A New Era Begins for University of New Hampshire Athletics

October 10, 2016 / Jim Swords

I was passing through New Hampshire in 2010 when I decided to stop and say hello to University of New Hampshire Athletic Director Marty Scarano.

The visit proved to be a fortuitous one, as Marty shared his vision for the future of the athletic department. UNH has historically fielded a strong football program, but their facilities were falling behind the competition. A new football stadium was top of mind for Marty and he wanted Populous to compete for the job.

The project’s challenges included both budgetary and site constraints. Regardless, we threw ourselves at the endeavor and stayed true to a client relationship six years strong. As project manager I was lucky enough to see the project through to opening day. Here’s the story behind the making of a best-in-league facility, one made possible only by having incredible partners in UNH, the local architects of Lavallee Brensinger and PC Construction.

Thinking on Top of the Box

“Wow, that looks like a football stadium. That looks like New Hampshire.”

Marty and the university facilities team reacted positively to our initial designs for a reimagined Wildcat Stadium, formerly known as Cowell Stadium, but they were about to dump some cold water on the project. The stadium and surrounding upgrades needed to be done for a concrete $25 million, a figure nearly half of initial projections.

Adding to the equation was a cozy neighbor mere feet away from the site – College Woods – that could not be encroached upon. Wooded areas radiate in all directions around campus, but this 64-acre patch to the west has been designated a protected Natural Area since the 1960s. Some of the college’s original structures were built using its timber, and we knew it was a precious area to the university.

“Constraints bring out the best design thinking,” my Populous teammate and lead designer for the project Al Harris likes to say.


Wildcat Stadium pre-construction; via Google Maps

And that was certainly the case with a trio of design solutions that added to the gameday experience while shedding extra costs. Remember that concrete $25 million budget? We achieved it, coincidentally, by eschewing the traditional concrete seating structure. Grandstands constructed out of steel and aluminum instead presented significant savings.

The project team also redesigned the experience of fans entering the stadium from the north as they make their way to the main concourse. Instead of costly elevators and stairs moving fans up to the main level of seating, a sweeping ramped boardwalk and bridge do the job while creating spacious berm seating along the way.

Last but not least, we built fan amenities upward instead of outward due to the cozy confines. Two rooftop patios, for example, connect to indoor club spaces with terrific views of both the playing field to the east and College Woods to the west. The new amenities and extra space encourage fans to come early and stay late.

The Gameday Experience, Reborn

All of the creative solutions – from those listed above to the stadium being designed as a zero-waste facility – resulted in an authentic $25 million venue that visiting athletic administrators have commented feels twice as valuable. The intricate brick patterns and pitched roof of the main stadium structure, for example, blend into existing campus architecture rather than stand out. The end product is always the experience of the fans.

To that end, we preserved the south end zone student section and its national reputation as a force to be reckoned with come gameday. A new Cat Pack Plaza gives these fans more amenities and space to mingle before taking their seats. The main entry plaza to the north, meanwhile, greets tailgaters and presents a new campus gateway along Main Street, the backbone of university activity.

The resulting area, when viewed in its entirety, is stunning. Wildcat Stadium recently debuted to rave reviews and a thrilling come-from-behind 39-28 home win in its inaugural game. And with a variety of events in the facility’s future, from high school championships to Special Olympics competition, its true reach has yet to be seen.

“I think this is something the whole state is going to enjoy, not just the Seacoast area,” former UNH football captain Arnold Garron told the New Hampshire Union Leader.

We couldn’t agree more.

Meet the author

Jim Swords

Principal, Senior Architect / Boston


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