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Beyond Natural Grass: The Rise of Multi-Sport Synthetic Turf in Modern Facilities

By Brian Wesolowski, P.E., CFM, Gewalt Hamilton Associates (GHA)

In the early 2000s, the Midwest was on the cusp of a monumental shift in sports infrastructure. Traditional grass stadium fields, which had long been the paragon of sporting pride, began to witness significant competition: synthetic turf. This wasn’t merely a swap of material; it was a fundamental shift, a revolution in how sports and community spaces were conceptualized, designed, and utilized.

Synthetic turf ushered in a new era of sports infrastructure, offering unparalleled flexibility and resilience. This change was about more than the turf’s durability or aesthetics. It was about maximizing potential and reimagining possibilities. Organizations such as colleges, high schools, municipalities, park districts, and sport clubs, once held back by the recovery time and maintenance demands of natural grass, now benefited from fields designed for daily use. The implications were vast: more practice sessions, diverse sports activities, and an enhanced sporting curriculum. By adopting synthetic turf, these organizations not only enhanced their facilities but also experienced their full potential.

Similarly, public recreation organizations such as park districts, always in pursuit of consistent revenue streams, recognized the immense value of these all-weather fields. Even if rain interrupts a game, synthetic turf fields have been thoughtfully engineered to drain quickly. This means they’re ready for action far sooner than natural grass fields, allowing for more community events, tournaments, and celebrations. Synthetic turf is not just about convenience or durability; it’s about unlocking new possibilities and reaching new heights in sports and community engagement.

The Challenges of Innovation

Every innovation, no matter how groundbreaking, brings a set of challenges. The initial excitement surrounding synthetic turf was soon met with the intricate realities of its implementation. New constructions, especially in areas with strict local regulations, faced the challenge of securing multiple permits. Stormwater regulations, often varying from one jurisdiction to another, became a focal point of attention. Retrofitting existing sites presented its own set of challenges. The topography of natural grass fields, designed for optimal surface drainage, often didn’t align with the requirements of synthetic turf. This meant significant grading work to modify a field designed for natural grass to a field designed for synthetic turf. 

College of Lake Forest: GHA was retained by Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill. to convert a portion of their south-campus athletic field. The improvement included a synthetic turf multi-use rectangular field, designated to serve NCAA lacrosse, soccer (4-color striping), and women’s softball.

Warren Township High School in Gurnee, Ill. recently faced a similar challenge. Situated in a flood plain, their field required specialized solutions. The primary concern is the specific gravity of crumb rubber is close to that of water. This meant that during storm events, the crumb rubber could easily wash away, potentially draining into area waterways. To address this concern and maximize the potential of the field, we worked with the turf supplier and proposed a solution that involved increasing the sand content and selecting a denser style of rubber for the infill. These measures bolstered the turf’s resilience against flooding concerns and mitigated potential environmental hazards.

Environmental and Health Concerns

Yet, as synthetic turf gained traction, it also attracted scrutiny. Concerns arose, particularly regarding the materials used, such as rubber. Environmentalists and health experts raised concerns about potential health hazards and environmental impact. Recognizing these concerns, the industry sought innovative solutions. Recently the Schaumburg Park District in Schaumburg, Ill. opted for an eco-conscious approach. For their synthetic turf sports fields, which cover an impressive area of more than 500,000 square feet, it was recommended they use an olive pit infill for their baseball and softball fields. This decision not only addressed environmental and health concerns but also highlighted a commitment to sustainable solutions in the evolving landscape of synthetic turf systems.

Modern synthetic turfs are not just about playability, they also represent a focus on sustainability and health. These advancements reflect the industry’s dedication to ensuring that the benefits of synthetic turf are not overshadowed by potential drawbacks.

The Art of Choosing the Right Turf

With the market rapidly expanding, the choice of turf became a complex decision. With a rise in demand came an array of turf varieties, each boasting its unique set of advantages. Facility managers had to weigh multiple factors: the type of sport, player safety, maintenance requirements, and even aesthetic appeal. Innovations, such as the slit film, emerged as frontrunners during the second generation. Designed to cater to multiple sports, these turfs minimized common issues like rubber “splash”, ensuring a consistent playing experience. 

Maintenance: The Key to Longevity

As the second generation of synthetic turf fields became more prevalent, the emphasis shifted to their longevity, adaptability, and maintenance. Regular maintenance, often underestimated in the early days, emerged as a critical factor in extending a turf’s lifespan. Manufacturers, recognizing the need for guidance, began offering detailed protocols. These guidelines emphasized that consistent care – from cleaning to periodic inspections – could significantly extend a turf’s lifespan, ensuring consistent playability and safety.

Proper maintenance is not just about preserving the turf’s appearance. It’s about ensuring that the field remains a safe and conducive environment for athletes. The wear and tear as well as long term compaction of the infill, if not addressed, can lead to uneven and hard surfaces, increasing the risk of injuries.

Financial Implications and Long-Term Benefits

The financial aspect of synthetic turf was another point of discussion. The initial investment, while substantial, was easily justified by the long-term benefits. From increased revenue streams due to its versatile use and increased programming, to the significant reduction in maintenance costs, the advantages were clear and compelling.

Organizations implementing synthetic turf found that the return on investment was swift, especially when considering the increased usability of the fields. A synthetic turf field, unlike its natural counterpart, can host multiple events in a single day, from a morning soccer match to an evening baseball game, without any downtime in between. 

Community Engagement and Synthetic Turf

One of the often-overlooked benefits of synthetic turf is its role in fostering community engagement. With the ability to host diverse events, from sports tournaments to community gatherings, these fields become centers of activity. Communities and organizations find that these spaces, with their all-weather reliability, become focal points for social events, promoting a sense of unity and shared experience. These fields offer an opportunity to maximize their potential beyond traditional sports. They can serve as venues for cultural festivals, outdoor movie nights, community yoga sessions, and more, truly integrating them into the daily life of the community.

Schools with synthetic turf fields often see increased participation in sports and physical activities. The fields, being available for extended hours without the risk of wear and tear, encourage students to engage in extracurricular activities, promoting physical fitness and teamwork.

The Future of Synthetic Turf

The future of synthetic turf is not just about its continued adoption but also about its evolution. Research and development in the sector are ongoing, aiming to produce turfs that are not only more resilient and eco-friendlier but also adaptable to a broader spectrum of sports. As technology progresses, the horizon holds promise for turfs with enhanced shock absorption and the integration of smart technology to elevate the sporting experience.

Tomorrow’s synthetic turf fields will be more than mere playing surfaces. They’ll be intelligent, adaptive, and increasingly community centric. The incorporation of infrared sensors could offer real-time insights into field conditions, allowing for immediate action when maintenance needs are detected.

The ascent of multi-sport synthetic turf is not just a trend; it’s indicative of the industry’s commitment to excellence, innovation, and community well-being. By maximizing the potential of these surfaces, we can unlock new avenues for sports, recreation, and community engagement. As we continue to explore its potential, one thing remains clear: the future of synthetic turf is bright, offering a wide range of possibilities for modern facilities. Driven by focus and precision, the industry is poised to offer solutions that not only meet but exceed the expectations of today’s dynamic world.

Brian Wesoloski, P.E. CFM, is the Director of Site Design Services at Gewalt Hamilton Associates, an employee-owned consulting firm based out of Vernon Hills, Ill.