Mark Freeman, Head Groundsman at the prestigious Loughborough University, looks after a 438 acre site that has more artificial surfaces than you can shake the proverbial stick at. Throw ornamental gardens, natural turf surfaces and ECB standard cricket pitches into the mix and it's no wonder he has his work cut out!
Loughborough University, with 3,000 staff and 13,500 students, has an impressive 438 acre campus providing a host of quality playing surfaces for a wide variety of users, for both research and recreation purposes.
The university has outstanding sports facilities suitable for the enthusiastic amateur and elite performer. These include athletics centres, sports halls, all-weather pitches, a 50m swimming pool, squash, badminton and netball courts, an indoor tennis centre and a state of the art fitness centre. National and regional centres for a number of sports are located on the site.
The university's own Facilities Management department's in-house groundstaff, headed by Mark Freeman, are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of all the outdoor sports facilities plus all the gardens and landscapes areas.
Mark has been at the university for twenty-one years and has built up a wealth of knowledge and experience of managing and maintaining both natural and artificial surfaces. He has twenty-three experienced staff (fifteen gardeners, six groundsmen, two arborists plus additional seasonal agency workers) to assist him. The majority of them are certificated in the use of sprayers, chainsaws, vehicles and equipment.
His staff work in teams and have their own areas of responsibility but, when required, will help out in other areas.
The gardening team consists of five groups of three, each with their own area, which manage and maintain all the garden, amenity and landscape areas around the university. The Arbor team (two men) maintains all mature trees, two heritage woodlands and plantations on the site. The groundstaff teams (two teams of three) are responsible for all the outdoor sports facilities, with one team allocated to cricket (and trained to ECB level three) and the other for field sports, tennis, athletics and corporate work. Mark will often employ additional agency staff to help ease the workloads during the summer months.
The level of sport provision at this site is unprecedented. The university provides thirteen senior natural grass pitches - six football, five rugby, one American football and one lacrosse. The pitches are renovated and topdressed every year using compatible sand dressings, applying between 60 and 100 tonnes per pitch.
At the time of my visit Mark was overseeing the start of construction of three new winter sports pitches that are being installed by Speedcut Contractors. The work is due to be completed next year.
Loughborough is the home of the ECB National Cricket Academy and boasts some of the best cricket practice and playing facilities in the world.
The facilities include:
• Three natural grass cricket squares and outfields
• Sixteen outdoor cricket natural grass net areas (on Ongar clay)
• Eleven artificial wickets (five outdoor and six indoor)
• Complete full size indoor net areas with full bowlers run up and wicket keeper area
The university also provides some of the finest indoor and outdoor athletics facilities in the country. This includes the indoor High Performance Athletics Centre( HIPAC) enabling athletes to train and perform in the best environment available.
Also on site are indoor and outdoor athletics tracks. The outdoor track is currently a six lane facility which was resurfaced with a Polytan M sandwich system in 2003. This is being refurbished in the next eighteen months, adding a further two lanes to the outside of the existing track. Regular vacuuming and blowing to remove surface litter and debris is carried out and, once every five years, a complete surface wash and clean is undertaken using specialist equipment.
And it doesn't stop there. Tennis is exceptionally well catered for with seventeen artificial courts:
• Three overhead irrigated American Fast Dry outdoor clay courts
• Six outdoor acrylic courts
• Four indoor acrylic courts
• Four Plexipave indoor acrylic courts
• Plus two tarmac courts
As with any playing surface, maintenance is a key component in their performance.
In the past many artificial surfaces were sold on the back of maintenance free advertising. This is just not the case at Loughborough. Mark spends nearly as much time on his artificial surfaces as he does on natural surfaces.
Detailed below are some examples of the maintenance regimes he has in place to ensure the artificial playing surfaces at Loughborough are safe, clean and playable for the chosen sports activity.
These courts were installed in 2003 and are now considered to be the top clay surface to play on. These courts are in use every day throughout the summer months.
The courts are brushed daily, the frequency being dependent on use. This will usually be twice a day when busy. Generally, they are dragmatted with a rubber dragmat across the line of play, followed by another with a brush in the line of play.
They are then watered, using the pop up automatic irrigation system, to damp down the clay ready for play. It usually takes about an hour and half for one man to complete all the daily work on the three clay courts. If the weather is hot the courts may be watered several times a day. Sometimes there becomes a build up of clay material under the nets. Once this happens some additional work is required to move this material back. This often requires taking down the nets and moving material about with lutes. Every few weeks new surface clay material is added to replace any contaminated material or clay that has blown away.
The courts also require topdressing twice a year, regular supplementary dressings throughout the season to maintain levels and a regular rolling programme.
The total maintenance cost for the upkeep of these courts, taking into account labour and materials, is about £10,000 per year.
Plexipave is a 100% acrylic latex, colour intense sports surface, formulated for use over asphalt or concrete. The high performance finish coat is ideal for tennis courts.
Plexipave courts are cleaned once a month using vacuums to keep the surface free of dust and debris and, when necessary, a power pressure washer is used to clean the surface.
The acrylic courts are also cleaned monthly using a combination of vacuums and brushes. This regular cleaning prevents the possible build up of algae on the outdoor surfaces. A preventive algaecide is applied when required.
The university has three full size artificial pitches on campus and maintains a further one across the road on the adjacent college campus, all having different playing characteristics and maintenance requirements. Three are third generation (3G) long pile carpets and the other is a non-sand water based system.
The university has invested in these 3G artificial long pile carpet pitches with the aim of catering for football, hockey and rugby.
One ,specifically providing a surface for football, rugby and lacrosse, is a McArdle Astraplay Plus Sport long pile (55mm) artificial grass carpet system, in-filled with 10% sand and 90% rubber, which was installed in 2002. This facility is widely used by the students and is also hired out to the public.
The lines are sewn in for football and over marked for rugby and lacrosse. The maintenance regime for this system revolves around a regular brushing programme using both in-house and external operatives.This is done using a SISIS zigzag brush and a SISIS Flexicomb, brushing in two directions on a weekly basis, along with blowing and cleaning up any surface debris and litter. Once a month Technical Surfaces come in and rotary vacuum clean the surface of the carpet and remove the smaller surface debris.
A similar regime, using the SISIS zigzag brush, is also carried out on the other 3G artificial pitch which is a Megagrass 20/35 carpet. Touchlines, goal lines and halfway line for football are sewn into the carpet but remaining football and hockey markings are painted in to reduce the number of seams and, therefore, potential failures.
Mark has purchased a Beamrider laser guided spray jet marker and uses STC paint for the lines. The paint tends to last between 10-12 weeks depending on weather conditions. Again, these pitches are maintained on a weekly basis with regular brushing, plus monthly rotary vacuum cleaning by Technical Surfaces.
The university also has a Heydour water based artificial pitch specifically for hockey. This 10mm pile carpet water system is currently being used by the national hockey teams for practices and matches. This system requires watering prior to any play to reduce friction burns and traction. The irrigation system delivers 18,000 litres of water to the pitch in seven minutes using Rainbird guns and pop up sprinklers. During the summer there may be a need to water these facilities six or seven times a day, costing about £25 on each occasion.
Again the lines are painted on the playing surface using the spray jet markers and Fleet's STC formulated paint for artificial surfaces.
With so much water going through the carpet it is not surprising that there is often a build up of algae, especially in any low spots where water tends to lie. Mark will spray these areas with an algaecide as and when required.
The maintenance budget, for these four artificial pitches alone, exceeds £25,000 per year. However, the benefits are tremendous in that they provide a wide range of playing surfaces for the students and athletes.
All artificial surfaces require regular maintenance, despite claims to the contrary when they first became available. Keeping the surfaces clean and free of debris is the first priority, followed by regular brushing, particularly on rubber crumb infill systems, to keep the pile upright and to agitate infill materials. Without regular maintenance the carpets can quickly deteriorate and reduce the lifespan of the surface.
It is the diversity and range of sporting facilities that ensure Mark and his staff are never bored. The challenges are always there with constant deadlines to meet and the expectations of the end users of such a high level institution.
Even during the winter there's often no respite for the staff who are likely to be busy working on new developments or substantial winter sport maintenance programmes.
As a committed natural turf man, Mark takes great pride in producing quality grass surfaces. With an increasing number of professional clubs using the university's facilities, it is essential to maintain the highest possible standards.
Mark enjoys his job and sees each year as a new challenge, and an opportunity to try out new ideas, test new products and machinery with the hope of making the job easier and more efficient. With the university a possible training camp for the 2012 London Olympics, life is only going to get busier.