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The Astrodome launched Houston to the apogee of stadium design. A new dome reclaims the lofty status for Space City
August 11, 2010

The era of the domed stadium was launched on April 9, 1965, when the Yankees' Mickey Mantle blasted a homer into orbit in an exhibition game before 47,876 fans assembled to open the Houston Astrodome.

This past August 24, the latest innovation in stadium design kicked off next door to the Astrodome, when the National Football League's newest franchise, the Houston Texans, played their home opener in the $425 million Reliant Stadium — the first stadium in the U.S. to feature a fabric-covered retractable roof.

Why build a new stadium next to one that Texans modestly dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World? The short answer is economics. After 30 years of subpar maintenance and competition from new stadiums and convention centers around the country, the grande dame of the domes had lost her luster. The NFL's Houston Oilers had departed in 1997 for a new stadium in Nashville, and the Space City's reputation as a hot-market venue for conventions and events was fading fast.

"We were no longer in a position to attract major exhibitions," says Michael Surface, chairman of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. (HCSCC).

The final impetus for revitalization came two years ago, when the Astros relocated to Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park), a baseball-only retractable-roof ballpark near downtown (see BD&C, 5/01, page 90). As the principal tenant of the Astrodome, the team controlled operation decisions, even though the HCSCC owned the dome and surrounding property.

"When we took the Astrodome back over, we had an antiquated facility," says Surface. "To attract another NFL team, we had to do something about the stadium."

Houston-based Hermes Architects was brought in to study the redevelopment of the 350-acre Astrodome complex. HCSCC's game plan was threefold: construct a new convention center at the complex, lure back the NFL, and host the 2012 Summer Olympics. The Olympic bid eventually fell short and, for a while, it seemed that the stadium would, too.

 
The first retractable-roof stadium in the U.S. to use a fabric covering, Reliant
Stadium also is one of the largest.

Multi-use a must-do

Nearly everyone close to the project agreed that, to be economically viable, the stadium had to be a multi-use facility to accommodate the football team, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo — the largest such event of its kind, with 2 million attendees — concerts, complete with an acoustically enhanced distributed sound system, and exhibition floor and event space.

The stadium's two primary tenants had widely divergent needs. The Texans demanded the largest locker and weight rooms in the NFL for its players, while the rodeo needed acres of livestock pens for its 32,000 animals.

Texans owner Robert McNair also knew that the league wanted to award the next franchise to a team that played outdoors, while the rodeo officials demanded an indoor venue to avoid the heavy rains it could expect during its event in February and March.

With so many parties involved from the start, planning and scheduling were even more complicated than usual. "In most cases, we had six different entities that had to come to an agreement to do this," says Surface. "The art of making it work was the ability to bring a collaborative effort out of so many different parties."

The city and the county waged war over which governing body would oversee the project, HCSCC or the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority (HCHSA), which provided oversight and funding for Enron Field.

An agreement was reached giving HCSCC responsibility for project delivery, while funding for the project was provided through the HCHSA via a hotel and car rental tax. Additional funds for project enhancements outside of the budget were the responsibility of the tenants.

Further complicating matters was the uncertainty of whether the Texans would even be awarded the NFL franchise. Houstonians would not support construction of a stadium without a team, says Surface. An initial $310 million budget was established to aid the Texans, then known as Houston NFL Holdings, in garnering the franchise. Through the holding entity, Texans owner Robert McNair contracted with HOK Sport + Venue + Event (HOK S+V+E), Kansas City, Mo., to develop conceptual drawings.

A futuristic face for Houston

Producing a facility capable of staging the wide variety of events envisioned for this project would challenge any Building Team, but McNair's marching orders to HOK S+V+E were even more demanding. He wanted intimate seating, tons of amenities, and — bless his good ol' boy heart! —natural grass. Perhaps most of all, he saw the stadium as a vehicle for bringing the community together.

"It was important to us and to Mr. McNair and Houston NFL Holdings that this building be something truly exceptional," says David Manica, HOK S+V+E's senior designer. "Visually, it had to be something special."

Bucking the latest trend in baseball parks — as evidenced most recently at Pac Bell Park in San Francisco — "this building couldn't be something nostalgic and retro, it had to be something of the future," says Manica. "It sits next to the Astrodome, the Eighth Wonder of the World. Houston is about the space race, but it's also about high-tech medicine and computing. It has its roots in forward thinking and vision."

 
Though large in size, the seating bowl in the 69,500-seat stadium is as intimate as NFL rules allow.

The goal: "We worked to come up with a shiny, sparkly, out-of-this-world building that would be a new face for Houston and put it back on the map, architecturally," he says.

Going through the roof

Everyone on the Building Team knew that the path to success for the stadium led through the roof. "Construction of the roof drove the entire schedule," says William Merrill, project manager for architect of record Houston Stadium Consultants (HSC), a joint venture of locally-based Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN) and Hermes Architects. "Throughout the project, the roof was the critical path for completion." (See related story, page 32.)

"It was the tail wagging the dog," says George Jumonville, LAN's principal on the HSC joint venture, adding that the roof contracts were the first to be awarded.

As part of its proposal to the NFL, Houston NFL Holdings committed to have the stadium completed for the start of the 2002 football season. "We knew we had made strong commitments to get the franchise," says Surface. "Now we had to get the schedule together to play football. The fallback plan was to play in the Astrodome. But we really didn't have a choice."

The potential for the project to derail early on arose when Manhattan/Beers Skanska, a joint venture of locally-based Manhattan Construction Co. and Atlanta-based Beers Skanska, was selected as construction manager. During preconstruction, the Houston office of Turner Construction had worked with the design team. "The Manhattan/Beers selection was a surprise and a concern because we already were working with Turner," says Jumonville. "But Manhattan/Beers stepped up to the plate and hit the ball hard."

A fast-track schedule was implemented to deliver the project in time for the Texans' first preseason football game, scheduled 30 months from the start of construction in March 2000. Design and construction schedules overlapped heavily, requiring close interaction between the design and CM teams. "It wasn't design-build, but it was close because we worked so closely with Manhattan/Beers," says Jumonville.

"The way the Manhattan/Beers team sequenced the construction is the most admirable part of the project," says Manica.

Because of the long lead time required to fabricate systems for the roof, it was put out to bid with only 35% of the stadium design complete. "We had to commit to a budget estimate for the stadium even before the schematic designs and wind tunnel studies were complete," says Larry Griffis, structural consultant Walter P. Moore's principal in charge. "We had to estimate our steel requirements."

Essentially, the stadium was constructed in two separate parts: the roof and the bowl. To maximize use of the construction cranes during steel erection, the stadium was built in quadrants, beginning with the 153-ft.-high "supercolumns" on the northwest and southwest side of the stadium and the 1,000-ft.-long west "supertruss," followed by the northeast and southeast supercolumns and east supertruss.

Last April, HCSCC opened the 1.4 million-sq.-ft. Reliant Center convention center, followed in August by Reliant Stadium. Houston-based Reliant Energy purchased the naming rights to the five-venue Reliant Park complex, which also contains the Astrodome, in 2000. Altogether, the complex will host more than 400 events a year, Surface says.

"Before the stadium and convention center, we weren't competitive for large industrial trade shows," says Mark Miller, Reliant Park senior assistant general manager. "We didn't have the facilities. Now, there's no place in the U.S. that can do what we can do here."

Just 'like a mirage'

The bulk of the stadium's architectural vocabulary is translated through a glass curtainwall and metal panel façade and the structural steel and fabric roof. More than half the exterior is made up of transparent glass, complemented by silver metal panels. "In the evening it just glows," says Manica. "It's like a mirage."

Enclosing and cooling the stadium were crucial to its success. "Texas is an air-conditioned culture," says Manica. "We wanted a building that was comfortable year round, but that felt like an outdoor stadium. The building had to walk the line."

In all, the structure occupies 12 acres and 1.9 million sq. ft. of space, nearly twice that of a typical NFL stadium.

Relying on local talent

HCSCC's Surface attributes the project's success to the involvement of the many local companies that participated, notably LAN, Hermes, Walter P. Moore, and Manhattan, all of which saved costs because they were familiar with the local subcontractors.

"We emphasized local talent at the top," says Surface. "While HOK is a great firm and a great designer, the fact is that they can go home to Kansas City after it's done, and whatever fight you may get into is just business. We created buy-in to community pride that a lot of communities lack."

As for community pride, it should be noted for the record that the Astros rallied to beat those damn Yankees 2-1 in that first game at the Astrodome, while the Texans shocked their new intrastate rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, 19-10 in their opener at Reliant. Maybe pride really is endemic to Houston.