Comfort, diversity hallmarks of new NFL stadiums

New NFL stadiums debut in four cities: Houston, Foxborough, Detroit and Seattle

September 01, 2002 |

Fans visiting more than one of this season's four new professional football stadiums are more likely to feel, rather than see, something in common among the structures. Designs range from traditional to contemporary, and roofs range from domed to retractable to nonexistent, but all feature amenities unheard-of in the last generation of NFL venues.

Stadiums are seeing their opening plays this fall in Houston, Seattle, Detroit and Foxborough, Mass. Houston's Reliant Stadium, home of the new Houston Texans, incorporates a translucent, retractable Teflon-fabric roof. The roof of Seattle's new Seahawks Stadium, home to the team of the same name, is cut away, so that the field is open to the elements while 70% of the seating remains sheltered. The Detroit Lions will play under domed protection in Ford Field, while the New England Patriots — and their fans — will brave the elements in open-air Gillette Stadium.

Pats fans sit in lap of luxury

Regardless of how dry fans' heads stay, however, their seats are sure to be more comfortable than ever. Take, for example, $325 million Gillette Stadium. Patriots faithful at the team's old Foxboro Stadium were used to aluminum bleacher seats and portable toilets in the concourses. Attendees now have 19-in.-wide seats in the general stands, 60 restrooms throughout the stadium, more than 350 points of sale and open concourses with sight lines to the field, keeping attendees in touch with the action even during beer runs.

"Patriots fans are an exceptionally loyal bunch," says Carrie Plummer, spokesperson for stadium architect HOK Sport + Venue + Event (HOK-SVE), Kansas City, Mo. The Kraft family, owner of both the stadium and the Super Bowl champion team, wanted to reward visitors with comfortable surroundings that reflected New England's maritime and industrial heritage. Though family patriarch Robert Kraft initially saw Baltimore's Ravens Stadium as the ideal model, HOK-SVE designer Jonathan Knight convinced the family that what it needed was a "custom-fit shoe," according to Plummer.

Constructed by the design-build joint venture of Boston-based Beacon Skanska and Southfield, Mich.-based Barton Malow Co., with structural consulting by Bliss & Nyitray, Miami, the resulting open-air design reflects Kraft's desire for a "front door," framed by abstracted versions of a classic New England lighthouse and iron arch bridge. Red masonry blocks that form the base of the design harken to the brick factories and warehouses constructed along area rivers in the mid- to late-19th century. More modern-day amenities include 1,000 television monitors throughout the facility, two 120,000-sq.-ft. club lounges that seat a total of 6,000, and 80 luxury suites that accommodate 16 to 36 high-paying fans each.

Detroit's down-home dome

This blend of old and new also can be seen in Detroit's new $500 million Ford Field. Like Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Ford Field weaves an existing structure — a series of seven warehouses originally constructed for Hudson's department store — into the fabric of a new design. Sited in a downtown location opposite the newly constructed home for the Detroit Tigers baseball team, Ford Field helps complete the new Stadium District, intended to contribute to the city's revitalization. And, as with the Patriots' new stadium, the owner — in this case Ford Motor Co. CEO William Clay Ford Jr. — played a decisive role in the design program.

"Mr. Ford's vision was that he wanted everyone to know that they were in Detroit — and he didn't want it to stick out like a sore thumb," says Michael McGunn, project manager and vice president with locally based SmithGroup, the project's architect and engineer of record. To limit the stadium's prominence in the city's skyline, designers sank the playing field about 45 feet below street grade. Curtain wall along one side of the base and translucent panels around the roof line are intended to keep patrons of the domed stadium from feeling claustrophobic.

Additional design team members included Rossetti Associates Architects, Birmingham, Mich., which designed the stadium itself, and Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz, San Francisco, which designed the warehouse renovation. In addition to providing a gateway into the stadium, the warehouse also includes approximately 350,000 sq. ft. of leaseable space. Hunt Jenkins, White/Olson LLC, Indianapolis, is the general contractor, and Thornton-Tomasetti, New York, is the structural engineer on the project.

Seahawks digs reflects tech

In the Pacific Northwest, a more futuristic design is the new home of the Seattle Seahawks. Like Ford Field, $430 million Seahawks Stadium is situated within the city. While a masonry base provides a nod to surrounding turn-of-the-century architecture, field-spanning trusses and prominent video screens make an even bigger statement about the high-tech origins of team owner and stadium developer Paul G. Allen.

"With Paul Allen, you know there's going to be some kind of technological expression, and it's there," says Kelly Kerns, senior project manager and project leader for sports and stadiums with Ellerbe Becket, Minneapolis, the stadium's architect, in association with locally based LMN Architects. The U-shaped plan faces the city at its open end. Two 720-ft.-long steel rainbow trusses support the roof, which covers 70% of the seating area and leaves the field open to the elements. Video screens at both ends of the field provide differing views — one in a landscape orientation, the other in a portrait orientation — of game action.

The design team benefited from its previous experience working together on another prominent project for Allen. The building team, which also included general contractor Turner Construction Co., New York, designed and constructed the Rose Garden, home of Allen's Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.

Houston's ninth wonder

Architects for Houston's new $417 million Reliant Stadium faced a unique challenge in their plans for a home for the city's new Texans team. Designers for the other three stadiums had to consider important regional and site-specific references, but sports consultant HOK-SVE along with its design teammates, had to contend with a legend.

Though now woefully outdated, the Houston Astrodome was internationally recognized as a landmark achievement when it opened in 1965. Surpassing the innovations presented in the world's first domed stadium was one of the goals set forth by the new facility's owner, the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp.

"The Houston Astrodome was called the 'Eighth Wonder of the World,'" says HOK-SVE's Plummer. "In a way, they wanted to construct the 'Ninth Wonder of the World.'"

Designers met the challenge with their own unique roof design — a retractable version, unique among NFL stadiums, constructed of a translucent fiberglass fabric. The roof can open or close in 10 minutes, gliding along 1,000-ft. supertrusses that span the length of the field. The space-age roof is intended to glow from within when closed for evening events, including RodeoHouston, the city's yearly livestock show and rodeo. Attracting approximately 2 million attendees annually, the rodeo is the venue's second major tenant.

Houston Stadium Consultants, a joint venture of locally based LAN/Daly and Hermes Architects, was the architect of record. The general contracting team consisted of locally based Manhattan and Atlanta-based Beers Skanska. Walter P. Moore was the structural engineer.

The NFL construction boom isn't stopping with these four stadiums. Three more new or renovated projects are scheduled to open next year, with major renovations at Chicago's Soldier Field and Green Bay, Wis.' Lambeau Field, and a new stadium in Philadelphia.

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