The New Soldier Field: Melding Tradition with Modern Convenience

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff November 2, 2018

As one of the founding teams in the league that would become the NFL, the Chicago Bears are steeped in traditions that run deeper than most.

The roster of retired Bears jerseys on display in the lobby of the team headquarters is awe-inspiring, the names timeless: Blanda, Butkus, Ditka, Payton, Sayers. The faithful converge on Soldier Field every home Sunday, win or lose, to shiver in the open air as the wind howls off Lake Michigan. Even the stadium itself, until recently a crumbling Greek temple with peeling plaster and questionable plumbing, has been part of the team’s mystique for more than 30 years.

In such a franchise, change does not come easy. So when Bears management decided the team could no longer survive at Soldier Field, a facility that was old long before the Bears took up residence there, it seemed as if every person who ever attended a Bears game had an opinion about the right way to proceed.

Photo: Courtesy Chicago Bears, Bill Smith photographer

The dilemma: To stay or to go
Prudence dictated a move. Building a stadium, even on a green field site, requires about three years. Tearing down and replacing Soldier Field on the same site would cost more and take even longer. In the interim, experts doubted whether even the most faithful fans would make the three-hour drive to the backup stadium at University of Illinois for more than a season or two. But every time the Bears considered a move, sentiment nudged them back to Soldier Field. The scenic lakeside location is stellar, the convenience to downtown unmatched. Tradition, it seems, would not be denied.

While fans wanted the Bears to stay put, civic leaders were adamant: Soldier Field could not be leveled. The stadium, built as a memorial to veterans of World War I, was sacred ground worthy of preservation. The name Soldier Field, which has grown over the years into a symbolic tribute to all U.S. military veterans as well as the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, also could not be changed.

Facing these seemingly irreconcilable demands, the Bears, architects Wood + Zapata and developers Hoffman Management Partners made a bold decision. They would build a new stadium inside the classic shell of the existing Soldier Field, and they would do it all – demolition to opening day – in a mere 21 months. Just one season would be played at a temporary stadium, giving the Bears what they needed while honoring the wishes of fans and civic interests alike.

Behind schedule from Day One
“The time frame was the biggest driver of the whole project,” Kenneth J. Bator, project leader for Hoffman Management, the Bears’ management company on the project, says with customary understatement. “But the reason we made the time frame was that we put together one of the finest construction teams ever – suppliers, contractors, subcontractors, designers, engineers, architects – the works.”

Fate seemed to be against the plan almost from the beginning. In deference to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the NFL season started two weeks late. The Bears threw another monkey wrench into the schedule – albeit a happy one for the Bears faithful – by making the playoffs, extending the season by two more weeks.

By the time fans began filing out of the stadium after the last playoff game, the project was already a month behind a schedule that was optimistic from the start. “They cleared the stadium in record time that day,” Ed Stogenson of electrical manufacturer Siemens recalls. “They were ripping out seats as soon as people stood up and started to walk away.”

A good plan, but will it work?
At the time demolition began, however, contractors had already been at work on the project for more than two years. “We worked during inception on the design portion, giving the engineers input as far as design and pricing for their budgets,” remembers George Walton, Project Manager for Divane Brothers Electric, one of four electrical contractors on the project. “It wasn’t just us, of course; everyone who wanted to work on the job was giving their input, but that led the way for us to get a berth to be an acceptable bidder.”

Divane ultimately installed all of the “big electric”: the incoming power from the utility, 12,000-volt switchgear, medium voltage distribution to eight areas of the stadium, 600-volt risers to the stadium’s 11 levels, the emergency power system and the show power system that would supply electricity to mobile television production trucks on game day.

Bears management was instrumental in deciding what brand of electrical equipment the four contractors would install. As construction on the new stadium proceeded, Dave Greeley, chief marketing officer for the Bears, began negotiating a sponsorship contract with Siemens for signage and other marketing activities at the new facility. The more he saw of the company, the more impressed he became.

“Siemens has a lot of great experience in projects of this type – technical know-how that we were eager to tap,” Greeley says. “From forging the relationship with them to come on board as a Bears marketing partner, we knew we had a great group of professionals at Siemens – a lot of people who were friends of the project and friends of the Bears. Bringing them on board as our electrical equipment supplier made tremendous sense.”

Four electrical contractors, one supplier
As Siemens began to dig into the project, Greeley says he came to realize that his only regret was not having involved the company sooner. “If we could have had them involved on the front end, during the planning and design stages, it would have helped us tremendously. In a stadium of this nature, this complexity, you need a lot of time for pre-planning. To bring in these technical experts from the very start would have been a tremendous asset.”

At Hoffman Management, Bator decided all four electrical equipment contracts would go to a single manufacturer. “We didn’t want four different manufacturers in the stadium,” he says. “We didn’t want to have any questions about who was responsible. Right from the beginning, when we did pre-bid and final bid acceptance, we all came to the agreement that we were going to use Siemens. They make good, reliable equipment, and they committed to delivering drawings and equipment on time and on schedule – even though the schedule was often a ridiculous one.”

At Divane, however, Walton wasn’t so sure. The company had little experience working with Siemens, and Walton prefers to keep vendors at arms’ length. “Contractors and manufacturers are always butting heads, and you normally try to distance yourself from them,” Walton says. “But the timetable was so aggressive and the change orders came so thick and fast that Ed Stogenson and I were on the phone several times a day plus nights and weekends. We became an excellent team.”

Ed Stogenson (left) of Siemens and Kenneth J. Bator of Hoffman
Management. Bator managed the M/E/P portion of the Soldier Field
construction project on behalf of the Bears. Photo: Stacia Timonere

The race begins
Because Divane was responsible for installing the medium-voltage power systems that would supply the power other trades would use to finish construction, the contractor was under the gun from the start.

“We had to have all the power on in six months, a year before the stadium opened,” Walton remembers. “They draw the permanent power to run the facility during construction off our feeds, so we had to stay on schedule.”

Staying on schedule meant the Siemens factories had to throw their normal turnaround times out the window, Stogenson says. Drawings had to be in project managers’ hands two weeks after Siemens received an order. Once submittal drawings were approved, Siemens had just 6-8 weeks to deliver the equipment rather than the normal turnaround time of 8-10 weeks.

Change orders begin to pile up
An avalanche of change orders added complexity to the schedule, Walton says. Two file boxes stuffed with change orders made ordering equipment a moving target. “By the time we’d place the order, so many changes had come through that the order was obsolete,” Walton says with a wry chuckle.

“We’d be on bulletin 90 for a piece of equipment that was ordered based on bulletin 35,” Stogenson remembers. “We had to keep very close tabs on where each piece of equipment was in the manufacturing process, and then decide whether the changes could be made at the factory or whether we’d have to modify it in the field.

“For example, we had one emergency power substation where we had to add the ground bus after the fact from the factory in Texas because the design team inadvertently forgot to mark the drawings as a four-wire service. George’s electricians had to install it on-site, and UL had to come out and re-inspect it so we didn’t lose our UL listing.”

Who’s ordering that panelboard?
While each contractor had to be concerned only about their own portion of the job, Stogenson and Siemens had to juggle the electrical equipment needs of the entire project. But as supplier to all four contractors, Siemens was uniquely positioned to play a coordination role.

“It happened a few times that two contractors ordered the same piece of equipment where their responsibilities overlapped,” Stogenson says. “We were the only ones in a position to recognize that there was duplication and get it sorted out.”

“Having one equipment supplier saved us from ordering overlapping equipment,” Bator adds. “It turned out to be a valuable benefit on a few occasions.”

Price and proceed: the ultimate test of teamwork
With so tight a schedule and a blizzard of change orders, contractors and suppliers quickly realized they would never meet the schedule if they took time to resolve every monetary issue before moving on. “We didn’t have time to argue about problems,” Bator says. “The attitude from top to bottom was, ‘Fix it and figure out who pays later.’ That’s what I’m working on now. “

“There was a lot of concern on everyone’s part about the price-and-proceed approach we had to take,” Walton says. “Here you are, proceeding with changes and you have no guarantee you’re going to get paid. But that’s what it took, so that’s what everybody did.”

Stogenson credits the approach with building unusual levels of trust between Divane and Siemens. “It was a key driver of the relationship we built because we were willing to work with Divane on that issue,” Stogenson says. “A change order would come from the engineer, go to the General Contractor, go to George, then to me, and it was my responsibility to say, ‘That will add X dollars to the project.’ But we couldn’t wait for that to be approved; it would have put us too far behind. We had to trust that both sides would step up to their responsibilities.”

The thermal test – will it work?
From the start, everyone on the team knew the electrical systems would be one of the keys to the success of the project. “It had to be right,” Bears Marketing Director Greeley says emphatically. “You could open a building with an unpainted wall, but life safety, lighting and HVAC – without those we wouldn’t have gotten an occupancy permit.”

Still, the general contractors weren’t taking any chances. “They were concerned that if we didn’t test everything under load, somebody might plug something in on opening night and trip the breakers,” Walton says. “So, even though it was extremely expensive, they ordered a thermal study where they ran everything full out, just like it would be on game day. It came back perfect – they really wanted to find something, but there was nothing to find. It went a long way to show the craftsmanship of Divane and Siemens, especially given the way the design was constantly evolving.”

The test was well worth the investment, however, Stogenson believes. “It let all of us go into that opening night with tremendous peace of mind that we had really built as good a project as we thought we had. As an insurance policy, it was pretty inexpensive.”

The New Soldier Field: A triumph of will
Secure in the knowledge their work was done, Walton and Stogenson could sit back on opening night, September 29, 2003, and enjoy the game between their Bears and the Green Bay Packers. A sold out crowd packed the stadium, and the game was broadcast on “Monday Night Football.” Just as the test had indicated, the electrical system worked flawlessly.

Now that the $606-million project is complete (the Bears contributed $200 million; municipal bonds paid by the city’s existing hotel/motel tax cover the rest), the Bears have turned it over to the Chicago Park District, which will own and operate the facility. The park district estimates the facility will provide $10 million in revenues annually, including a $5.7 million annual rental fee paid by the Chicago Bears.

Stogenson is hopeful the new owners will take advantage of capabilities built into their electrical system, especially the Siemens building automation system. The system is capable of performing more tasks than were designed into the construction program. Siemens provided all of the necessary connections, however, which will make it easy for the Park District to modify the system to realize all of its capacity.

“From an operational standpoint, it would be in their best interest, because they pay the operating costs and the system can help manage those,” Stogenson says. “The system currently monitors the HVAC and boiler systems and provides an interface with the fire system, but it could be monitoring the entire electrical system. That way, they could tell from one central point exactly what is happening with each piece of switchgear, each panelboard, at all times.”

A novel design for a novel situation
Although the large cantilevers and asymmetrical design of the stadium still prompt disparaging comments among those who haven’t attended a game at the new Soldier Field, feedback from those who have has been universally positive.

With 61,500 seats, the new Soldier Field has 5,000 fewer seats than the old version, but each is wider and closer to the field than comparable seats at any other NFL stadium. Sightlines are improved, the portable rest rooms are gone and there’s never a line at the women’s restrooms, even at halftime.

The west side of the stadium is exclusively for general admission, which made it possible for the Bears to offer all of their current ticket holders seats at least as good and often better than they had in the old stadium. The proportion of sideline seats increased from 40% in the old stadium to 60% in the new. The entire lower bowl concourse is open to the playing field, allowing a spectator to walk completely around the stadium without ever losing sight of the field.

The stadium includes 350 concession points of sale and a half-mile of counter space. A thousand television sets, strategically placed throughout the stadium, allow fans to watch the game even if they need to leave their seats. The east side of the stadium is topped by four tiers of 133 suites that are cantilevered in toward the field.

The statistics related to the stadium are nothing short of mind-boggling. It includes 575,000 square feet of metal decking, 30,000 square yards of carpeting, 1290,000 square feet of glass curtain wall, 14,000 light fixtures, 20,000 circuit breakers, 66 miles of electrical cabling and 1.25 million watts of sports lighting.

Parking lots that once covered 17 acres of land around the stadium have been tucked into underground decks. The recovered land has been developed into a variety of public park spaces, establishing Soldier Field as the nucleus of a public campus that also includes the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.

The juxtaposition of a modern athletic stadium and the stately Greek colonnades is striking. But Douglas Garofalo, president of Garofalo Architects and a professor at the University of Illinois School of Architecture, describes it as “a wonderful interplay between the future and the past. You have the old preserved and the new interjected into it, and the result is dramatic.” Few who have enjoyed the views from inside the new Soldier Field would dispute him.

Although he still has six months of work to do to wrap up paperwork and assorted loose ends on the project, Ken Bator of Hoffman Management takes enormous pride in what the project team accomplished.

“This is the fastest a stadium has ever been built,” he says. “We did it in 20 months, including demolition of the existing structure and rebuilding within the confines of the outer shell. I’m a native Chicagoan and this is my first stadium project. They said it couldn’t be done but we did it, and that feels pretty good.”