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U.S. Open Stadium Is Capped by Retractable Roof

Aerial view of the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center's Arthur Ashe Stadium
The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center’s Arthur Ashe Stadium will soon be covered by a retractable roof with a 250 ft by 250 ft wide opening, the largest of any of the Grand Slam stadiums. ROSSETTI

The new roof for Arthur Ashe Stadium is designed to appear integrated with the stadium but will actually be an entirely separate structure.

October 29, 2013—It’s not unusual for rain to delay the biggest tennis event in the United States—the U.S. Open. In fact, soggy conditions have hindered play during the two-week tournament every year for the past five years. Now, after years of discussion, the tournament’s main stadium is being capped by a retractable roof to ensure that play continues regardless of the forecast.

Organized by the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the U.S. Open is the fourth and final contest of the annual Grand Slam, the others being the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon. The U.S. Open is held in New York City from late August to early September at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which is in Flushing, part of the borough of Queens. The 46-acre site also hosts other events throughout the year at its dozens of outdoor courts and three stadiums—the primary one being Arthur Ashe Stadium, which opened in 1997 and seats approximately 23,200. Arthur Ashe Stadium was not designed to have a roof because tennis is traditionally an outdoor sport.

But rain has repeatedly disrupted the U.S. Open, and the other Grand Slam venues have installed or are in the process of installing retractable roofs, making it necessary to cap Arthur Ashe Stadium, says Jonathan Disbrow, AIA, the principal architect on the project for ROSSETTI, an international architecture firm headquartered in Detroit. ROSSETTI designed Arthur Ashe Stadium and is now the architect for the roof project. “The roof is essential to maintaining the preeminence of the event and for keeping pace with the three other Grand Slam championship stadiums,” Disbrow explains. “It is also needed to make sure that the finals can go on without interruption and be broadcast worldwide.” 

Interior rendering of the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which features four primary trusses that will extend as much as 490 ft to form the opening of the retractable roof

Four primary trusses will extend as much as 490 ft to form the
opening of the retractable roof. ROSSETTI

The USTA considered proposals from multiple firms for the roof design, but many of them were deemed too expensive or would have caused excessive disruption to the stadium, Disbrow says. ROSSETTI was selected as the project architect after working with the New York City office of WSP, the U.S.-based arm of the global engineering firm WSP Group Ltd., to develop a lightweight roof that could be delivered within budget. “For many years, the roof has been the subject of competitions and studies by many design teams, but it never materialized because the proposals did not meet the USTA objectives,” says Ahmad Rahimian, Ph.D., P.E., S.E., F.ASCE, the director of building structures for WSP, which served as the structural engineer on Arthur Ashe Stadium and other facilities at the center. “Eventually we, in collaboration with ROSSETTI, were able to crack the nut and propose a solution meeting all USTA objectives.”

Like the stadium, the new roof will be octagonal, measuring 580 ft from corner to corner in plan. Although it is designed to give the appearance of being an integral part of the stadium, the roof will actually be wholly independent of the structure beneath it. Support will be provided by eight steel columns located along the stadium’s perimeter. “The existing stadium was never designed to carry the roof load,” Disbrow explains. “The [roof] structure is completely independent of the existing stadium, and we actually have a fairly sizable gap between the structures to allow for seismic movement.”

The roof’s supporting columns will be founded on concrete-filled steel pipe piles, some of which will reach depths of 150 ft or more. Deep piles were necessary because the site’s soil conditions leave much to be desired. “The ground conditions are very variable,” says Bart Sullivan, P.E., the senior vice president of building structures for WSP. “So they have to go deeper and deeper with the piles until they get the right amount of resistance.” While the piles will be deep, the relatively simple roof design means that the foundations will have little effect on the large number of underground utilities that surround the stadium. “By [carefully choosing] where you’re landing and supporting the structure, it helps in limiting the amount of disruption to all of those underground utilities,” Sullivan says.

Another exterior rendering of the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center’s Arthur Ashe Stadium

The roof will be supported by eight tree-like steel columns located
around the perimeter of Arthur Ashe Stadium. ROSSETTI

Rising from concrete pile caps, each of the roof’s supporting columns will have a treelike arrangement—a vertical branch and two diagonal branches—that will suggest a tree as it rises, a branch sloping upward on either side of the “trunk.” This pattern will mimic the existing column structures, which support the stadium’s raker beams and upper levels. Pin connections will join the columns to the roof’s four primary trusses, which will extend as much as 490 ft to form the opening for the retractable panels, Rahimian says. A series of smaller trusses will frame the remainder of the roof, and a polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) fabric cover will stretch over the framing system. “We wanted the roof to look integrated and refined,” Disbrow says. “We didn’t want it to look like something that was glommed on top of the existing structure, so we worked to extend the existing structural lines, making the addition as seamless as possible.”

The opening for the retractable roof will be 250 ft square, making it the largest such opening of all the Grand Slam venues. “It was very important to the USTA that, when the roof is open, the facility feel like an outdoor stadium,” Disbrow says. “We tried to maximize the size of the roof opening and had to balance that requirement with trying to build a cost-efficient enclosure.” The USTA also wants to be able to keep the roof open until inclement weather is imminent. To that end, the retracting mechanism will be similar to those at other stadiums, cable winches opening and closing the panels. The roof will take approximately five minutes to open or close. “One of the primary concerns for the USTA is the on-demand operation of the roof,” Disbrow says. “If it looks like it’s going to rain, they can close it very quickly.”

Expected to cost more than $100 million, according to a U.S. Open press release, the roof is part of a larger, $550-million project to modernize the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The larger project will include construction of a new Louis Armstrong Stadium, a new grandstand, wider walkways, and improved roadway infrastructure around the grounds. The USTA retained ROSSETTI to create a new 20-year vision plan for the center, and the architecture firm is involved in other aspects of the project beyond the roof. Once the project is completed, the center will be able to accommodate an additional 10,000 visitors per day, increasing overall annual attendance by approximately 100,000, according to the press release.

Construction will take place in stages around the tournament, which attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators. Foundation work will be carried out between now and next year’s U.S. Open, primary steel construction will be completed between the 2014 and 2015 tournaments, and the retractable roof components and PTFE fabric will be installed between the 2015 and 2016 competitions. The roof will be completed late in the summer of 2016. “When it’s all said and done, play at Arthur Ashe will still feel like you’re playing in an open-air stadium, but if there’s rain that would interfere with the Open, we can cover the stadium and continue play without affecting too dramatically the experience that everyone has at the Open,” Disbrow says.

The larger project should be completed by 2018. In the press release, USTA chairman, president, and chief executive officer Dave Haggerty said, “This transformation will make the U.S. Open more accessible to more fans, creating a spectacular facility that will mirror the energy and excitement of New York and provide an enhanced player and fan experience. When all the pieces are in place, the national tennis center will be among the most fan-friendly, technologically advanced facilities in the world of sports—a leader for the twenty-first century and beyond.”



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