“Building what matters is our main focus.”
These are the words of Bryan Ramsey, Senior Project Manager at Skanska, which recently teamed with Megen Construction Company in a joint venture to deliver preconstruction and construction management services on the $87 million renovation of a multi-purpose sports arena for the University of Cincinnati (UC). This facility opened in fall 2018 just in time for the 2018-19 men’s basketball season, which had record-breaking ticket sales as fans were eager to experience the now state-of-the-art NCAA Division I basketball and volleyball venue.
But what is it about this project that makes it truly special? Is it the 360-degree concourses that permit excellent views no matter where fans sit? Or high-tech amenities such as the new HD videoboards and HD sound system? Or perhaps it’s the modernized locker rooms and classrooms designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?
These elements and others have certainly transformed the now 30-year-old arena. However, construction experts like Ramsey consider this to be a landmark project because of its role in shaping the surrounding community, which derives huge economic advantages from UC because the public university is the region’s largest employer.
“Being part of a team that brought a rejuvenated and exciting facility to Cincinnati is something in which Skanska takes great pride,” Ramsey says. “Our company builds projects, like Fifth Third Arena, that matter to communities. This project not only provides athletes with an incredible space in which to train and compete, and fans an exciting new environment in which to gather, but it’s also brought about a new level of excitement on campus for all students and faculty as well.” He states further that the arena will help the university with recruiting efforts, and support the community by creating more jobs.
Mike Bohn, UC’s Director of Athletics, adds, “The renovation of Fifth Third Arena represents a significant commitment to athletics by our university, and the overwhelming response of our donors and fans has been truly inspiring.”
First-Class Facility Upgrades
Renovations officially kicked off in April 2017, following the UC Board of Trustees’ approval of the privately funded project on December 15, 2015. Construction was originally scheduled to commence in early 2016, but was delayed a year as a result of the project’s complexity and pace of fundraising.
One of the project highlights involved replacing the former rectangular-shaped seating arrangement with two 360-degree concourses and a permanent lower bowl with court-centric seating. Premium seating options throughout the facility include more than 500 new club seats, a new Bearcats Lounge, loge box seating, and 16 luxury suites. In total, the arena has capacity for approximately 11,500 spectators.
“The arena was built in 1989 as a multi-purpose facility. The old configuration was that of a glorified gymnasium or rec center. With the renovation, the university and architect aimed to increase sightlines and add more areas for people to congregate before and after games. The overarching goal was to create a more intimate, inviting environment,” Ramsey explains, adding that restroom and concession areas are now more strategically located throughout the arena.
A key element of the arena proper is a nine-display, center-hung HD scoreboard with an accompanying halo ring. This $3.2 million device features 3.9 million LEDs for nearly 2,000 square feet of digital canvas. Spectators can also take in the action through four LED boards in the east and west upper-level sideline areas (Bearcat Lair), four curved LED boards on each of the four corner pillars of the arena, and ribbon boards located both courtside and encircling the concourse seating fascia. To further enhance the gameday presentation experience, an LED lighting system runs throughout the building’s interior. Other technological enhancements include an exterior LED marquee display on the east side of the facility and acoustic panels along the interior of the roof.
Specialty food and beverage offerings from popular Cincinnati vendors such as Skyline Chili, Taste of Belgium, Buffalo Wings & Rings, Frisch’s Big Boy and local craft breweries, along with updates to concessions operations, further support the university’s goal to create a fan-friendly experience. “We strategically work to partner with local leaders who fuel the intensity of interest around our athletics programs,” Bohn says. “We will continue to look for additional Cincinnati favorites to join our roster of options available in the new arena.”
The renovated sports venue contains upgraded men’s and women’s locker rooms, a team theatre/film room, a dining area for athletes, and a sports medicine facility equipped with a hydro-therapy room and a nutrition/fuel station. Students and faculty also have access to classroom spaces with e-learning capabilities.
“We transformed the exterior facade by adding a series of canopies and sleek metal panels and painting the existing brick in modern colors,” Ramsey adds. “We expanded the arena approximately 15 feet on the east and west sides, which added almost 100,000 square feet of more usable, inhabitable space on the main concourse.” Other small additions consist of window boxes at the upper concourse level and at the southeast corner of the arena, and an overlook bar offering views of the baseball field next door.
The facility even has a new main entrance with centralized ticketing and guest services, which provides a clear point of entry and visually connects to a redesigned plaza through an open concourse curtainwall. One focal point of the plaza is a bronze statue of Oscar Robertson, a prestigious UC alum and celebrated NBA star who played for the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks in the 1960s and 1970s.
Complex Renovations Require Logistical Expertise
This complex renovation effort took approximately 20 months, with substantial completion achieved in October 2018. Architecture firms Populous and Moody Nolan handled facility design through a joint venture partnership.
The sports arena is a concrete-and-steel structure that originally featured precast seating in the upper bowl and retractable seating in the lower bowl. It is situated in the middle of the UC campus, which boasts an average annual enrollment of 44,000 students.
Working on an active campus posed logistical obstacles because construction crews had to perform activities in an occupied space with several other buildings nearby. The Skanska/Megen team spent nearly a year planning out logistics to prevent the renovations from negatively impacting campus activities. To maintain public safety, an 8-foot-high perimeter fence was placed around the job site. Ramsey adds, “We had motorized gates for deliveries and turnstiles that required contractors to enter a code to access construction areas, which were active with the transport of materials and equipment, heavy machinery, dump trucks to haul demolition debris, and more.”
In addition, crews had to relocate an existing weight room located beneath the northern half of the arena to remove seating safely. “In the upper bowl we replaced corners of the precast with curved steel to create a bowl effect, and installed long-span aluminum stadium risers injected with sound-deadening cellular concrete infill,” Ramsey says. “For the lower bowl seating, steel supports were precast and we added small sections of new retractable seating.” This combination makes the floor-level area more flexible so it can be reconfigured for other activities, such as commencements, banquets, conferences, and concerts.
Modern Construction Tech Offers Greater Precision
Like many of today’s projects, building information modeling (BIM) was used to enhance project delivery. “We used Revit to facilitate 3-D design coordination with all of our construction trades – not only on mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems, but also the structural portion of the arena,” Ramsey explains. “For example, we had to make sure all of our stadia coordinated appropriately before we fabricated the new steel rakers used to support seating.”
The project teams used other innovative technologies to make more precise calculations on various job components. In the main arena area, for instance, the 20,000-square-foot space needed to accommodate a super flat, high-performance wood floor – the kind used by many professional NBA teams. The flooring contractor would only allow a variation of one-eighth of an inch for every 10 feet. But how do you level such a massive space accurately and cost-effectively?
Skanska found a way to make it work – and saved the client nearly $100,000 in the process. “Our in-house virtual design and construction group came in and laser-scanned the existing concrete floor, creating a heat map with data points showing all of the low and high points. The flooring contractor was able to drop his original price quote because this heat map helped him better focus his leveling efforts,” Ramsey says. He adds that this is the first instance where Skanska’s Cincinnati office has used a heat mapping technique to assess flooring conditions.
These and other efforts were instrumental in creating a first-class college facility that provides exceptional experiences to fans and students, and attracts top athletes to the university. There can be no doubt that the new-and-improved Fifth Third Arena – which also incorporates many sustainable elements in an effort to pursue LEED Silver certification – will stand as a regional icon for generations to come.
Photos courtesy of University of Cincinnati
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