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Athletic Stage or Beautiful Pasture

Alpine Services, Inc.

Fields are just pastures with good grass, are they not? This question invariably arises when groups of people begin discussions concerning athletic fields. The general public does not comprehend the mechanics of a good athletic field, the costs associated with it, nor the liability that comes with the construction and ownership of a field. Some landscape contractors have little knowledge of the mechanics of a good athletic field and what is required to construct one.

The good contractor should build what the owner wants; this is called job security! Most owners do not know what they want; therefore, they hire an architect to do their design work. Some architects don't understand the intricacies of building a good field. But since everyone knows a good athletic field is simply a graded pasture, they valiantly try to design the field using whatever materials they can find and piece together. One can look at their drawings and see evidence of this frequently.

Workers used equipment from graders to tractors to construct the field. Of the many stages, tilling amendments, and mixing amendments are both key steps to field construction.

Field Types

One must first ascertain what type of field is needed. This is dictated by the use of the field; one can chose among at least four broad types: graded native soil, amended native soil, sand cap and full sand base field. Let’s quickly examine each type.

• Native soil field- This type field is the quickest to build, is the lowest cost, withstands little wear, and is the most susceptible to compaction. In this scenario, one simply grades a site to proper grade and plants grass. The soil may or may not grow grass; usually it will compact quickly from use and the grass will scuff off. It will quickly wear holes in the center. The field will become dangerously hard. Many grade and high schools have this type of field.

• Amended native soil field- This field is graded as noted above, then one inch of sand and two inches of compost are accurately spread over the field and deep tilled (9 inches) into the surface. The surface is lightly compacted and accurately graded. Then seed, sprigs, or sod may be installed, carefully so as not to change the grade. The field will be slower to compact, the grass will last longer, and the field will be slower to cup out in the middle.

• Sand cap field- This field is graded accurately as noted above; irrigation is installed and drains are installed at intervals in the sub-base, and then the sub-base is regraded. Next, a layer of sand is accurately spread over the entire field. The sand is amended to control the hydraulic conductivity of water and nutrients, the surface is again accurately graded, and sod, sprigs or seed applied. This field will give excellent wear characteristics, has good grass growth characteristics, and has all weather capability. It is an excellent choice for schools, universities and professional users.

• Full sand-base field- In this construction, the base is accurately graded, drains are installed at intervals, irrigation is installed, usually a 4 inch layer of washed pea gravel is accurately applied, and then 12 inches of USGA sand blended with peat and other amendments is applied. The material is graded, compacted, and grass applied. This type of field is quite expensive and has all of the characteristics of a sand cap field.

The Alpine crew takes great care during each step of field installations. In Nashua, New Hampshire. workers ensure everything is graded according to specifications using laser leveling equipment at the mid stage in the grading process.


Myth number one states that an athletic field is "just a pasture." Myth number two is that anyone with a pickup truck and tractor can build one. Look at a few of the pitfalls:

1) Confusion of terms: The word "grading" has one connotation in the landscape industry; usually it means that water will not pond where it is not supposed to, etc. It is usually inexact. The term has a different connotation in the field construction business. It is very exacting.

The field construction business today demands that the field surface be extremely accurate. Deviation of grade is usually expressed in vertical height over distance (i.e. 1/4 of an inch deviation from absolute over 10 feet). Field surfaces are currently built within 1/4 of an inch (plus or minus 1/8 inch from absolute) over the length of the entire field, others are simply plus or minus 1/4 of an inch over the field surface (within 1/2 of an inch). Few people have "the eye" that will produce this accuracy. Most contractors therefore are using dual pickup lasers on grading equipment to be able to achieve this accuracy.

Aerator equipment is used to mix the soil amendments for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation.

The sub-base of the field is more important than the surface—one can regrade, topdress, etc., to repair a surface imperfection, but cannot change the sub-base once the field is built. The sub-base controls the water flow, which is a major influence on grass color, growth, and disease. One simply must make sure that every minor impression, track, or depression is removed from the sub-base before sand or rootzone is spread over it. There are simply no shortcuts!!

2) Equipment: Athletic field construction requires specialized equipment and specialized equipment demands that it be used frequently. This statement leads one to a truth: i.e., once one equips their company for this type work, they are pushed to stay in the industry. Look at some areas of specialization:

As the baseball fields near completion, finishing touches are made including topdressing and the final dragging of the infield.

• Grading equipment: One feels that a miniature road grader with dual laser pickups gives optimum results. There are technical reasons for this belief, others claim that a grading box mounted on a tractor with laser pickups, either single or dual, do just as well. In any case, this equipment is expensive and is not used in most other landscaping operations.

• Trenching equipment: Field contractors usually use trenchers that collect the spoil and load it onto other vehicles; thus the sub-base grade is harmed less than it would be if standard trenchers were to be used. Other machines are used to fill the trenches to both give an accurate amount of material in the ditches everywhere and to avoid spilling backfill material on the sub-base.

• Smoothing equipment: Various small tractor attachments are used to smooth the sub-base adjacent to the drain ditches, as well as down basepaths, etc.

Rigid rollers, min. 12 feet wide, are difficult to purchase and are a necessary component to the finishing process.

3) Inexperience: There are times when the best job is the one that is missed, particularly if one is not aware of various pitfalls that may be caused by design and owner intent. For example, consider the following:

Two partial sets of Alpine specialized small grading equipment sit on the finished surface of Coors Field (below). The equipment includes (from left) a Ford 1210 diesel tractor, a TCM 806 one cubic yard articulated loader, two duel laser controlled graders, another TCM 806 loader and a 2150 4-wheel drive diesel tractor. This precision equipment graded the field to within a quarter inch tolerance when measured across the entire field. Lightweight equipment is used to reduce rootzone compaction.

• Bad Design: One must know what will and what will not work in various soil conditions. Determine if the slope (crown) of the field is steep enough to make water to run to the sides of the field (if it is a native soil or amended native soil field). Examine the type of rootzone specified to determine if it will provide the level of play that the field is designed for. Check the type of grass that is specified to determine if it will be at its peak growth when the play is scheduled. The designer frequently overlooks these simple areas of concern—if the field fails then one automatically blames the field builder. The designer will lead the criticism usually!

• Bad choice of field types: The contractor must be able to steer the designer and owner to the correct type of field. It is folly to build a native soil field for an organization that intends to play the field daily. The field will shortly fail due to the heavy play and the builder will be blamed for building a bad field. The builder should be blamed for allowing himself to build an inappropriate field. It is better to advise the owner of the foreseen pitfalls and allow one’s competition to build the bad design.

Coors Field was stripped and precision graded using two laser controlled graders, two loaders and two tractors. During field installation, trench back-filling machines apply a layer of stone fill over the plastic irrigation pipe. Laser equipment is used to grade Coors Field accurately.

• Unrealistic deadlines: Bidding procedures, long design times, permitting, etc., can delay the field construction process for months. After the delays are resolved, the owner frequently wants the field delivered on the original schedule. One must be realistic and not boxed into promising a delivery time that will cost unanticipated overtime or incur penalties.

These are a few of the areas of concern. Yet, this is America and Americans can do anything! You can build a good field and should—the need is great. School districts country wide have bad fields, kids area getting hurt daily, and insurance rates that are generated by bad fields are of a concern to field owners. If you are considering field construction, look at a few of the following concerns for success:

1) Educate yourself- Know what is expected to do a good job. One will note that it costs almost as much to do a bad job as an excellent one. Learn what the job requires, then make provision to not only meet the design, but to build a good, workable field in spite of the drawings. "I only did what the drawings indicate" is a very poor excuse for a field contractor to use in explaining why his work is bad or has failed. The contractor, when he agrees to take the money from an owner, does acknowledge responsibility to build a good field. If he does not, then it is his responsibility (based on his knowledge, which is assumed by his presence before the owner) to inform all parties of design error.

2) Use good equipment- One cannot get good results from bad or outdated equipment. Equipment selection will be based on knowledge (one can also assume that initial purchase equipment will be changed later as one’s knowledge increases). Laser controlled equipment is almost mandatory; lightweight equipment is mandatory, and one must use specialized equipment for efficiency.

3) Attitude- One must have a desire to do every work element to the highest standard. Drain ditch bottoms must be clean and on slope before putting in the pipe because this influences water flow in the field and therefore grass color. The natural tendency is to ignore this because it is deeply covered. The same applies to smoothing the sub-base before sand or rootzone material is applied. There are no short cuts—this attitude must be instilled in every person that works on the field.

Yes, go build good fields, the need is great. Please keep the above mentioned points in the back of your mind. One does not want to build a bad product and ruin their reputation, but to do well and produce an excellent product that one is proud of. There is no better feeling than standing on a newly finished athletic field that looks good, and thinking, "this once was a pasture".

Grove Teates is a principal in Alpine Services, Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md. and serves as its Chief Operating Officer. The Company is a full service, athletic field contractor and specializes in the design and building of athletic fields for the American and National Baseball Leagues, the National Football League, various minor leagues, colleges, and school systems.

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October 20, 2019, 8:12 pm PDT

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