particular, allowing for the free flow of pedestrian circulation. The building's "cut" creates a dynamic experience, as passersby can peer through the windows at program activities.

There's a lot of programming on display. The facility has basketball courts; a multiuse activity court; a fitness center; a natatorium with lap lanes and a leisure pool; group exercise rooms; a jogging track; and a climbing wall. "It's only 100,000 square feet," Voorhees said, "so there's a lot going on for a building of that size."

Guests can take a walking tour that points out the sustainable features of the rec center. Signage throughout the building, along with a brochure, offer descriptions of sustainable elements such as low-VOC materials and water conservation features.

The project has received awards from the St. Louis, Central States and Springfield AIA chapters as well as recognition from NIRSA.


With the economic recovery, not all sports facility design in the education sector is reined in by limited funding, but that's not all that the lean trend encompasses. As we've seen, "going lean" can mean squeezing into small spaces and minimizing waste wherever possible. Looking forward, with so many student rec centers incorporating meditation spaces as part of their wellness mission, the trend may be "lean, green and serene."

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