St. James Academy Athletic Field – A Collaborative Victory
We get a kick out of perfecting soccer fields, multipurpose fields or any other facility that gives local athletes a chance to do what they love. The project at St. James Academy in Lenexa, Kansas was especially meaningful because the school is on the rise and a new multipurpose field is the perfect way to enhance the experience for students and families.
Partners Reunite for a Special Project.
Built in 2005, St. James Academy is a Catholic High School that’s growing incredibly fast along with a reputation for academic and athletic performance. It’s part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and enjoys strong philanthropic support from local families including the Straubs of Straub Construction.
“St. James makes a difference. I’ve witnessed it myself,” says Ernie Straub III. “I’ve seen kids really turn their lives around because of St. James. It’s just heartwarming to know there’s a place where they can connect with people who truly care about them.”
Straub’s own children have attended St. James and he’s a longtime supporter. When plans were unveiled to build a new multipurpose athletic field, it’s no surprise that Straub Construction was a perfect match for the job.
“The school is really invested in helping young people be all they can be,” says Straub. “We like to do projects that move communities forward and enrich lives, so helping St. James with their athletic field is right in line with who we are.”
St. James families and supporters pulled together to help fund the new field. Straub Construction then hand-picked its project team and brought in Alpha-Omega Geotech. Our firms share a long history of solving problems through creative thinking and collaboration.
“We’ve worked with many geotechnical firms and prefer AOG,” says Straub. “We always recommend them to customers. They are at the top of our list because they’re problem solvers. AOG will listen to customers and come up with solutions that are solid and affordable. We work with nonprofits and other community organizations that have to be very careful with every dollar they spend. AOG understands that and shares our devotion to helping these groups.”
“When I first walked into St. James Academy, I immediately got a sense of the school’s purpose and meaning and wanted to help,” says AOG President Allan Bush. “I love making something and watching it turn into an opportunity for the community.”
Bush says Straub has always shown a strong appreciation for geotechnical expertise and is quick to give AOG a seat at the table.
“Unlike many other builders, Straub Construction understands the risks associated with getting up, out of the ground and takes them seriously. It’s an area where any general contractor can easily lose money and time if they’re not careful because you’re dealing with unknowns of the subsurface and things may be out of your control.”
The old St. James field was little more than mowed grass and painted stripes, and was pretty hard on young ankles and knees. The new field is designed to perfection as a safer, specialized turf surface that required careful subgrade engineering to make the ground flat, even and sustainable for years to come.
“We know soil, especially in the Kansas City area and this project was all about soil,” says Bush. “There were challenges involved that really drew on our experience working in complicated situations that require collaboration, creativity and flexibility throughout the process.”
Investigating an Evolving Piece of Land.
Ideally, the project would have happened on plain, level land that didn’t need much refining. That wasn’t the case in St. James’ backyard where the new field was planned to replace the old one and extend far beyond it, down sloping, uneven terrain into the unknown.
Garic Abendroth, AOG’s Engineering Department Manager and point person for our firm’s pre-construction work, headed up the geotechnical investigation. He started by digging back through decades of satellite photos to get a feel for what the team would be dealing with.
“It’s always good to know where you’re coming from to understand where you’re going,” says Abendroth. “And some of this history turned out to be really important.”
Abendroth found shallow bedrock beneath the north end of the new field’s planned layout. But all of those old photos revealed potentially serious problems on the south end.
“I could see there had been ponds on that end in the past. We then did testing and found that the ponds had been properly drained and filled in at some point, which was a huge relief. Had they been simply covered up, the cost of digging out the pond muck and stabilizing the ground might have busted the project’s budget.”
Abendroth also noted that a tree-lined road used to run right through the planned layout. Put it all together and suddenly things got complicated.
“So one end is bedrock and then there are trees and a road in the middle, and the other end is sloping over what used to be ponds. Turning that kind of scenario into a perfectly flat playing field was a pretty unusual challenge.”
“Geotech work is all about matching the ground conditions and the performance requirements of the structure (in this case an athletic field) that’s planned on top of it,” explains Bush. “When you’re talking about very precise specifications for the installation of specialized athletic turf, this is as big of a subgrade challenge as you’re ever going to come up against.”
“Given the circumstances, the hardest part of this project was making sure the new field wouldn’t have any issues and would always be there for soccer, football, track and other sports,” says Straub. “We had a long way to go.”
Collaboration Finds the Right Approach.
AOG’s team went to work gathering input from Straub Construction and other project partners including civil engineer Dan Foster of Schlagel & Associates to assess everything that would be demanded of the land. Matching the geotechnical investigation with input from the greater project team was the best way to find the right solution. Bush says early collaboration always creates a valuable advantage.
“Straub knows how to do things right and got us involved early. We came in with the rest of the project team when they started sitting down at the table to figure out what this was going to take. We were able to collaborate from square one to understand what every member of the team needed from the ground beneath this field, from turf specs and drainage to budget boundaries. Our expertise also informed the work of our partners to boost their efficiencies. It was really the right way to start a construction project.”
The team’s discussion soon focused on whether to lower the north end of the site or raise the south end to make everything level.
“Dealing with either all bedrock or all soil is business as usual for us,” says Abendroth. “But when a site is split like this, that’s a real challenge.”
The team concluded that lowering the north end would be too expensive and too difficult due to the shallow bedrock. Abendroth says there would be drainage issues too.
“Mother Nature almost always sets your boundaries. You can only do so much with things like bedrock and gravity.”
While raising the south end was more feasible, it still wouldn’t be easy and required a massive amount of earth moving. AOG offered several options for approaching the challenge and negotiated with the project team over multiple meetings to fine-tune the best option based on the available materials, goals, needs and budget.
“Unlike our competitors, we don’t just do a ground investigation, write a report and then move on,” says Abendroth. “We ask questions and collaborate both upfront and throughout the project.”
Shaping the Solution.
After all the huddles and discussions, AOG settled on a plan to lay down a thick layer of cement-stabilized clay with gravel on top and a rocky clay mix fill underneath it all. The cement-clay mix would keep the ground stiff and reduce shrink-swell potential that can lead to dips and ‘birdbaths’ on the surface over time. It’s commonly used under roads and parking lots.
“The cement-clay mixture was the best economical choice and offered the sustained support that the turf required,” explains Bush. “There were other options, but the mixture fit the circumstances really well. This is another benefit of collaboration. Many factors went into this choice.”
The team got lucky with the availability of rocky clay mix fill soil that would support the entire project. A lot of residential construction excavation in the area had resulted in fill material near the site. The team made efficient use of that soil which would have just been hauled away otherwise.
“We had plenty of it,” says Abendroth. “But you can’t just dump it in. You have to carefully lay it in thin layers and observe everything that’s going on as you work to ensure stability. AOG techs did a lot of testing to get everything exactly right.”
Abendroth stayed close to his phone during the earth-moving phase, fielding calls about curveballs that the team came across and changing circumstances like the onslaught of heavy rain. AOG techs also went on to provide testing and inspections for concrete and other construction at the site.
Layers of Achievement.
By the end of the summer of 2019, a pristine multi-purpose athletic field was ready for a future filled with achievement, competition and the construction of character for generations of St. James students. Ernie Straub III says the field shines for all to see like the promise of the school itself.
“This is the beginning of great things. The fundraising continues and someday there’s going to be a big stadium wrapped around the field. It will be a special place whether you’re a parent, an athlete or involved with the school band. Most of the kids at the school will benefit from the field somehow. Lives will be changed.”
“We rose to the occasion to help St. James Academy fulfill its mission,” adds Bush. “I’m especially happy about that. We know the school and the ArchDiocese want to create the best experience for the children they serve and this field does exactly that.”
“I love what we’ve done and I’m so proud that I helped make it the best it can be,” says Abendroth. “Strangers might drive by and think it’s no big deal, but they have no idea what it was before and how far we brought it to support these kids.”
The field is also a tribute to true collaboration during the design phase of a construction project. Bush says the project could have become messy if AOG had not come in early to work through it with the rest of the team.
“Contributing to something like this is a great feeling. We rolled with the punches throughout the project and really enjoyed the kind of close collaboration that leads to the best, most efficient results.”
The St. James Academy field continues AOG’s tradition of community-focused work in the areas of both education and athletics. Bush says it’s also another example of our specialized experience in turf field development.
“Whether it’s a series of fields on farmland, like the Olathe Soccer Complex, or a single field constructed on a complicated combination of land characteristics, like St James Academy, we know how to shape a piece of land to fit the precise needs of a premium turf surface and we know how to engage a variety of team configurations and processes to get the job done right.”
As Kansas City’s reputation for championing youth sports grows, Bush expects AOG’s reputation will keep growing along with it.
“It’s satisfying to take on these challenges with the right partners and turn our team’s creativity into solutions that are meaningful for both players and all the people who support them. We find real purpose in creating opportunities for our local community. That’s what we love.”
Aerial images courtesy Matthew Straub, Straub Construction unless otherwise noted.