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Bulked up in Sports

Robins & Morton has built a powerful portfolio of sports facilities, including a hometown jewel, Regions Field.

Robins & Morton blasted rock to yield one of Regions Field’s best design features, a below-grade field that provides panoramic views of the Birmingham cityscape.

Robins & Morton blasted rock to yield one of Regions Field’s best design features, a below-grade field that provides panoramic views of the Birmingham cityscape.

Birmingham-based Robins & Morton, a construction and engineering company well known for its expertise in building hospitals, has developed a higher profile for sports facility construction during the past few years.

Regions Field Baseball Stadium, built at a cost of about $50 million, and the $53 million Auburn University Recreation and Wellness Center are among the builder’s most exciting recent sports projects.

Founded in Birmingham in 1946, Robins & Morton has offices in Dallas and throughout the Southeast. Ranked among the 100 largest builders in the country, the company has worked on projects in 34 states. The builder first gained recognition for its health care construction expertise during its work on the downtown General Hospital in Chattanooga in the early 1970s. Now company projects range widely in both commercial and industrial construction from hotels to power plants.

Upgrade work on Legion Field about three decades ago was the company’s first significant foray into sports facility construction, says Phil Yance, Robins & Morton’s project manager for construction of the Auburn rec center and several other Auburn sports projects the company has completed in recent years. “With the success of Legion Field, our reputation began to grow,” Yance says. “Over the years, we’ve developed a strong team with the expertise to handle a wide variety of sports projects.”

The Birmingham Race Track, completed in 1987, was the company’s first significant ground-up sports-related arena. A number of other projects followed over the years, including the Alabama A&M football stadium.

The Auburn Recreation and Wellness Center, a 275,000-square-foot complex, features a corkscrew-shaped walking and jogging track a third of a mile long, suspended above rock climbing walls.

Robins & Morton’s $24-million expansion and renovation of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, completed in 2006, helped give rise to a number of other recent Auburn projects, including the $60 million basketball arena and practice facility and an indoor practice facility for football, baseball, softball, soccer and track.

“After you’ve worked closely with an organization, they know how you face challenges and what you are capable of doing,” Yance says.

While working on sports facilities is similar in many ways to other Robins & Morton commercial projects, there are typically a few notable differences, Yance says. Construction schedules are often aggressive, to meet deadlines because the facilities absolutely must be ready for the beginning of sports seasons or training. “You’ve got to be open in time for the first game no matter what,” he says.

Another difference Yance points to is the long-span structure of many sports facilities. “You’re working with extremely large trusses,” he says.

Yance says working on the Auburn Recreation and Wellness Center was especially interesting because the design was such that for the first time he couldn’t quite visualize what a sports facility would look like from the plans. The complex interior by 360 Architecture of Kansas City includes cantilevered floors. “But it turned out great and is really striking visually,” Yance says.

The innovative and dramatic center has drawn widespread attention and rave reviews since it was completed in April, 2013. The 275,000-square-foot complex houses a five-floor fitness studio tower and corkscrew-shaped walking and jogging track a third of a mile long suspended above rock climbing walls. “One of the great things about the fitness tower is that you can open the windows during an exercise class and get some fresh air,” Yance says.

Among the recreation and wellness facility’s other offerings are a golf-simulator, game rooms and courts for volleyball, basketball and racquetball. Outside is a leisure pool and 45-person hot tub, in addition to equipment for kayaking and canoeing. A landscaped courtyard offers benches and other amenities.

“The design was based on a number of state-of-the-art ideas pulled from rec centers across the country,” Yance says. “The bar keeps rising on these facilities.”

An exterior view of the five-story center. 

While the challenging and complicated rec center was being built, Robins & Morton also took on the construction of Regions Field as general contractor, in conjunction with A.G. Gaston Construction Co. The development team for the design-build project was led by Corporate Realty Development and Brasfield & Gorrie. The design team was baseball-savvy HKS Architects of Dallas, in association with Hoskins Architecture and GA Studio in Birmingham.

Built from February 2012 to April 2013, the 8,500-seat stadium and surrounding family fun-park and picnic area project faced a number of obstacles, says Robert Gambrell, Robins & Morton’s project manager for the project. “We had a tight schedule to begin with, and then we encountered a sink hole,” Gambrell says. “But we were building in an area of Birmingham where it’s not unusual for that to happen, so it wasn’t completely unexpected.”

Other challenges included the sewer system having to be reconfigured and rock having to be blasted out for the sunken field, which was designed for easier access at street level. To overcome such challenges, Robins & Morton enlisted more workers, put in more hours and worked smarter. “Because of our past relationship with the city, they knew we would come in on schedule and within budget,” Gambrell says.

The below-grade field provides better views of the surrounding cityscape, including Children’s of Alabama Hospital, and allows for fans to walk down to their seats. It creates a more intimate feel while attending a game and better connects the park with the surrounding neighborhood. “It’s a more modern choice and is considered more aesthetically pleasing,” Gambrell says. “We’ve gotten great feedback on it.”

Another fairly recent Robins & Morton sports project of note is the $23-million Opelika Sportsplex, which was completed in July 2009. Somewhat smaller sports projects in recent years have included Birmingham-Southern’s physical fitness and rec center and work on both the Hoover and Shades Valley YMCAs.

No major sports projects are on the near horizon for the company, Yance says, but Robins & Morton did recently assist an architectural firm with an estimate for the construction of a recreation center for Old Miss. “We’re always looking for opportunities to see if they fit the model for our expertise and our availability,” he says.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

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