Fieldhouses are big buildings and big investments—but can provide major opportunities for colleges and universities. By designing fieldhouses thoughtfully, institutions can maximize their investment (both in terms of dollars and space), and create a place that is a sustainable, highly utilized, and dynamic part of their culture.
A little semantics and history before we get started: the term "fieldhouse" can have different connotations. But in our practice, we conceive a fieldhouse as an indoor practice space that is overarchingly functional and flexible. Historically, fieldhouses were sometimes used for large basketball venues (like the Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University, constructed in 1928). And some were created from Post-WWII voluminous surplus buildings, such as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Houston Fieldhouse, which was purchased to house an ice arena in 1949. There were also athletic cages (such as the Coolidge Cage at Amherst College, built in 1924) that were constructed on many campuses in the northeast, usually with dirt floors for practicing baseball and running.
In the early 1980s, indoor track and field evolved into an NCAA sport at all divisions for both men and women (although Division I men's competition had existed since the 1960s), and it swiftly gained popularity in the US. 200-meter tracks were the standard, and, to accommodate growing demand, fieldhouses became the venue of choice for all indoor track and field events. Today, there is also increased demand for football, baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, and tennis—essentially any outdoor sport that requires indoor practice space.
The question is how to design a space that can accommodate as many sports as possible in the context of a specific school's needs—and without compromising the primary uses. Through careful consideration of program, layout, and size, fieldhouses can be quite versatile. For example, by increasing the width of a fieldhouse and placing the straight sprint lanes outside the track oval, the interior of the track becomes available for an entirely different use. This approach has proved popular with recent Sasaki clients such as Middlebury College, for whom we are designing a track with a turf interior that will be used for practicing all field sports, as well as many recreational sports.
"We also consider how the fieldhouse can become an asset for schools beyond sports, hosting events such as concerts, speakers, commencement, banquets, and summer camps," says Sasaki sports principal Chris Sgarzi. Schools are exploring this opportunity more frequently—then-Senator Obama even took his message to the fieldhouse at Rhode Island College during his 2004 campaign. These uses, however, bring with them significant design considerations. The facility must provide sufficient entrances and egresses, and have restroom accommodations (even if only temporary) for large crowds. If the fieldhouse will host non-sporting events frequently, the design may also include supporting infrastructure for sound systems, lighting, and concessions.
Because fieldhouses are so massive, energy use is also a significant consideration. We study operating costs and look for opportunities to incorporate daylight, natural air flow, and solar energy while designing efficient heating, ventilation, lighting, and, sometimes, cooling systems. The large roof surface can facilitate rainwater harvesting and, with the proper orientation, is an ideal location for solar energy-collecting photovoltaic panels. By considering the whole life-cycle of the building, schools can come to understand which investments make sense for them.
With these big buildings, the opportunities are even bigger. "The key is to program appropriately for your priorities and flexibility," says Chris.
Pictured above: Fieldhouse at Grinnell College.