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Inflatable dome construction delayed due to contractor concerns

Illustrated Yifei Zhang

By Michael Byrnes     10/1/19 8:55pm

The construction of Rice Athletics’ indoor practice facility has been delayed and is not expected to be completed until after Beer Bike, according to Deputy Athletic Director Rick Mello. Mello said the primary reason for the delay has been difficulty with establishing electronic circuitry to the facility, and a misunderstanding between Rice and its electrical contractor. 

“There [were] electrical issues figuring out the best way to pull the power from … either the stadium or the Patterson Center,” Mello said “The other thing is we had initial conversations with a vendor about the electricity, and there was a disconnect between what they were going to provide and what we were going to provide, which made us revisit the project.”

The plans for the indoor practice facility, known colloquially as the “dome” or the “bubble,” were revealed by Rice Athletics in February, with an original estimated completion date of Sept. 1. It is set to be constructed in the interior of the bike track in Greenbriar Lot, behind Rice Stadium. According to Mello, construction of the dome’s interior is now expected to begin before Beer Bike, with a tentative start scheduled for near the end of November, pending permit approval. Mello said the initial construction will focus on the facility’s foundation.

“We will do some of the pre-construction [earlier] -- that means the grade beam and the field and other things -- and the dome itself won’t be inflated until after Beer Bike,” Mello said.

According to Mello, the dome will then be completed sometime in May and will be fully ready for football’s summer training. 

The initial dome announcement prompted some pushback from Rice students who felt its construction could interfere with both training and competition for Beer Bike. Mello said there are two main ways that the dome’s construction could impact the usability of the track.

“The thing that has the potential to interfere with the track [is that] you have to run the power into the middle of the dome — so you go across the track or trench underneath,” Mello said. “The other part of it is when you’re bringing materials from outside to inside, there would be some time [where the track is unusable].”

However, Mello also said he doesn’t anticipate these interruptions to disrupt Beer Bike training in any significant way. According to Mello, Rice Athletics is working with both the Student Association and the dean’s office to minimize the construction’s effects on student activities.

“We [will] get some feedback from the students: [if it is] better [to transport materials] early in the morning, [or] later in the afternoon,” Mello said. “[And] from what I understand, they’ll be able to do the construction in the middle of the track [without interfering with the track] … because there is a lot of room between the dome and the track, and usually they would put up some kind of barrier for safety.”

SA President Grace Wickerson said they are working with Rice Athletics to make certain that student concerns are taken into consideration during the construction process.

“[My role is] ensuring that student needs are not ignored, especially in regards to construction efforts that might close the bike track or create safety concerns,” Wickerson said. “I have also ensured … that the Beer Bike schedule has been well-communicated with Rice Athletics [to make sure] that the dome is deflated within a reasonable time frame pre-Beer Bike [in future years].”

In future years, Mello said the dome will be deflated for a roughly two-to-three-week period around Beer Bike to allow for certification and event preparation — this year, he said the dome will be set in a similar deflated position, prior to completed construction. For the rest of the year, the dome will remain inflated. According to Mello, Rice Athletics is taking measures to maintain safety around the facility.

“For sure, we’re going to have a crosswalk-type of situation,” Mello said. “[We anticipate having] a monitor on each turn, making sure [teams can cross safely].”

Mello said the teams using the facility will not be limited to varsity athletics. According to Mello, Rice Athletics will manage the dome’s scheduling, and allot time for different campus organizations to occupy its space.

“It’s going to basically be what’s called a block-and-release system,” Mello said. “Athletics will control the block; they will assign the block, and the [individual organization] will be doing the specific scheduling [within the block].”

Mello said he expects Rice’s Intramural and Club Sports programs to be significant users of the dome’s resources.

“Where it’s going to be really heavily used is campus rec, because they’ve had issues with fields, especially in inclement weather,” Mello said. “I think it will serve two purposes: number one, for the campus recreation, it will give them a very reliable surface, and then it would also very much stabilize their schedule, because there’s no reason you couldn’t run all of Powderpuff in there and [not] even worry about putting it on [an outdoor] field.” 

According to Mello, Rice has all its contractors lined up and does not anticipate further complications in that regard. Mello said that after talking to Wickerson and the dean’s office, the next step is to present an updated plan to the residential colleges.

“[Wickerson] has recommended that we present an update to the colleges and the college presidents sometime in November, which we will do,” Mello said. “At those meetings … we’re going to be really interested in student feedback throughout the process, especially as it relates to [construction-related issues].”

Overall, Wickerson said they are focused on increasing communication between Rice Athletics and the student body, so that students may have a voice in the process and are able to take advantage of the completed results.  

“My main goals .. are truly focused on ensuring throughout construction [that] students have access to information and are brought into discussions [to be held later in the semester] around potential impacts,” Wickerson said. “Once the structure is built, [my goal is] that it is well-communicated that other student groups can be using it for practices outside of blocked-off [Rice Athletics] practices.”

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