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US Open Serves Up Engineering Feat

The preeminent tennis tournament in America, the U.S. Open is back in full swing in Queens, New York, as of this week and continues into early September. Traditionally, the tail end of summer is a spectacular and dry period in the region, but in the last several years, the Open suffered delayed and even suspended key matches due to inclement weather. (Think back to 2008 when rain shut down the men’s semifinals with Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal.) So this year, the U.S. Tennis Association is armed and ready.

Arthur Ashe Stadium, the main venue of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the U.S. Open, promises to protect against rain delays with a newly completed retractable, domical roof. What visitors will encounter is actually a freestanding pavilion, however, built around and over the 23,711-seat stadium

Not only was the stadium incapable of bearing the extra weight of a new roof, the grounds of the tennis center was, as well: The National Tennis Center resides in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, site of a former ash dump and therefore not a stable foundation for a 1,000-ton roof structure. To resolve this, architecture firm Rossetti, which has been leading the master planning for the National Tennis Center since 1990, teamed up with engineer WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff and Hunt Construction Group to devise a structurally sound plan. Eight steel columns, 16 Cast Connex exposed steel braces, a circular concrete pier and pilings 180 feet deep (to cut through the marshland-like soil all the way to the bedrock) spread the load of the structure.

The roof itself is translucent Teflon-coated PTFE (fiberglass membrane fabric) on two movable sections that rest on wheels. Two-inch-diameter stainless steel cables pull close or open these sections at a rate of approximately 26 feet per minute. Five electric motors operate these cable winches and are monitored in real time for the operators to adjust as needed. And a 260-foot-long bladder inflates with air to seal the joint between the two panels.

Finally, the project team needed to combat the condensation that can occur once the roof is closed and sealed. After all, the whole point of the new roof is to prevent spectators, players and the court from getting wet. Shutters roll down from the roof structure and gently meet a sill on the existing stadium structure — the only point, in fact, where the two structures meet. Meanwhile, air is discharged through 16 diffusers along a duct that encircles the top of the stadium and cooler air that drops down through the bowl is expelled through exhaust fans.

An estimated 700,000 spectators descending upon the National Tennis Center for the Open will see how well the $150 million project fares over the next several days. With any luck, it’ll be love games (against the rain) all the way.

Blog written by Sheila Kim for Architizer on August 31, 2016
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