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SBJ/Nov. 1, 2010/SBJ In-Depth
Architects design flexibility into projects
Published November 1, 2010
During the stadium binge of the 1990s, the sports architecture firm then known as HOK built three baseball parks that each included more than 100 suites for three teams: the Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians.
As the recession has dampened demand for suites, all three of those teams are searching for ways to reconfigure what are now vacant suites into areas that meet today’s consumer appetite.
“It wasn’t sustainable long term,” said Earl Santee, senior principal at sports architecture firm Populous, formerly known as HOK. “Fortunately we made them big enough in the ’90s that they’re easy enough to adapt. You take private suites out and replace them with a club. That’s easy to do because structurally all the infrastructure is there. And that’s what’s happening for that era of ballparks. Once you hit 10 years, that’s when you see them trying to adapt to a changing marketplace.”
With the economy stalled and corporate entertainment flagging, sports architects are finding that one of the more important aspects of their design is flexibility — the potential for a building to be adapted to changing markets and consumer preferences.
At one time, more was better. Now, less is better. Tomorrow? Who knows.
“People always assumed that they’d be able to keep the inventory sold and building out new stuff is generally pretty easy,” said Jon Niemuth, principal and design director at Ellerbe Becket. “The thought of going the other way, flexing backwards so something’s at a lower price point, that is still a pretty new attitude.
“You want to allow lateral flexibility that will allow them to flex their inventory up or down. So what’s the least restrictive footprint you can find?”
Creating that sort of flexibility within levels generally is a simple and inexpensive proposition. As long as suites are built on the same access level, they can be expanded or contracted to match the market.
The recession has caused franchises in all sports to alter their suite sizes, splitting some to offer lower prices and combining others to create special event suites that can be rented for individual games. Some teams have combined large swaths of suites to create premium, all-inclusive areas that can be sponsored.
“You blow out all the walls and create a premium space that meets a different need,” said Chris Lamberth, business development manager at 360 Architecture. “If you can give them a 6,000-square-foot space that used to be 15 suites, you’ve created an opportunity. Maybe they can’t sell the suites right now, but they can find a sponsor for another premium club.”
The recent renovation of the football stadium at the University of Michigan includes club seats, an amenity that wasn’t available previously. Some are indoors, some outdoors. Indoor club seats require a donation of $4,000 per seat, plus the cost of the ticket. Outdoor club seats can be had by donors who give $1,500 to $3,000. While the university researched the matter, there was no way to know for sure how many fans would want to pay more to sit inside once they’ve compared the experiences.
Fortunately, architecture firm HNTB designed the stadium with the indoor and outdoor club seats adjacent, so that they can flex based on demand.
“They’ve never had that product before,” said Tim Cahill, vice president and director of sports design at HNTB. “So the wall between indoor and outdoor can be relocated if in fact their market changes for club seating.”
HNTB also has designed college stadiums with areas that easily can be converted from suites to indoor club seats if the mix of demand for the two shifts, Cahill said.
Looking to the future effectively also means consideration beyond seating preferences or economic conditions. Architects say they counsel clients to make sure their structures can accommodate technological advances, which are difficult to predict.
Lamberth pointed to smaller arenas that save money by constructing roofs that aren’t strong enough to bear the weight required in the riggings for a concert or family show.
“When they build it, they may say they’re never going to have concerts,” Lamberth said. “Really? Well, what if you try to sell the team? Or if you need to generate more money? If you think about that stuff farther out, maybe for $5 million or $10 million more you’ll build in what’s missing, and that will make the building more viable down the road.”