Gillette Stadium goes synthetic

You’ve heard the saying, “It’s easier said than done,” but try this one, “It’s quicker done than told.” That’s probably the best way to summarize the midseason removal and changing of the turf at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. Carefully planned, supported and executed, the work was actually finished ahead of the unusually tight deadline.

The background, of course, is well known by New England Patriot football fans. After exploring many options and considering the alternatives, including constant resodding, draining and even installing a heating system under the surface, the Patriots were finally ready to give up their natural turf and switch to an engineered surface.

Why change?

The short answer with synthetic turf, scheduling uncertainty becomes a thing of the past. The complete answer, of course, has more than one component and also includes player safety, enhanced performance and lower cost of maintenance.

DAY 1 By 10 a.m. on day one, the removal of the natural grass is well underway.

The amount of information is relatively small, but growing—there are differences between the injury rates on grass and on artificial turf that may be statistically significant, providing an early indication that total injury rates and knee injury rates on artificial turf are significantly lower than on grass surfaces. How about player performance? There’s agreement across the board here; high-quality, engineered grass provides superb footing.

If you ask an operations or site manager for their opinion, they would probably dwell on benefits such as the low cost of maintenance. When you use artificial turf, the primary task is removing leaves and debris, and it can be accomplished by a tractor-pulled sweeper system.

DAY 2 The spreading of engineered stone creates a solid base that allows for good drainage.

Last, but not least—and this one is a great advantage from the fans’ point of view—weather and excessive use can cause serious injury to a natural grass field, forcing game cancellations and postponements for repairs and maintenance. High-quality, artificial turf, on the other hand, can stand up to continual use and maintain quality of play, regardless of the amount of traffic on the field.

Calling the play

The Gillette Stadium turf-changing process included removing the current turf; excavating the soil; executing improvements to the drainage system; placing a layer of engineered crushed stone and installing FieldTurf directly over the stone, which is similar to a shag carpet, with a mixture of silica sand and cryogenically processed rubber granules placed within the blades of synthetic grass. The result of years of research, and hundreds of tests on the field and in the laboratory, FieldTurf is a patented, hybrid fiber. Why was it chosen for Gillette Stadium? “It’s strong, smooth and forgiving,” states New England FieldTurf Representative John Chaffin of Northeast Turf, who adds, “Players say that FieldTurf feels like grass and plays like grass; it lets you move, stop and cut without worrying about sliding, and it makes you feel quick, and, of course, it makes moving laterally a lot easier.”

According to Chaffin, FieldTurf comes in different grades, depending on the sport being played and the budget requirements, and he explains that high-impact sports, such as football, require a particular grade. Chaffin describes Duraspine, the turf used for Gillette Stadium, as “2.5 inches long and designed with a 100 percent recovery memory; there are absolutely no footprints left on this turf.”

Not for rookies

Once the decision to change to an artificial surface was made, the total window of opportunity for the installation was 11 days. For RAD Sports, the company contracted to do the work, the schedule was even tighter; they received a go-ahead contingent on being able to get construction started the next morning.

According to the company owners, the removal of natural turf and installation of the engineered turf is a job that normally would take between eight and 10 weeks. “In this case, however, we had 12 hours to coordinate manpower and equipment, and five days to get the actual work done; we pulled it through with some old-fashioned, Yankee ingenuity,” says Derek Delmonico, co-owner of RAD Sports. Derek and his brother, Rob, were optimistic that they would be awarded the contract and had low-beds on standby loaded with CAT excavators, skid steers, track-type tractors, wheel loaders and Challenger tractors—a total of 11 machines standing ready to be delivered to Gillette Stadium.

DAY 4 The final step in preparation for the FieldTurf.

Needless to say, the hours of work were not your typical office hours. “We operated day and night, nonstop, with the crews working two 12-hour shifts and even sleeping at the stadium,” says Rob. “The schedule had absolutely no room for downtime; the lineup even included a Milton CAT supplied technician with a field service truck exclusively designed to the job, any time of the day or night, as needed.”

DAY 5 A total transformation.

RAD Sports is no newcomer to the field of sports. One of their most recent projects is a large, athletic field complex in Lancaster, Mass., which Derek described as an excellent opportunity to put their knowledge and their equipment to the test. “We’ve installed 16 soccer fields for the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association; 11 of them are natural grass and five are artificial turf.”

At the personal level, Rob and Derek are closely connected to the sports environment, both of them successful amateur triathletes and Ironman competitors, as well as being Patriots season ticket-holders, of course.

The equipment

Given the working hours required by the tight deadlines, operator comfort, productivity and efficiency were number one concerns. “We needed to make sure we’d provide our crew with operator-friendly equipment offering excellent visibility, reduced noise and no vibration,” says Rob. Derek adds, “Remember, there was absolutely no room for error, so overall dependability and an unparalleled level of dealer support were crucial to the success of the job.”

To tackle the challenge, RAD Sports relied on a lineup consisting of two Caterpillar 320CL and two 307C excavators equipped with large cleanup buckets, a CAT DD 486 double drum roller, two CAT 246B skid steers, a 966H CAT wheel loader, a CAT D3G track-type tractor and a D6N LGP CAT track-type tractor. Challenger tractors were used by Northeast Turf to lay the new turf.

Certain specific equipment features, such as outstanding maneuverability and LGP, played an important role. LGP stands for low ground pressure, and it’s achieved by means of wider tracks so that the machine’s ground pressure is reduced. It’s similar to having flotation tires on a four-wheeler. LGP machines are used in applications such as golf courses and often in forestry, where the machines are required to disturb less of the ground when working. Even the skid steers used for this job were special fitted with tracks instead of wheels.

Precision was a must, as the existing turf had to be stripped without disturbing an underlying system of heating pipes, 30 miles of pipe to be exact, intended to prevent snow build-up in the winter months. How was this particular challenge resolved? “The track-type tractor we used for the stripping was equipped with a laser-guided system for automatic control of the blade lift, assuring that very precise work was being consistently performed,” says Rob.

The strategy

The soil was removed from within 1 inch of the heating pipe system, creating a small buffer. Then came a geotextile fabric that prevents the stones to be laid down as the next layer from embedding themselves in the soil, protecting the pipes. The geotextile also forms a barrier that keeps sediment from going up and clogging the drainage provided by the stones.

After the geotextile had been laid down, 4,000 tons of laser-graded, dynamic stone were spread to a thickness of 5 to 6 inches. “It is no ordinary crushed stone,” says Chaffin, “it’s very precisely laser-graded, and you can walk on it without leaving an indentation.” Once the stone base had been leveled, the Northeast Turf crew inspected the multilayer base, stringing it to check whether it was perfectly even and testing the porosity to make sure it provided good drainage. Why the close look? As Chaffin puts it, “ In order for us to perform the level of work we are committed to providing, we need to rely on the quality of the work that happened beforehand—let me tell you, the guys at RAD built a great base for us.”

The 15-foot-wide rolls of Durospine FieldTurf were put down in an edge-to-edge configuration across the field, and the edges were sewn together with two rows of stitches, using a special, heavy thread for extra durability. “You do have a choice of gluing or sewing, but certainly sewing gives you longer-lasting results,” says Chaffin.

The next step: a mix of silica sand and tiny, cryogenetically processed, rubber particles were spread on top of the engineered turf, filling in around the Durospine threads. (Keep in mind that the threads of the engineered turf are 2.5 inches tall.) The surface was then rolled, and more granules spread, except the second time they were all rubber, so there’s no abrasive action; the surface was rolled one more time. According to Chaffin, this step helps to replicate the conditions of natural grass, providing drainage and offering biomechanics and cleat penetration.

Now what?

“The outcome of the games are not under our control,” says Derek, “but we feel really good at having contributed to making sure our teams have the best possible physical environment in which to play.” Tom Brady, Rosevelt Colvin and Teddy Bruschi made a point to meet the team from RAD Sports and Northeast Turf to thank them for their efforts. It takes a pro to understand, appreciate and support another.

The author specializes in landscape and construction services, and is based in Holliston, Mass.