Huskies by the Hillside: Designing UConn’s Athletic Village
How a contextually based design for the University of Connecticut’s Husky Athletic Village enhances the experience for student-athletes and fans alike.
You make your way into the park. Step by step, you enter the field and see that you are surrounded by a woodland landscape of lush, vibrant trees. 80-foot-tall lights illuminate the field as you make your way to your seat, which appears as if it’s been carved into the hillsides of the park. With multiple seating opportunities around the park, if you choose the hillside seating beyond right field, you realize that at almost 10 feet above the field of play, you will have a near-perfect panoramic view of the action below. If you choose to sit behind home plate, you will have an amazing backdrop of the woodlands that are integrated around campus.
Welcome to the University of Connecticut’s Elliot Ballpark, one of several venues housed in UConn’s recently completed Husky Athletic Village. Home to UConn’s team of Division I baseball, softball, lacrosse and soccer programs. The athletic village opened in spring 2021, and encompasses Elliot Ballpark, home of UConn baseball; Joseph J. Morrone Stadium, home of UConn soccer and lacrosse; Burrill Family Field, home of UConn softball; and the shared practice field. It’s now where student-athletes come to hone their skills and display their prowess, and where students, fans, alumni and the surrounding community can watch their favorite teams play.
Over the decades-long history of UConn athletics, the facilities that previously supported the Husky programs had become outdated and in need of major upgrades. When it came time to engage with a design firm to help UConn envision a new athletic complex, the University selected RDG Planning & Design to collaborate on developing, designing and realizing the dream of a state-of-the-art athletics complex for student-athletes. The resulting design creates an athletic district that aids in recruiting, focuses on the student-athlete and elevates the overall fan experience. To get to this point, the design team, which included RDG, Newman Architects, BVH Integrated Services, P.C., Jaffe Holden and Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, and construction manager Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, spent months engaging in stakeholder sessions, facilities assessments and site evaluations. In this piece, we’ll explore how the team worked within the existing site, leveraging the surrounding landscape to create a contextually based design that enhances the experience for student-athletes and fans alike.
Understanding and Working Within a Wholly Unique Site
UConn’s Husky Athletic Village’s location at the edge of campus offered many challenges and opportunities for the design team. One of the primary challenges was the need to design four new fields and a performance center on the site of existing athletic venues. The site of the existing district, located on the south edge of campus and adjacent to wetlands and a residential neighborhood, previously housed a soccer and baseball and softball competition field with no lighting. Early in the design phase, the design team studied 16 different site layout options and explored the benefits and drawbacks of different field placements and building adjacencies. The goal was to find a solution that could maximize solar and wind orientations, identify ideal locations for building and fields with consideration of various poor soils throughout the site, and provide facilities for each sport that were equidistant from the Performance Center to each field. As the project progressed, major geotechnical challenges were discovered, resulting from contaminated soils that had been dumped on-site following decades of previous projects. To keep these challenges from derailing the project and consuming the budget, the design team implemented geo-piers to stabilize the soil and relocated the Performance Center to avoid the worst soil conditions. With major earthwork occurring throughout the site, the design team took advantage of excess soil suitable for grassy knolls to serve as berm seating for baseball and softball on game days and provide flexible spectator experiences.
An important element of the process focused on integrating design into the geological and woodland backdrop features of the campus. The site is embedded in a native forest area with steep topography, and we sought to embrace and integrate the rugged beauty of the site within the design of the new complex. Natural site formations played a key role in shaping the outfield wall of Elliot Ballpark, giving it a unique shape. Beyond right field and down the first-base line of the new ballpark is a hillside, which the design team leveraged to carve a gentle slope into the hillside and construct a retaining wall forming right field. In doing so, the design creates unique and flexible seating opportunities unlike those that are found in many traditional ballparks. This area also offers a space for kids to play catch, parents with young families to spread out and UConn students to socialize in ways they couldn’t have at the old ballpark. Other site constraints helped frame special moments for spectators; the forested backdrop, for example, which elevates and towers over the built structures, couples with a grassy berm along the first base line to create boundaryless seating.
Collaborating to Build Consensus and Meet Needs
Stakeholder sessions played a critical role in ensuring the complex would meet the diverse needs of each team. Because each sport had unique preferences, we used multiple kinds of synthetic turf to accommodate the various coaches’ requirements for their fields. What’s more, all the turf selected is plowable, allowing the fields to be used year-round, and enabling UConn to recruit student-athletes from southern portions of the country – something they were previously unable to do. The design team also engaged with UConn coaches to discuss how design for the new athletic village could accommodate the often-busy schedules of student-athletes and enable students to move quickly and efficiently from one area to the next. This meant exploring how the design could incorporate amenities within both the Rizza Performance Center and the Stadia, which would allow the athletes the ability to practice, work out, train, receive treatment and meet with coaches all within the same locale. The modern design with notable efficiencies allows student-athletes to maximize their practice time and academic time and create meaningful relationships with their fellow athletes and coaches during their collegiate experience.
Despite a good portion of the design and construction work taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the athletic district was completed on time and within budget. RDG researched and suggested the weekly use of a 360-degree camera to allow the design team to continue to review progress even when it was not possible to travel to the site. Because the contractor had the technology on-site, they were able to create and share 360-degree scans of the construction progress with the design team.
From the start, the design team’s goal was to help UConn Athletics fulfill its mission to allow student-athletes to excel in academic achievement and athletic accomplishments. By taking advantage of the topography of the woodland area at the perimeter of the campus, the design offers a fan experience that is wholly distinct. Today, the Athletic Village is where student-athletes come to hone their skills and display their prowess, and where students, fans, alumni and the surrounding community come to watch their favorite teams play.