HKS Architects’ Mark Williams on North America’s most expensive sports facility

Mark Williams of HKS Architects discusses the design concept behind the Los Angeles Rams' new US$2.5 billion stadium, North America's most expensive sports facility which broke ground last week.

HKS Architects’ Mark Williams on North America’s most expensive sports facility

Last week, 11 months after securing their relocation from St Louis, the Los Angeles Rams officially broke ground on their new HKS Architects-designed, 70,000-seat home in Inglewood. Constructed on a parcel of land close to LAX airport and which spans an area more than three times the size of Disneyland, the vast 298-acre development will include a concert venue, a hotel, retail and office space, apartments and townhouses, and even an artificial lake with waterfalls.

“This thing is going to be unbelievable,” declared Rams owner Stan Kroenke, speaking at Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony. “I don’t think people really understand the scale of this.”

Built on the site of the old Hollywood Park racetrack and scheduled to open in time for the 2019 National Football League (NFL) season, the US$2.5 billion development is by some distance North America's most expensive sports facility and has all the hallmarks of a new generation of NFL venues.

The stadium’s roof, for example, is made of ETFE, a durable, translucent plastic material also used at US Bank Stadium, another HKS development which opened in Minnesota in July. The venue will also boast state of the art luxury suites, ultra-modern sponsor areas and landscaped entrances, while its centre-hung ‘oculus’ scoreboard will be some 50 feet high and 120 yards long, twice the length of the Dallas Cowboys’ scoreboard at AT&T Stadium, currently the largest facility in the NFL.

Following Thursday’s groundbreaking, SportsPro caught up with Mark Williams, principal and director of sports and entertainment business development at HKS Architects, to discuss the project’s design and to find out what sets it apart from other modern NFL stadia.

SP: At what point did HKS get involved in this project and how did the process of its conception play out?

MW: We’ve been working from day one with Mr Kroenke and the Kroenke Sports & Entertainment group and the Rams. We did a bunch of early work after he purchased the property there at Inglewood, the 300 acres. We started designing and masterplanning all 300 acres, including the 70,000-seat stadium, from that day forward. We were very integral in helping create the design and the documents and the support which was used for the NFL relocation approval, for the team to move from St. Louis to Los Angeles.

What were the primary directives given to you by Kroenke and his group, in terms of what this development had to be and the statement they wanted it to make?

There were a couple of big things. One, this is really a legacy project in so many ways, having the NFL, after 20-plus years, return to the second-biggest market in the States. Mr Kroenke, his vision from day one was to create the ultimate fan experience and patrons’ environment, not only for the Rams but for the NFL.

He really saw this site as a global stage, knowing that 40 million people land at LAX every year from across the globe, and the last thing that they see before they land is this site. Also the exposure for the team on television, and then the fact that we’ve got 300 acres that we could make a truly destination environment. All of those things were very important from day one, minute one, for his vision for what not only this stadium, but this site from a sports and entertainment perspective could be and should be.

What sets this project apart from other recent developments HKS has worked on in the NFL, such as US Bank Stadium, AT&T Stadium and Lucas Oil Stadium?

We really treat them all very similar, and the neat thing is that the approach that we take is very bespoke for the team, the region, the city, and the league. We take very few givens when we start a project. We took that same approach on this project and the end result is a customised, unique design that really grows out of the DNA of Southern California, the DNA of the Los Angeles Rams, and the entertainment industry. There is a lot of research-based design and understanding that follows, and responding to that really goes into how it is created.

What are the main inspirations behind the design concept of this stadium and the various elements that have gone into it?

One of the big things is the whole indoor-outdoor perspective. It’s very ingrained in Southern California because of the climate, so if you look at the residents there and the way their living rooms and common areas flow inside and outside, there is a very soft grey line between the two. It’s very common in residences, in restaurants and hotels, gathering places and entertainment areas, to have that classic indoor-outdoor relationship.

We’ve actually taken that, through our research, and understood that that’s the way people live and that’s what they expect. And we’ve done that on a three million square-foot building. That’s unprecedented.

You can start out with the typical idea that it needs to be an enclosed building, all air conditioned, or we can do that but maybe we have some things that open up. It made the most sense, if you’re going to spend US$2.5 billion, that you spent it the right way, and the right way was we should have an indoor-outdoor building where people can enjoy the incredible climate and weather and ocean breezes in Southern California.

But we also have this skin that encloses, that protects the field and the patrons, in case it does rain, or in case there is an event where the wind or the climate may be an issue. You really get the best of both worlds, and it’s no different than those outdoor spaces behind some great homes and great restaurants and great areas in Southern California.

Besides the fan experience, a key piece in the design of every modern-day sports facility is the commercial side of things - concessions, luxury suites and VIP areas, sponsor spaces, etc. To what extent have those considerations factored into the design?

We did a whole demographic-based design, and we really have a lot of flexibility and diversity built into the seating bowl and the design. What I mean by that is whether you’re a typical suite holder, whether you’re a club patron or a general admission patron, we have a diversity of product oftentimes in the same range of pricing that you can fit into different locations in the seating bowl.

If I’m fortunate enough to have the ability to be a club patron, I don’t have just a club on the sidelines at a certain location to go to; I have lower, upper, end zone. I’ve got different locations within the bowl because we’ve found that with club patrons, there are different expectations as to where they want to be. So we’ve done that throughout the whole seating bowl.

We’ve led the way, I believe, on many other venues by creating these environments that can be sponsor-able elements within the building. Those may be platforms in the seating bowl, those may be zones within concourses. We take that very seriously in trying to have the design to reflect a very definable area - that’s probably the best way to say it. A sponsor can come in there and it’s not just, ‘ok, I have a wall here’, or whatever. They’ve got a very defined area that they can occupy.

Due to the proximity of the site location to LAX,  this development is subject to FAA height restrictions. How did you work around that and deal with some of the other challenges you faced when designing this facility?

We’re just a hair over two miles from LAX, so like any building in that region around the airport, we have certain height restrictions according to FAA requirements and for the planes that are coming in. The result of that is we had to push the building into the ground about 90 feet. Now that’s about double the most we’ve ever done, so immediately you sit there and think that’s a concern or an issue.

Honestly, at the beginning, that was something that I had to scratch my head and try to figure out how we were going to do that. But the reality is what rose out of that will be the greatest entry experience for sure in the NFL, and probably any other sports venue that I can think of.

What happened was we sort of peeled back the entry point and terraced the entrances, so we have this incredible, meandering path which is fully landscaped. You have this procession down and into the building. The landscape flows in and it’s tapered, and you work your way down. It’s a great people-watching place, it’s a great walk, and you have this very cool image of meandering down to the ocean with this winding path. We call it the ‘extended object’ - that’s another DNA characteristic all over Southern California.

So what started as ‘boy, this is going to be a challenge and how are we going to do this?’ is probably one of the top two or three features of the whole thing. Going from where you get dropped off or where you park to where you get into the building is just going to be a phenomenal experience, before you even get into the concourse or the seating bowl.

One thing that immediately stands out on this project is the price tag, even in the NFL, where the numbers are generally getting bigger across the board. Why is this project so expensive and where is most of that money being spent?

There are some obvious factors. We are at three million square-feet; the only comparable venue of that size in the NFL would be AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Houston’s Reliance Stadium is about 2.1 [million], and everything else is about 1.7, 1.8-ish, in that range. We’re nearly double the size, so that’s a big thing.

The second thing is we’re in Southern California and Los Angeles, so the cost of construction, if you compare that to other cities, it’s usually on the upper end. It’s just how much it costs to construct in that region of the United States. And then probably the third piece that plays into it is the seismic criteria that we needed to meet. There is a premium to design a building and design three million square-feet and all those pretty complicated structural things while still having it meet and address the criteria. Those are three really big things that explain a good chunk of the delta between other stadiums and this one.

There is still the possibility that the venue could host two teams and not just one, with the San Diego Chargers currently in talks over joining the Rams in LA. How has that influenced the way you’ve approached the design?

Another thing from day one that Mr Kroenke said was that we would design it for two teams and it would be equal in all aspects. It’s already tuned and set up and designed so that we have the ability, if it ever happened, to add a second team. Coaching areas, access to the field, owner’s areas - all that stuff is already baked into the equation.

Williams was speaking to SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long.