Good Sports

When pro athletes retire, many find it challenging to create a new career. Former linebacker Scott Radecic earned a degree in architectural engineering while attending Pennsylvania State University, so when he left the NFL after 12 seasons, he had a definite career plan. During his last four off-seasons he had been learning the ropes at the firm HOK Sport + Venue + Event. In 1997, he joined the firm full time.

After having had the opportunity to compete in one generation of sports facilities, now, as a senior principal at HOK Sport + Venue + Event, Radecic gets to help design the next generation of facilities.

Joe De Patta: You’ve played football professionally and now you’re an architect designing athletic facilities. You have a unique tenant/user perspective. Can you talk about that relationship?

Scott Radecic: I guess it depends on which client you ask if I have a unique perspective. I think playing at the collegiate level and in the NFL has been a real asset to this career. I’ve developed an understanding of different client types and how they approach a project.

A professional team addresses a project with a different mindset than a collegiate client. Being in those organizations and knowing those people, I know their priorities and schedules. It’s not like normal business because of the demands that occur in-season and the different ways they approach their off-season strategy. Clients know that I know that. Our clients are a very small community of professionals, and they know the reputation and the sort of hard-working, blue-collar attitude I have. They’ll talk to me; clients seem comfortable talking to me initially because I’m one of them, as opposed to being someone who doesn’t understand what they do, how they do it, or what it takes. I think that’s been the strongest piece of my previous career. Plus, I’ve developed a tremendous number of relationships being in the NFL and after 20 years of football. There’s a comfort level during that first conversation with someone you may not know personally but who you know "of." It’s usually a pretty easy conversation.

JD: Have you had a chance to work on facilities that you once used as an athlete? How did it feel?

SR: Actually yes. Two come to mind. I went to Penn State and we just finished a project there in 2001. It was a $93 million expansion and renovation to Beaver Stadium. That was obviously a very unique experience, to be back at Penn State working with all the people who wore coats and ties on our away-trip buses when I was a player. I didn’t know who they all were, now I know them and what they do. They’re pretty important people. They make sure that, operationally, things go well.

Before that project, we designed, in association with a local firm in Pittsburgh, Penn State’s new 90,000-square-foot football training facility. I began with HOK in 1997 and began working on those Penn State projects almost immediately. That was good, in as much as it was the first big job for me as a project manager, but also because there really wasn’t any room to mess up since it was my alma mater.

JD: From an athlete’s point of view, what makes a good athletic facility?

SR: I think the function of the building is what athletes care about; they don’t think about design. They think about function and adjacency and how efficiently the building works. They want to know, "How close is my locker to the training room? To the weight rooms? To the meeting rooms?"

If I’m getting taped before practice and then coach wants to call a quick meeting, how will that work? I want to jump off the table, get to the locker room, and get to practice. You’re not thinking of the building other than in terms of, "Man, that meeting room sure is a long way from the locker room."

JD: What is your personal approach to design?

SR: The way our team and I approach sports facility design is to look for the optimal textural solution. A design that is contextually responsive to its environment; that means we are looking at the scale of the building and its surroundings and the materials we will be using in or on the building and the color palette. Many of our collegiate clients have campuses with so much history and the design committees have very definite opinions about what they want to see. Our best successes have been when we match the scale and materials and palette to that context. These buildings function as sports venues and the form is not arbitrary. It’s a football stadium and the whole concept is about people watching a game.

JD: More luxurious and fully-equipped student recreation centers are becoming the norm on many college campuses. What’s behind this trend?

SR: I think in the same way that colleges recruit student athletes-and with free agency you see professional teams recruiting professional players-the academic environment is getting more competitive. There are more schools with higher academic standards competing for the same kids. A big part of campus life, in addition to academics and studies, is student recreation. What are those students doing when they are not in class? They are looking for places to get together and hang out and work out and exercise.

JD: What are some of the components that colleges and universities are including in their student recreation projects?

SR: Components such as multi-use gymnasiums, running tracks, and climbing walls are all being included. We have group exercise rooms for aerobics and martial arts, as well as racquet ball and handball courts. Weight training is still a huge part of these buildings. Sometimes you’ll have rooms dedicated just to free weights, and just circuit training, and just cardio-vascular machines. There are classrooms, lecture halls, and tutoring spaces, depending on who wants to use the facilities. Other components are natatorium spaces and, up north, you’ll fine multi-purpose spaces with ice instead of multi-purpose spaces with a pool.

JD: How do you feel about mixed-use facilities?

SR: The first thing you find when working on a college campus is that they never have enough space. They never have enough parking or enough meeting rooms or classroom space. It doesn’t matter how much land a campus might have, it always seems that their student population is always a little bigger than the space available. So, any time you can do something multi-purpose for that campus, you satisfy many programmatic needs and you make a lot of friends. It is a criterion that occurs somehow, some way, in every collegiate project.

JD: Has there been a sharp increase in stadium construction in recent years? If so, what’s behind the increase?

SR: There has been. When one school takes a step forward to improve an outdated or insufficient facility then, all of a sudden, they are using the facility to recruit student athletes. Schools recruit against each other, so pretty soon all the schools in that conference start to think about how they can maintain a competitive edge or competitive balance with what some of the other schools have. That’s one factor.

Another factor is a need for revenue. When you look at the majority of projects, which are football stadiums, basketball stadiums, and ice hockey arenas, most of those athletic departments are self-sufficient. The majority of revenue that athletic departments receive comes through ticket sales. Clients ask us to study ways to incorporate premium seating, indoors or outdoors. If you are developing a new facility you have to optimize the school’s ability to acquire revenue.

JD: Are there recent athletic projects that you consider outstanding?

SR: That’s a biased question. I’d say the most outstanding project is the one at Penn State. One of the interesting aspects about working in the collegiate market is that everybody here at HOK has some strong allegiance to their alma mater. You get a team working at Kent State and they will say that’s the best facility. It just depends on where you’re from and what you’re doing.

Obviously, I am biased, but what we did for Beaver Stadium was a pretty dramatic change for them. It became the largest stadium in the country. I’ve seen it grow from slightly more than 60,000 seats to now more than 110,000 seats. We just opened an end zone at Virginia Tech that added 11,000 seats to the stadium and looks like it’s been there forever. That’s when you know you’ve done it right.

JD: What trends have you’ve observed?

SR: You are always looking for what that next thing is going to be. The collegiate project tends to follow the model that’s been successful at the professional level. The current trend is to incorporate revenue-generating items and premium seating into these buildings that have historic significance to each of the campuses.

First and foremost, the game-day experience for the fan is what the building is all about. It is the live experience. What can we do in that building to make it as comfortable and as exciting as possible for people when they come in to watch events? You’re looking for a comfortable seat, easy access to a concession to get something to eat, and easy access to a restroom. If you can do that, then people will keep coming back. Most collegiate buildings are deficient in all those areas. And yet, because people love that school they just keep coming back and coming back. You want to optimize those opportunities for them. There is a portion of the alumni who will be willing to donate or sponsor more if they have a little more comfort. That is a trend right now.

JD: What do you think is required for a good facility?

SR: I think probably those four issues that we just reviewed. The game-day experience, revenue, recruiting and entertaining, and the miscellaneous academic issues. Either one or all of those get incorporated into a project. A good facility is one that responds to a need for a specific school or what satisfies their current needs but doesn’t preclude them from expanding in the future.

JD: How significant are remodeling or upgrade projects? Do most clients prefer to start from scratch?

SR: It depends on the sport. In the football facilities, most of those projects, 90 percent maybe 95 percent, are expansions or renovations. It is much more costly to develop a new building. And with today’s codes and legal criteria, it requires much more built square footage to acquire the same number of seats. Usually you are looking for ways to add to, rather than replace. Now, sometimes the facility is in such bad shape that the only alternative is to build new.

When you get into training facilities or basketball facilities, I would say you see a new one as often as you see a renovation. Maybe even two thirds are new. It evens out. If you have a school with a history and past success, they are usually looking to retain that and enhance it with new amenities. If you’re going into a university without the success or history, their attitude is often one of attempting to start a new tradition. They will usually look for a new building to start that tradition.

JD: How different are the needs for athletic facilities for high schools versus higher educational facilities?

SR: As a general rule, the amount of square footage and capacity in a high school is not as significant as in a university setting. The funding is not as great for the high school and their need is primarily for a game-day experience. You give them those needs and minimize the amount of condition space in high school. Some high school stadiums don’t even need to provide broadcasting requirements. They need a place to play the game so the field becomes the most important thing along with seating and amenities for the fans.

JD: These types of facilities are significant investments. What do schools need to know before undertaking a project? What pitfalls should be avoided?

SR: They really are significant investments and we never get callous about dealing with these large projects. We understand that the work we do is probably the largest capital improvement project that the athletic director will undertake in his career at the school.

One of the first things we do is to make sure the client understands their market. When you’re looking to add seats or revenue items, the last things you want to do are under-build or overbuild. An important step is for the school to conduct a market analysis so they know what they need and why they need it. That information drives the design that gives them what they need.

Once they do that, the next thing is accurate cost estimating. They have to get the best person on the team to do that. Having someone who understands the pre-construction activities will give more accurate cost estimating. I know how difficult it is for an athletic director to stand in front of a group of people and solicit funding and contributions and then have to go back and say that they were wrong and now they need more money.

The facility itself may only be 70 percent or 75 percent of the project’s total cost. Those numbers need to be worked out early in the process so everyone is on the same page. Changes during construction cost money.

JD: If a school was hoping to build a facility on a limited budget, as most do, what would you say are essential elements?

SR: That would be different for each client. In 90 percent of our projects we are given a project or construction budget and then we’re given a list of things the client wants. Nine times out of 10 they want more than they can afford. They need to identify every space a facility is going to need and then allocate a square footage to it and then come up with an overall size. Then you can put a cost to that and know very early whether you are on budget or over budget.

JD: High school facilities tend to intrude on residential areas more so than higher education facilities, so athletic departments need to keep neighbors in mind. Is there a way to make these projects neighborhood-friendly?

SR: There are four basic issues with any sports facility. You’ve got noise, lighting at night, traffic issues, and you have the overall size of the building.

You try to locate your speaker cluster, for instance, so that it has the least impact on the community. When you address lighting, you can focus the lights onto the playing field and reduce the spillage from beyond the stadium boundaries. If there aren’t broadcast needs, the lights can be placed lower because you don’t need broadcast quality lighting. We try to use the natural topography as much as possible to reduce the scale of the building and we try to use natural vegetation and landscaping along street edges to give it a human-scale. It may be used only ten times per year, but residents drive past it everyday.

JD: How often do you encounter opposition from a community that doesn’t want to fund "extravagant" athletic facilities, and instead would like to see their tax dollars fund more "necessary" school projects, such as new or upgraded schools, new technology, etc.?

SR: We don’t see that as often at the high school and college levels as at the professional level. The developments that take place at the high school level are really need-driven. Districts are growing and expanding, there are increased enrollments, and they need fields and facilities. Mostly, high school facilities are built new because the community is growing. At the collegiate level, more of these projects are being privately funded so there aren’t tax dollars, student fees, or campus money involved. The funds are coming from privately-raised capital from the athletic department or they use future revenue-generating elements of the building to fund expansion.

The issues would be, when you add more seats, will there be more traffic congestion? Or adding lights to a field that doesn’t have lighting-that will get some opposition.

JD: The majority of athletic facilities being built address which sports? Are football stadiums more frequent projects than basketball stadiums?

SR: There are around 117 Division IA football programs, more than 300 Division IA basketball programs, and there may be as many as 5,000 colleges and universities across the country. The opportunity for the basketball venue is greater than for the football venue. Even within the numbers of all those programs, capital costs are much higher for a football building than they are in a basketball building. You see a lot more development of basketball facilities, either renovated or new, than other campus facilities. But the notoriety is attached to the football project because the dollar value is higher.

JD: Do you have any final comments?

SR: When I was a student athlete at Penn State I never knew how I’d use my architectural engineering degree. I knew I had aspirations to play professional football. Did I ever think I’d play ten years? No. I played twelve years [three years with the Kansas City Chiefs, three years with the Buffalo Bills, and six years with the Indianapolis Colts]. Did I ever think I’d get into a profession where I’d get to design sports facilities for a living? No. Did I ever think I’d become one of the people who others come to for information about this stuff? No. Yet I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s been terrific.