Procurement of an artificial facility can be influenced by internal and external factors, such as governing bodies, charities or even individuals. Consultant David Rhodes guides you through the pitfalls and processes
For the purpose of this series of articles, I will differentiate between artificial and synthetic surfaces on the following basis; Synthetic surfaces relates to carpet type surfaces that are either non-filled or filled partially with sand, rubber or alternative materials. It does not include natural systems whereby a synthetic component is utilised to strengthen the overall rootzone integrity and plant environment. These so called hybrid systems can be talked about another time.
Artificial surfaces relate to the plethora of surface types available, other than carpet types, so these may be hard surfaces used for tennis, netball etc., or rubberised surfaces used for athletics and other sports.
In this series of articles, it is assumed that the installation is in an external environment, rather than indoors, and any maintenance recommendations relates to outdoor type use.
Further on in the series, I will go into more detail on each surface type as appropriate but, hopefully, this clarifies the difference between artificial and synthetic surfaces and the context in which they are referred to.
History of Synthetics and Artificials
Artificial surfaces used for sport is something that has evolved over many decades. You can go back at least a 100 years to find an artificial surface of some sort being used for tennis, for example, and the waterbound type surfaces used for athletics have been around for decades. However, most of these facilities have been refurbished with more modern surfacing over time.
It is wrong, therefore, to think that artificial surfaces used for sport on sports grounds or leisure facilities is a new phenomenon. Subsequently, a lot of maintenance practice has evolved as groundsmen have had to get used to maintaining such surfaces.
I can tell you, from bitter experience, that if anyone thinks 3G or infill grass carpet surfaces are difficult to look after, you should have been around to look after shale tennis courts or hard porous water bound materials in a hockey context. These were genuinely a nightmare to look after and were subject to an immediate variation as the weather conditions changed through wet weather, frost and dry summer months. They were a constant maintenance challenge and presenting a good pitch or court from a hard porous material demonstrated a real skill.
It wasn't until the 1970s that carpet surfaces were developed for use in sport, although I suspect some of the early cricket surfaces as prototypes thereof were well on their way as well in terms of development and use.
Synthetic grass surfaces were developed to overcome some of the problems of playing sport in stadiums where grass growth, particularly warm season grass growth, was difficult and light levels were variable. They weren't always a success, and have been subject to ongoing development now for many years. However, they do represent the mainstay in some markets, i.e. hockey, but are a fairly new innovation in others, for example winter sports use.
I often refer to these sports as 'studded sports', to mean and describe a 3rd generation type surface that can take a stud or someone wearing a studded or dimpled shoe with ease.
2nd and 3rd generation terminology can be a bit confusing, but the term 3rd generation was first used when long pile synthetic grass surfaces, that are back filled with rubber and sand infill material, were brought to market.
Since then, I even hear of 4th and 5th generation terminology being used to describe essentially the same product types, but with different types of infill or no infill at all. This is okay, as generic wording makes language simpler to use, but sometimes clarification is needed when specific surface types are being referred to or a specific maintenance issue or technique needs prescribing. It is worth noting that some governing bodies do not recognise this terminology.
Synthetic grass manufacturers are constantly looking at ways of developing these surface types, and the manufacturing market has certainly developed from Europe out to the Far East where there are now a plethora of suppliers manufacturing grass in very modern, up to date factories, providing competition for the more traditional European and North American markets.
I can't help but think there will be a further advancement in surface types in the future, which represents a positive and constant challenge to grounds managers and facility managers to devise up to date and appropriate maintenance programmes and methodologies that meet the needs of the user and surface type to provide safe, exciting surfaces and facilities for the end user.
Facility Procurement - Funded and Non-Funded Projects
When a client goes to market to purchase a new synthetic or artificial facility, funding is key. Procurement of such a facility can be influenced by internal and external funding providers, such as governing bodies, charities or, sometimes, individuals. It is also not unusual for there to be a mix of funders, with the client putting up part of the money and other elements being funded by a variety of providers.
Some of the governing bodies have specific procurement routes to market, whereby they would have certain requirements as a pre-requisite to releasing money to the project. This could involve the use of specialist consultants and specific contractors who have been vetted and verified as being suitable advisors or builders of a scheme.
In every instance, a competent approach to the purchase and installation of a facility would always be recommended and, if a facility is to be paid for in its entirety by a client, then there tends to be more flexibility available in that approach. Discussion forums and the experience of other comparable clubs or schools or facilities, including the experiences of governing bodies, can all be useful avenues to provide further information of funding and procurement of facilities in a sensible, logical way.
I would always recommend an initial feasibility type study to develop a rough order budget for a particular project. This can be a very useful catalyst to the volume of information required to deliver the project successfully, but will also give you a strong idea of feasibility and costs associated with developing your project. Sometimes, this comes as quite a shock to people, and it is also not uncommon for very general numbers to be used to develop budgets in the first instance that can be unrealistic.
I tend to discourage this approach as you can end up working backwards from that number and the project is then perceived to be expensive, but the real problem is the budget was wrong in the first place. An accurate budget up front to develop funding is therefore strongly recommended.
Developing a Project Team
It is imperative that you sit round a table with key stakeholders and interested parties from the onset who could be guided by specialist advisors as appropriate. Clients very often do not fully understand or appreciate the extent and volume of information required, particularly if a planning application has to be made. It goes without saying that, in my experience, groundstaff should attend these meetings as, very often, he or she knows the site better than anybody else, particularly in the early stages of project development.
As already mentioned, you may well need a planning consultant to advise you on the planning process; they will have access to specialist advisers for geotechnical surveys, archaeological work, arboricultural information and technical information on ground engineering and sports facility construction.
If the right team is put together at the onset, it is far easier to meet project deadlines, timetables and budgets. There are always unforeseens when digging holes in the ground, but these can be minimised with the right technical help and support.
Obviously, the complexity of the project in terms of the type of facility and the extent of facilities can affect how much support an individual organisation will need. I would also recommend the project team consist of no more than six people, including client representation. It is really important, at the end of the day, that the facility is built to meet the needs and expectations of the end user. In a school environment, a Director of Sport would typically be this link between facility providers, managers and sports clients.
As a point of interest, ordinarily the project team would meet and develop the client brief, including project programme, at least twelve months before the facility is handed over to the client for use. This varies slightly depending on the size and timetable of the project, but I would recommend at least twelve months thought and planning goes into the delivery of the project.
There is a true skill in communicating what can reasonably be delivered to a client, both internally and to the wider external local and sporting communities. It is very important, from the outset, that you are completely honest about budgets, timetables and the effects of the design works. This is particularly sensitive when talking about items like access, site fencing and floodlighting. Quite often, in suburban and urban areas, there will be many people watching the development progress and monitoring the effects that the practical programme and outcomes have on their own environments.
Developing a communication strategy within the project team is, therefore, really important, with realistic timetables, contingency planning and best practice all being used to develop a modern, well-built facility that sits well within the landscape. A good designer should be able to advise clients on issues such as access and material selection to minimise any negative effects and future comments.
A good example of this is fencing which, in my professional opinion, is always best built in black, rather than green which are actually more noticeable in the landscape when completed.
Interested parties, such as staff and fund raisers, are very often concerned with progress. Modern building techniques have definitely extended the construction calendar into the late autumn and early spring months, meaning projects can be delivered quicker and for a greater period of the calendar year.
Techniques are available which I will discuss later, to help contractors and practitioners deliver a project in adverse conditions.
This means that sports facility construction can take place nearly all of the year, particularly in Southern England.
I strongly recommend planning a project at least twelve calendar months in advance, regardless of its size. This means putting together a project team and starting to work through the details as required. This is particularly r
elevant if there are likely to be any site safety issues or planning permission is required for the development work. It is surprising, when involved in projects, how quickly the time goes, and twelve months lead-in at least gives you some chance for deliberation and fine tuning.
These days, build programmes have got shorter as expertise in sports construction has developed, particularly if you implement new technology with a reputable company geared up to do the work effectively and in-house.
There are always issues with programming and key delivery dates, such as the beginning of term or the start of a new season, should be considered carefully in context of the construction and build programme.
Historically speaking, material supply has not been a significant issue but, in recent years, supplies from the Far East and the general upturn in the construction industry has led to a shortage of certain items at key times of the year. As a result of this, handover to a client should be planned carefully and in good time before the facility will actually be put into use.
Stress levels can quickly increase if projects are delivered late or taken up to the wire, and it is surprising how even small items, such as furniture delivery and erection, can encroach towards handover dates, making everyone nervous.
Post construction snagging will also need to take place, as well as safety inspections, to sign off a new facility before delivery, and all this will need to be borne in mind when planning a project timetable. Someone with expertise in this area can help significantly in putting together a realistic project programme.
Planning Permission and Conditions
I would strongly advise any client to take specialist advice from a planning consultant, or involve the local planning authority at pre-application stage, to ascertain the likelihood and extent of planning permission needed. Also, take general guidance on the type of extensive information provided to support any application. In general terms, my experience is that the more information provided, in terms of accuracy and relevance, the easier the process is, whilst satisfying the planning authority's request for information and design guidance.
If you wish to develop a facility on a sensitive site or an important landscape, then the relevance of planning becomes more acute.
It is not unusual for a planning application to be supported by supplementary specialist advice and information, such as ecological, archaeological and arboricultural work, with associated site plans and site investigation reports. If planning permission is granted, it is not unusual to have conditions attached to the permission that will need dispensing before construction work can start on site.
These conditions can relate to technical information such as drainage design and the provision of material samples and fence details.
A particularly sensitive area is floodlighting and you would always want to support any application for floodlighting with a detailed design. This design work can demonstrate the effects of lightspill on pollution of the wider environment, including neighbours to the site. It is worth pointing out that, these days, floodlighting systems for sports are far better than they used to be and are now very good at minimising light pollution in general. A specialist lighting company or consultant can normally use appropriate software to model your scenario and design to the satisfaction of planning authorities. This, in essence, is a desk exercise, but using specialist software that has been developed for this purpose.
It is important within the overall programme to allow for a planning application and the dispensation of conditions before starting on site, if appropriate. Planning authorities have statutory timetables to work to and these should be considered as part of the overall project programme development, if applicable. Sometimes, refurbishment work can be carried out without a planning application being made, if the work is done on a like for like basis, but I would always advise clients to speak to the local planning authority to verify this beforehand.
Specific site information is important in the development of the overall footprint for sport. Specialist surveys, such as topographical surveys and geotechnical investigations, will allow you to build a picture of the site below ground rather than just above it.
One of the biggest problems in sports construction is the nature of the ground on which you intend to build. In simple terms, if the ground is strong enough it will take the weight of any new profile built above it. If not, then the subsoil, generically known as the formation, will have to be strengthened, excavated or an appropriate depth of new material put on top of it in order to build the new facility.
If this information is not known before construction starts, there is an inherent risk of delaying the project due to prevailing ground conditions. Depending on the time of year, moisture content, water table level and surrounding drainage can all affect in situ ground conditions at a particular point in time.
Another really important investigation is to verify if site services run through the ground. It is not unusual to find a plethora of underground cables and pipes that have been installed historically. Soft dig ground, such as sportsfields, is easy to excavate when installing these services so, very often, a site will be cut across with a new service as it is cost effective to do so. If you have to divert this service as part of the enabling works, then this could fundamentally influence the budget and programme. Diverting main services, such as gas and electricity, is not easy and requires specific permission and a lengthy programme. This information should be understood before the ground is considered for development.
Utilisation of extensive volumes of topsoil that have been stripped from the site and are unsuitable for building on must be considered as well. Moving topsoils off site can be expensive and subject to statutory licencing. If topsoils are to be utilised on site, then consideration should be made to where, the extent of, and how this material should be moved to final placement.
It can easily be forgotten in the overall design, but just think about having to replace or landscape thousands of tonnes of topsoil on a fairly small site. It can have a significant impact on the finished landscape, on a contract programme and on budgets.
Bunding around sites is not unusual, and can be quite useful for spectators and general viewing vistas etc. This would normally be included in development drawings to show planners and interested parties the finished landscape and how the bunds look in different directions.
Hopefully, you can start to see why a suitable budget and programme is needed, as there is a lot of information to collate.
Other key site information should include access and egress to and from the site for construction traffic, and how the site will work logistically whilst the build is taking place. Health and Safety advisors are very interested in this information to understand the risks associated with any development, so logistics is an important aspect of any site information profile. Users will also need to access the site later on, but this really should be covered in a detailed design discussion so that, when the facility is in play, it is readily accessible for users and maintenance equipment etc., including emergency vehicles. You will be surprised how often this is not considered in enough detail.
It is useful, when developing facilities, to follow recognised key stages used in the construction industry for years. It is a tried and tested procurement route and works well, allowing you to develop the project as time goes on. Very often, consultants will provide costings based on these key stages for work that is done to develop the concept through planning and through the build process. It recognises that input and effort is required well before you start to build on site and, afterwards, once the facility is handed over.
In some instances, formal paperwork will be required throughout the project to verify payments that are made to contractors by clients and to release monies from external funding sources etc.
Fixed fees can be provided against these key stages so that a client has some degree of certainty on a consultants input and cost.
Very often, these fixed fees are based on a percentage of the build cost, and calculated accordingly. Sometimes, variables are included within fixed fees, sometimes not. As long as this is noted beforehand and agreed, then this approach suits in some instances. In my experience, clients like fixed fees as it gives them certainty in terms of the overall costs of professional input.
Key stages can take you from the conception of the project through to the development of supporting information for planning, and through the tender process if you go to market. Beyond this, the construction itself, hand over to the client and the operation and maintenance of the facility, including warranties, should all be covered. Ordinarily, the final certificate would be issued twelve months after practical completion to sign the project over to the client.
In the next article, I will cover project management considerations.
Introduction to Author - the story so far
2015 is my 30th year in the industry. I am quite proud of this fact and it has allowed me to work through the ranks and through the professions to the point at which I am today.
I believe that groundscare is a practical science whereby practice and experience, underpinned with a sound philosophy and reasoning, makes for competent outcomes and professional sports surface provision. Of course, intertwined with all of this is the pre-requisite for being able to communicate with all manner of individuals within the workplace and I do not, for one moment, underestimate the importance of effective communication in the work that I do today.
After leaving school, I was sent, rather nervously, to the local golf club to start work as an apprentice greenkeeper under the Government Youth Training Apprenticeship Scheme that was running at the time. It was at this local club that I was dealt the first of many good hands I have had over the years. I worked under a very considerate and enthusiastic head greenkeeper who taught me the ropes and where I quickly became interested in groundscare and horticulture in general. As with all good apprenticeships, practical, on the job training was carried out in conjunction with college attendance.
It was at college where I met another influential individual, John Hacker, who was one of my first lecturers at Myerscough College.
I quickly gained experience and confidence and moved, at the end of my apprenticeship, to a local independent school where I continued my training.
In 1988, I won the Groundsman of the Year award, which propelled my career and it was when I met a lot of industry leading figures of that time.
I next moved to become grounds manager designate at the Northern Tennis Club in Manchester. My work here involved preparing thirty-one tennis courts with six different surface types, up to and including Davis cup and professional men's tour tennis events. This is where I first got involved in synthetic and artificial surfaces, and I wanted to know more about maintenance and management of such surface types.
I maintained constant contact with Myerscough College and was also undertaking additional qualifications in my spare time.
Perhaps surprisingly, I also found the time to look after a local bowling green as well!
My close connections with the college meant that I was given the opportunity to work as a part time lecturer, and was then offered a position on the permanent staff. This meant that my enthusiasm for the science of groundcare could be aligned with my practical expertise and, hopefully, meant that my lectures and practicals had some substance.
Another individual I met at this time was Martyn Jones. Many in the industry know Martyn and he certainly had charisma and enthusiasm for his subject gained over many years' experience, both in the UK and overseas.
Many senior staff in the industry today have studied at Myerscough and it certainly had positive influences on my career. I always recommend the importance of continual professional development so as to keep in touch with current management and science etc.
After leaving Myerscough, I moved south to run the sportsturf section of Merrist Wood College, which had invested heavily in sports facilities at the time, including a new golf course. Golf was booming, particularly in the South East, and there was significant demand for well qualified contemporary greenkeepers.
As my experience and knowledge grew, I picked up more and more consultancy work and, eventually, built a small business running alongside my lecturing activities. My career was developing rapidly along with my young family and, at one point, I was working full-time lecturing, carrying out consultancy work and completed a Master's Degree at Reading. This was certainly not easy with a young family and, to be honest, I don't think I could do it nowadays. I eventually made the move to Dorset to take on full time consultancy work, which I have now been doing for twelve years.
My client base includes private schools, local councils, private sports clubs and golf facilities, principally in the UK, but I do have a large golf client in Egypt.
Nowadays, I tend to focus on the construction and development of natural and synthetic facilities, as they sit hand in hand on a modern sports ground facility.
I do believe that any facility should have a competent groundsperson in place and, as such, they are best placed to advise any client on maintenance issues. As a consultant, I seek to supplement what the grounds personnel can do with industry specific knowledge, particularly in construction.
I do believe a good groundsman is an asset to any facility, but complacency is short lived in the modern sports arena as commercial pressures mean that facilities constantly have to be on their toes to offer what paying clients want.
I still get involved in some training and lecturing, particularly for governing bodies and professional organisations.