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Athletic Field Construction: Do-It-Yourself Style

By Marlin Breems, Varicore Technologies

The teams have their sights set, not on the pristine field, but on state championships. Photos courtesy of Varicore

What do you do when your athletic field is run down, worn out, poorly drained -- in a word, inadequate -- and there is zero chance of finding the funds in the budget to solve the problem? All your mowing fertilizing, sprinkling, and coring efforts have been to no avail. This dilemma is commonplace, especially in small schools but also for secondary sports in larger schools.

This was pretty much the situation faced by soccer coach Ryan Clymer at Faith Christian Academy in Sellersville, PA. The soccer field was clearly not up to par and it was not anywhere near the top of the priority list in this year's budget, (or any other year's budget for that matter.) Clymer is an active member of the school's Alumni Association. One night last July (2005), after a friendly alumni soccer grudge match with the high school team, there was considerable hand wringing about the dismal condition of the field.

With a mile of drainage pipe (5,280 feet) and 720 feet of transport pipe, combined with an untold number of irrigation lines lying underneath them all, careful coordination and design was required during the trenching process.

Even though there were many, highly skilled volunteers to work on the project, the take-charge, hands-on coordinator, Henry Thompson who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, was key to harnessing their energy and pulling the entire project together.

Fortunately for the soccer program, the timing could not have been better. The Alumni Association was on the hunt for a project to rally around. Clymer suggested that the Alumni undertake a major overhaul of the soccer field.

High-octane Faith alumnus, Henry Thompson (Class of 90), was so taken by the idea that he could hardly sleep that night. The board had received estimates of nearly $300,000 to renovate the field and they were not at all confident that even this would provide satisfactory results. Henry was convinced that if given the mandate, the Alumni Association could do the job right and at a fraction of that estimated cost.

Many tons of fill were necessary to extend the field over a rapidly descending hillside.

What to Fix First

The board's primary concern was the drainage system. The original field had been built some 25 years earlier with little attention to drainage. Considerable compaction and settling had occurred in the intervening years. They did not want to see a lot of time, effort and money invested in the project only to find that imperfect drainage had derailed success. Henry and his cohorts thoroughly researched drainage systems and came to the conclusion that the Multi-Flow drainage system was their ace of spades. Thompson summarized, "It appeared to be effective, fast, and durable: all the things the board was looking for."

Henry recalls, "We were pretty pleased to find out that we could install a 21st century drainage system, like the professionals use, for about one third of the cost of one employing an outdated method." He was also surprised to find out that the Multi-Flow technical staff was willing to spend time with him designing a system custom made for the Faith field, one that they could install themselves.

Multi-Flow easily fits into a narrow trench.

A Lot of Traffic

Soon the Faith Board of Directors gave their stamp of approval to the Alumni plan which included not only a drainage system but also a Toro sprinkler system, an enlarged playing surface, extended perimeter safety zones, 1300 tons of fill, amended top soil, scoreboard, press box, sod, and last but not least, a two-tired patio area! Excitement began to build among the students, with parents, and in the surrounding community.

The field was asked to carry a lot of traffic. With varsity and JV boys soccer in the fall and varsity and JV girls soccer in the spring and practices all summer long, the field seldom rests. Athletic Director Russ Hollinbach recalled that the situation was especially critical when the school hosted tournaments and eight games were scheduled in two days.

Clean, coarse sand surrounding the drainage medium will protect it from clay and silt buildup.

How to Pay For It All

The question remained, however, how was this ambitious project going to be funded? The total value of the project was estimated at $400,000 but a goal was set to accomplish it with $70,000 in cash. The Alumni Association was willing to raise the cash and it was able to provide substantial free labor. Much of that volunteer labor was experienced in various phases of construction.

Still, material costs were a substantial part of the budget. Henry Thompson began the process of establishing working relationships with materials providers. In all of his contacts he spread enthusiasm for the Faith Academy soccer project and he looked for ways that Faith could be of value to the vendors. One example of this was in his dealings with Varicore Technologies which had already provided him with drainage consultation, CADD drawings, and cost estimates. Thompson offered to host an athletic field drainage seminar for schools, colleges and park departments in the Philadelphia area.

The seminar was a big success for all parties. Forty-five landscape superintendents and maintenance professionals attended the seminar and were effectively educated about innovative solutions to a critical common problem: drainage. Faith was delighted with the donation made to the soccer field project in consideration of the seminar. Everyone went home satisfied.

The fill also provide for a leveling of the field surface. After the field was graded, a large group of volunteers gathered to remove rocks, sticks, and other debris.

It's All About Relationships

Similar relationships were established with Ridge Valley Enterprises, Architerra pc, Philadelphia Turf Company, J.D. Associates Financial Concepts, Toro, Quikrete, Detlan Equipment, Bishop Wood Products, Seel Brothers Landscaping, American Safety, Clemens Excavating, Shan Gri La Sod Farm, Fizzano Brothers and others. Some of these had prior connections with the church or school and wanted to support it, while others found supporting the project to simply be good for business.

Meanwhile, a few core members of the Alumni Association organized an Elephant Eaters Anonymous group. It was based on the theory that eating an elephant is quite manageable if a lot of people each take a small bite. They concluded that if they all got involved, it wouldn't result in a lot of heavy lifting for any one person. The first step was fund raising. A leadership gift was solicited and received from T.H. Properties, a large developer in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. This was used as a matching grant for leadership gifts. Twelve Alumni members each made financial pledges and committed to soliciting from ten additional school supporters. Once the matching grant was earned, 63% of the financial goal was met and this was used as leverage to launch a final and more public fund raising campaign: "Trod for the Sod." At the same time the Alumni Association was also raising money to meet annual commitments such as scholarships and computer upgrades. During this time the alumni was asked to "AMP" it up with the "Alumni Matching Program."

Coach Clymer and a crew of volunteers were excited to finally lay the sod. The sprinkler system helped protect the fragile sod during the simmering heat that had settled in.

A Great Beginning

The project implementation began in April of 2006 when several small buildings including the press box were dismantled and 1500 tons of fill were hauled in. The additional fill allowed for the field to be expanded 30 feet to the south which was in the direction of a very steep downward slope.

Next came the sprinkler system. Toro rep, Mike Hartley (Class of 82), from Philadelphia Turf Company supervised the installation of the irrigation system.

Mike was in a uniquely advantageous position. He was a member of the Faith Board of Directors and has 20 years of experience designing and specifying irrigation systems. Hartley was also well acquainted with the windy, elevated, exposed soccer field site.

Installing a system usually reserved for larger sports complexes means that the field should remain green well into the fall. The TR70XT sprinklers can be easily adjusted for trajectory and rotation taking into account wind and coverage requirements. They are regulated by an Intelli-Sense timer that automatically adjusts watering schedules combining user preferences with daily satellite-transmitted weather station data received via WeatherTRAKTM. This technology provides substantial money, water, and time savings.

Next, the drainage lines were trenched into the field at 15 foot intervals carefully avoiding the irrigation lines. The shape insures that water can enter the system quickly; their structure assures that water can be carried away speedily; and the heavy needle punched geo-textile filter will protect the system from siltation. These collector lines followed the natural contour of the field emptying into PVC transport pipes on each side of field. Trenches were four inches wide and 15 inches deep. Coarse sand was used to backfill the trenches. This backfill surrounded drainage lines and extended to the surface. It will provide a favorable path for water to follow to reach the drainage medium as well as protecting the geotextile filter from clay and silt.

Two collector lines, one down each side of the field, graduated from a 4-inch, to a 6-inch, and finally to an 8-inch PVC pipe as they progressed down the field allowing for the increased volume of water they will be expected to carry.

The irrigation and drainage systems share the transport trench.

More to Accomplish

Following the installation of the sub-surface drainage system the field was regraded and a layer of field mix was added. Sodding occurred in late June.

Only hours after the sod was in place, five days of record setting rainfall began. Five inches fell on one day alone! Most athletic fields in the area were submerged. Many were heavily damaged. Henry Thompson and his group were delighted to find that there was no water left standing on their field when the rain finally stopped. Coach Clymer commented that he is confident that his "field will be in excellent shape despite, the wettest summer in 50 years."

The alumni group has now started work on the two-tier 2,000 square foot patio overlooking the field. The field is located on a terrace of a hillside overlooking scenic Sellersville. The patio will make a great place to grill some brats while watching the boys' team pursue their fifth district championship in six years or the girls' team working at earning their sixth championship in seven years.

Obviously it would be less hassle if such projects could be funded in the general budget, but the approach taken by the Sellersville group did have some advantages. To mention just a few:

  • It has heightened awareness of and support for the Faith Christian Academy soccer program.
  • The field has attained a degree of personality and uniqueness it never would have had under a conventional budget/engineer/contactor approach.
  • Valuable relationships were established that will be beneficial for future business dealings.
  • The team and other project participants feel a high degree of ownership in the completed project.
  • Previously untapped community skills and resources were identified and developed.
  • The end result was certainly of a higher quality than it would have been if it had been funded from the budget.
  • The cost to the school was zero!

"We were pretty pleased to find out that we could install a 21st century drainage system, like the professionals use, for about 1/3 the cost of one employing an outdated method."--Henry Thompson

Field before & after: Landscape maintenance, whether by staff or volunteers, is all about anticipation. The empty field anticipates sod. The sodded field anticipates students, fun, action, work, excitement and hard use.

A Change for the Better

This fall when the snare drum and bagpipes lead the team up the hill to make their traditional entrance onto the field the team will have its sights set not on the field but on a state championship. One thing is for certain, they will have a very pleasant venue for soccer and fans will be treated to watching a match on a premier field ready for action, regardless of last week's weather or schedule.

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June 18, 2019, 6:35 pm PDT

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