Syracuse, N.Y. — Putting another bubble on the Carrier Dome roof would take three months, leaving the Syracuse football and basketball teams undisturbed.
A new hard roof and renovation, however, would take at least eight months, forcing Syracuse to either get creative about how to update the aging building or sentencing its football or basketball teams to playing home games away from the Carrier Dome.
That was the consensus of experts in arena renovation when asked if Syracuse could update the building without turning its two marquee teams into the equivalent of barnstormers.
The issue is largely an unprecedented one, with the Carrier Dome potentially becoming just the second air-supported stadium of its size in North America ever to be transformed into a more modern facility. The uniqueness has left no established blueprint.
Employees of arena roofing experts Geiger Engineers, and architecture firms NBBJ and Stantec, all indicated that a substantial renovation could be done at the Carrier Dome without forcing the basketball and football teams to shift home games but it would involve a number of potentially thorny, and likely costly, issues.
That reality is likely one of many complicated factors that Chancellor Kent Syverud and the Syracuse Board of Trustees is currently wrangling with. With a scheduled roof replacement needed by 2024, the university has been discussing the future of the building since at least 2013, when discussions about a potential off-campus arena became public.
Doug Hamming of Stantec and Dave Campbell of Geiger Engineers navigated the issue five years ago in Vancouver, one of the only examples where an air-supported roof transitioned into a permanent one.
Initially, the pair crafted a plan that would have allowed BC Place’s primary tenant, the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions, to complete its nine home games while performing the renovations. That plan called for the new roof to be built on top of the old one, with the gap between the two sealed quickly during the offseason.
“We took a crack at that here,” Hamming said. “We planned to build the structure from around the perimeter, and leave the roof in place and then, when it was constructed, over a short period we’d deflate the old roof, clip it off, patch up the holes and open the doors in a remarkably short period of time.”
Ultimately, though, the plan was too costly. The Lions played in a temporary facility that housed 30,000 fans in a nearby park.
Hamming said the decision to close down BC Place for 18 months permitted workers to do the job in the fastest and most cost-effective manner.
“You’re trying to work with cranes from the perimeter, from around the edges,” Hamming said. “You’re trying to reach halfway across the football field with a crane that’s on the outside edge and 100 feet in the air. When we built this thing, we didn’t put the crane on the outside edge, we put it in the middle. We found it cost-effective to do it that way. Can you do it from the outside and then in some very short period do it from the inside? Sure. We decided it wasn’t worth it. Safety, cost, it wasn’t worth it. It fell off our matrix pretty quickly.”
Building one roof over the other would have meant additional safety procedures, creating extra costs and slowing down the process.
“The scenario where the building is in use, there’s a lot of concern on the part of contractors in terms of liability,” Campbell said. “You have to find workers that will agree to do the job under the constraints you have. Is there a way to do it that would allow events to continue? The answer was sort of. But it was way more expensive. At the end it became an economic decision.”
Those economics, arena renovators say, are different with every job, making it impossible to guess what Syracuse will do. Syracuse, for instance, would lose revenue from both its football and basketball programs during a shutdown, rather than just from a CFL team.
The temporary home of the BC Lions was ultimately less than five miles away from BC Place, leaving the lives of players and fans relatively unaffected. The temporary seating still accounted for most of the fans. None of this would likely be possible for Syracuse.
Recent or planned basketball renovations at UCLA (2011-12), Clemson (2015-16) and Cincinnati (2016-17) also forced their teams out of their arena for a whole year. In each case, however, the school had a suitable options within its city.
“UCLA chose to play somewhere else for a season,” NBBJ senior associate Andrzej Czech said. “That saved them quite a bit of money. I’d say that it saved them upwards of 10 to 20 to maybe even $30 million. It gave us the ability to do it all at once without starting or stopping.”
Czech’s company also has plans to redo Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, where the opposite decision was made. That work, which has been paused due to funding issues, was planned to occur in phases over 18 months without displacing the basketball team.
While the renovation would be more expensive, Kentucky concluded it was preferable because no nearby arena could accommodate the team’s fan base. That project includes improvements to its roof but not a brand new one.
“There’s no other arena in the area that can house over 20,000 people,” Czech said. “It’s going to be phased over a longer period and it’s going to cost them a lot more money because you’re extending the schedule. It’s not just stopping for a couple hours for games but you’re prepping for each one of those games. It’s a huge liability to maintain the building for use at the same time.”
Syracuse, which frequently leads the country in basketball attendance, would find itself in a similarly tough spot.
“It might be tough for (Syracuse) to find a place to play (basketball) but there’s also not a lot of time for renovations during the offseason,” Czech said. “They’ll have some major challenges.”
A study performed by Syracuse in 2014, listed six options for football games and eight for basketball if the Carrier Dome is unavailable. It noted that none of them were ideal.
The study listed the cost of a lost football season to the region’s economy at $7 million to $14 million, and the loss of a marquee basketball game at $2.6 million.
Syracuse, however, has not publicized what type of financial impact moving a football or basketball game would have on its own profits, and without those numbers, even industry experts say its impossible to guess how the Carrier Dome calculus will turn out.
“It would be more expensive to build over (an existing roof) than not,” Campbell said. “There were some other (things) that we wanted to do (in Vancouver) that didn’t make it cost-effective to build over. But there’s really no set way of designing or building a long-span roof like the Carrier Dome. There’s infinite possibilities. Those infinite possibilities start to be limited by the constraints you put in, like the period of construction, the aesthetics. The cost is a huge one and on and on and on.”