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Practice Makes Perfect

Athletes' Need for Year-Round Conditioning and Teams' Need for a Leg Up in Recruiting Are Driving Construction of Sumptuous New Football Practice Facilities

You receive job offers from two prestigious firms, both of which offer competitive salaries and benefit packages. Both invite you to visit the office where you will be assigned to work. One firm offers a beautifully designed space outfitted with great furnishings and finishes, and state-of-the-art office and computer equipment. The other firm's office looks like no one has moved a single paper clip since the mid-'70s.

Which would you choose?

This scenario is a common one for university and professional football players, whose "office" encompasses the home stadium, locker room and practice facilities. In recruiting wars, these facilities can be the deal-maker or deal-breaker - and the ante is upped every year.

Of these, the training facilities are often the most crucial. Football players are bigger, faster and stronger than in years gone by, and require year-round conditioning. The sport has changed dramatically, and these athletes are expected to wholeheartedly commit to their teams. In return, they expect more from training facilities in terms of practice fields, medical treatment rooms, workout rooms, meeting rooms, locker rooms and all the amenities that cater to the whole person - not just the athlete.

What goes into the design of a great football training facility? To successfully blend "football" and "architecture" necessitates taking the time to understand the game, the team, the training and the care of athletes to be housed in the facility.

A state-of-the-art training facility can be built anyplace where there's adequate room, but sound front-end planning is necessary in the site selection process. In addition to cost, considerations that will likely impact the site selection include:

Size of the program. Most premier football training facilities boast both grass and synthetic turf practice fields, as well as outdoor and indoor facilities to simulate different game situations and playing conditions. Many teams even have the fields oriented identically to their home stadium field, in order to replicate their normal playing conditions as closely as possible. Since the fields are the primary training space for football teams, these are usually designed and site-adapted first, with the rest of the facility designed to function around them. Obviously, grass takes time to grow, so the process must start early enough for the fields to be ready for practices. Both grass and synthetic turf can carry a hefty price tag, from the initial cost of excavating the site to installation of new drainage and irrigation systems, the placement of the grass or turf itself, and the cost of annual maintenance.

Site topography. A site that slopes or is uneven will require filling and retaining walls, or possibly a more expensive structure for floor slabs. Urban industrial sites and closed landfills have actually been turned into sites for training facilities, stadiums and sports complexes, with real savings on land costs, but careful consideration should be given to the costs of making the site usable.

Environmental conditions. Soil contamination, underground tanks or other environmental problems, along with unsuitable load-bearing capacities, inadequate drainage and high water tables, can impact both the design and budget of the project.

Utilities. Electricity, water and sewer connections should be readily available and adequate to handle the loads that will be imposed by the new facility. Storm water detention and runoff should be high on the list of issues addressed when considering a possible site.

Drainage. Practice fields require special drainage systems to keep water from ponding. Today, football fields are built with the same set of criteria used to construct golf greens, and require appropriate soil bases and drainage systems. The ability to quickly transport the percolated water to a detention area is critical to the long-term agronomy of the fields.

Traffic. The impact of the facility users on local traffic conditions should be assessed.

Parking. There must be enough space on the site to provide adequate and safe parking for players, staff, media and visitors.

Every team has its wish list of amenities, but how do you make sure that all components are put together to optimize efficiency? Visiting existing training facilities is a good way to assess what would work well for your team.

Deciding whether or not to include an indoor practice field typically comes down to the team's construction budget and the stated requirements of the coaching staff. Certainly, the desirability of having such dedicated space is easy to see. Indoor fields with climate control allow teams to continue practice during thunderstorms, snowstorms, deep freezes or excessive heat.

That said, there is a wide range of design options available. While many indoor fields run the full 100 yards, are crowned in the middle and incorporate lighting on all sides of the field (giving players a real indoor stadium feeling), it is also possible to construct a shorter and more utilitarian space. Either way, the materials used will tend more toward the utilitarian, as indoor fields are usually covered with pre-engineered metal or air-supported structures to take advantage of these buildings' long-span and height capabilities. Some of these are built to reach heights of up to 70 feet - plenty of room to practice the kicking game.

Air-supported structures, which typically save about 15 percent on initial costs compared to conventionally built structures, offer flexibility in surface type (they can cover grass fields) and, because they can be installed as non-permanent structures, can also save on property taxes. If the structure is intended primarily for protection from the heat during summer practice, consideration should be given to the cost of air-conditioning the space.

Quick access to the practice fields for players and the coaching staff is the most important rule in designing an efficient facility. The sports medicine and rehabilitation center, the team locker room, the equipment room and strength-training room should all be located adjacent to the practice fields - both for players' easy access to the field and for trainers' quick treatment of injured players.

Team locker rooms have changed dramatically in recent years. Designed to be a much more inviting space for players, the room usually features lockers built along the perimeter and not in the middle of the space. To provide for this openness, the room should be designed long and narrow to allow for fewer structural columns. Individual lockers nowadays tend to be about 4 feet wide and 2 to 3 feet deep, with approximately 4 feet of clearance in front of each locker - a definite improvement over old designs, considering the size of modern football players and their necessary equipment. Showers and toilet stalls, too, should appropriately consider the size of 21st century athletes.

Like the locker room's wet areas, the equipment room should be designed to sit side-by-side with the team locker room, with a window directly into the locker room that affords equipment staff a view of the entire space. The equipment room must be very large - possibly as large as 8,000 square feet - to accommodate storing and repairing of all equipment. Shoes may have to have their own separate room, because of the sheer number needed to be stored for the season. (Professional teams may have as many as 20,000 pairs of team shoes at one time in a designated area, with a separate room used for any players' contract-endorsement shoes.)

The equipment area should also have direct access to the loading dock to accept shipments and load equipment for games. Professional teams and many major college teams require an eighteen-wheel truck to move all their uniforms and audiovisual equipment for a game. So, even if a team's stadium is only a mile away, every game entails a great deal of preparation, packing, loading and unloading.

For all practical purposes, the laundry room should also sit immediately off the locker room. As one can imagine, this area can be a very busy place, in which game uniforms, practice uniforms and workout clothing for up to 120 people are washed, dried and folded. Up to 1,000 square feet for five heavy-duty 100-pound-capacity washing machines and five 75-pound-capacity dryers will be required. A table to fold all the clothes and room for the people working in this busy area is mandatory.

After the practice fields, the strength and conditioning area of a football training facility most often requires the greatest amount of space - as much as 10,000 square feet, enough to hold all the equipment, players and trainers. If there is no indoor practice field, this area needs to be long enough for players to run 40-yard sprints with adequate room for starting and stopping. Ideally, ceilings in this area should be at least 12 feet high and feature indirect lighting, since players spend a fair amount of time looking up during training. Indirect lighting can require up to 2 1/2 feet of ceiling space, something that should be factored into the design of this area.

A separate medical area should be incorporated into the design for treatment of any injuries, rehabilitation, minor illnesses and required drug testing of the team. This area usually houses hydrotherapy pools, saunas and other conditioning equipment.

An auditorium designed to hold all players and coaching staff is usually desired for addressing the entire team. This is where the team watches game tapes, reviews practice performances and receives instruction. Teams that hold press conferences in these auditoriums equip them with audiovisual hookups for the media to link to their broadcasting vans.

In addition to this central meeting space, additional team meeting rooms should be located within the facility. Separate classrooms for players should be designed to accommodate the specific group that will use each room - a classroom for quarterbacks, for example, would obviously be considerably smaller than the classroom set aside for the defensive line. Many teams find it desirable to place the specific coaches' offices adjacent to their respective classrooms. As with any classroom, these should be designed with good sound isolation, proper lighting and ample electrical outlets for audiovisual needs.

Another area on most teams' wish list is a video room with editing capabilities. Although most teams are now using digital formats, they must still have tape capabilities to interface with other teams for recruiting and evaluation purposes. How big this area needs to be depends on the requirements of the team. Does the team keep all tapes in-house. How much editing will the team perform. Most large university and professional teams have two or three editing booths and a special window for coaches to pick up tapes they have requested. Some teams have the capability to broadcast to every office computer and television in their facility, or to designated classrooms.

Break rooms for the players and coaching staff are also important. These rooms are most likely the only areas where relaxation may be in order and opinions can flow freely. Many facilities also incorporate a full-service cafeteria, while other teams have meals catered during training. As one can imagine, food and nutrition is important during rigorous training, and most teams spare no expense when it comes to the menu.

To keep the business and athletic aspects of a team separate, many facilities house administrative and player areas on different floors, with each having their own sets of stairs and elevators. Others locate these areas in distinct building wings. Draft or recruiting rooms are usually located in the administrative area, away from the players. Some organizations even have a separate parking lot for administrative personnel. Players and administrative personnel may cross paths occasionally, but not frequently.

General design principles must keep in mind the building's users. Doors in football training facilities are generally 4 feet wide to allow adequate space for fully outfitted players and movement of equipment, while ceilings are generally a minimum of 12 feet high. Entry spaces should have double doors large enough to allow gurneys or emergency equipment into the facility. Appropriate direct and indirect lighting is important throughout the facility, varying according to specific areas such as treatment rooms or special medical procedure areas.

Many teams use hard, durable finishes such as painted concrete block, while other teams use drywall, which damages more readily but is less expensive to repair. On-site maintenance should be a determination in selecting finishes. If there is no on-site maintenance crew, the organization should consider specifying more-durable materials.

Building systems are extremely important in this type of facility. For the facility to succeed, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems must exceed rather than just meet building codes' minimum requirements. Proper air circulation is vital, especially in southern states where high humidity makes perfect breeding conditions for germs and odors.

As in any sports application, the team's program drives a facility's cost. Because big-ticket items (practice fields, audiovisual systems, strength and rehabilitation equipment) abound, costs for this type of facility - even with its preponderance of offices and meeting rooms - are much higher than typical office space. While geographic and economic conditions will influence construction costs, typical costs range from $80 per square foot for strength and conditioning areas, $85 per square foot for locker rooms (depending on finish levels), and $75 to $150 per square foot for medical training and hydrotherapy areas. Costs for equipment storage space average $60 per square foot, classrooms about $75 per square foot, office and conference areas about $80 per square foot, and kitchens around $200 per square foot. Despite their small size, fully equipped laundry areas can cost around $350,000.

Since football athletic training takes place year-round, most university and professional teams never regret monies spent on these facilities. A well-designed training facility integrated into a well-run athletics program is the best recruiting tool for universities and second only to player salaries for pro teams.

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