Building the Best Seats in the House
Grandstand Design Enterprises, Inc. helps schools build support—literally
As a high school and college tight end in western Pennsylvania, Chris Howard was used to competing on football fields before stands full of fans. Now, as President of Annapolis-based Grandstand Design Enterprises, Inc. (GDE), he builds formidable steel and aluminum bleachers and grandstands for cheering fans at schools throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a 50,000-seat stadium at a top-tier university or a 3,000-seat grandstand at a small college or high school,” Chris says, “awesome, comfortable fan accommodations contribute to player motivation and spectator support.”
GDE builds stadium facilities not just for football gridirons, but also for soccer and rugby fields, tennis courts, baseball and softball facilities, and other athletic venues. The company has worked on grandstands for schools as diverse as Howard University in the District of Columbia, Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland, and Meadowbrook High School in North Chesterfield, Virginia.
“We’re a small company, but we believe that’s a strongpoint,” Chris says. “Customers can find their best value working on a project with the guy they closed the deal with initially. We work collaboratively with our clients to give them the facilities they want and need, at the best prices possible.”
He adds, “We work in whatever role is needed—as a subcontractor for other builders, directly with owners and architects from their plans or as a design-build general contractor in our own right. We have the capability to design and construct everything a field needs from the ground up.”
To be clear: Even though it’s often used indiscriminately in conversation, in construction terms the word “bleachers” describes small banks of seating—five rows or so—that can be moved. The term “grandstand” applies to larger structures that are fixed permanently in place. And steel is normally the material of choice for a grandstand’s supporting understructure. Decks, seats railings and other features are generally made of aluminum.
A Product That Nobody Else Wanted to Sell
Chris’ road from high school football player to athletic infrastructure specialist didn’t evolve automatically. After graduating from Allegheny College in 1995, he worked as a sales rep for a Florida-based building products company. In 1996, he moved to a small Maryland-based company that focused primarily on supplying and installing school equipment. There he was essentially a combined sales rep- estimator-project manager.
The operation was concerned with everything in high school gyms except the floors, Chris says. But he soon realized the business carried a category of products that no one else at the company was interested in—bleachers, grandstands and press boxes. He decided to make it his own.
“The company’s managers were happy to let me take it on, and my colleagues started giving me leads,” he says.” Chris became the company’s “defacto” point man for its relationship with Southern Bleacher Company Inc., a major Texas-based manufacturer of athletic field infrastructure. The owners left it to him, he notes, but the financial arrangements went through the company.
“That continued for seven years,” he says, “until Southern Bleacher said they couldn’t see the point of working through the company when I was, essentially, their representative for the region. They proposed that I set up my own business to do so directly.
“It took me six months to work up the nerve to do it but I saw the possibilities,” he says. “Their offer was attractive, and to this day I remain their distributor in the region.” He founded Grandstand Design Enterprises in 2003. While he waited to get insured and bonded for general contractor work, he started getting small jobs as a subcontractor. He was licensed as a general contractor in 2003 in Maryland and in 2005 in Virginia.
Timing is Everything
“This is a feast-or-famine business, but the timing was perfect for me,” he says. “Fairfax County in Northern Virginia put out bids for bleacher repairs at a number of schools and I was able to get four of them.” From there, GDE was able to branch out with public and private schools throughout Maryland and Virginia. More recently, the company’s clients have included colleges and universities in both states and the District of Columbia.
GDE has long relied on the products of two major manufacturers: Southern Bleacher, an industry leader in engineering and fabrication of custom steel and aluminum grandstand structures, and Michigan-based Irwin Seating Company, which specializes in manufacturing seats for gyms, auditoriums and grandstands.
GDE represents Irwin’s line of stadium chairs. Beyond being sturdy, comfortable folding seats with arms and back rests, Chris notes, they’re designed to be riser-mounted on Southern Bleacher’s deck, meaning they’re attached to the vertical riser surface behind the seat rather than the deck surfaces spectators walk on. While common on concrete structures, this is a unique and advantageous feature of the Southern Bleacher deck. Cleaning staff find it easier to sweep up under them, and they provide more room for people passing along a row.
New to GDE is an affiliation with a third manufacturer, SPS Technology. The United Kingdom-based company has developed a strong and durable composite deck product used in constructions as different as grandstands, buildings, bridges and ships. SPS’ sandwich plate system layers steel facing on each side of a polymer core, giving it “an intense amount of structural integrity,” Chris says. For grandstands, that means it needs support only every 40 feet, facilitating construction of locker room, restroom and storage areas underneath the structure. Steel surface is textured for slip resistance and engineered with attachments for code-compliant handrails and guardrails.
At his base in Annapolis, Chris maintains a core crew of four veteran workers, who travel with him to job sites with two trucks’ worth of hammer drills, rivet guns and other tools. Four is enough for most of the things he builds, he says, but he does call on subcontractors when necessary. Hs goal is to add another crew so that the company can take on multiple jobs simultaneously. “We’re hiring!” he says.
Scope of Work Specifics
The specifics of GDE’s work can vary greatly. Typically, the new construction of a high school involves grandstand complexes perhaps 200 feet in length, with 20 or more rows on the home side, fewer on the visitors’ side. Many schools have press boxes, supported separately by understructure behind and rising above the grandstand. Press boxes, typically some 36 feet in length, with large, downward-slanted front windows, are delivered prefabricated and lifted into place by crane.
Some schools have only the home side outfitted with seating, some both home-side and visitors-side grandstands or bleachers. Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Maryland, had GDE construct a 22-row home-side grandstand, a press box and a ticket booth, built according to the school system’s design specifications. For its “SportsPlex,” Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, had GDE design-build bleachers with backrests, a VIP stadium chair section and a press box.
On the college level, GDE’s work is equally as diverse. Examples: At Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista, Virginia, installation of a bleacher system with a stadium chair VIP section was done on school plans. At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, expansion of home-side football seating was done on university plans but its tennis arena was a GDE design-build solution. For the U.S. Naval Academy’s rugby field in Annapolis, the new grandstand was a design-build project. At Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, club level renovations at Lane Stadium, including installation of a VIP section with 1,000 stadium chairs, was a GDE design-build venture.
“We work in whatever role is needed—as a subcontractor for other builders, directly with owners and architects from their plans or as a design-build general contractor in our own right. We have the capability to design and construct everything a field needs from the ground up.” Chris Howard, President, Grandstand Design Enterprises, Inc.
‘The Deadline is the Game’
GDE’s extensive work at Salisbury University on Maryland’s Eastern Shore started out as a job at the football stadium. The core project, design and construction of a new home-side grandstand with an extensive VIP stadium chair section, was a subcontract from general contractor Whiting-Turner, which was completing extensive renovation work throughout the university. It started with GDE removing—carefully—the existing home bleachers and reassembling them on the visitors’ side on a new concrete slab, upgraded to current codes and with its own small press box. Then, GDE constructed the new grandstand seating on the home side.
“This ended up being a really nice project,” Chris says, “and it led to more jobs for us at the university. We subsequently built the university’s soccer, baseball and softball grandstands.”
GDE’s work at Howard University’s Greene Stadium was especially rewarding—and challenging, he says. “It’s the largest design-build project I’ve done so far,” he says, “and the most diverse in terms of the types of structures involved and the specialty trades required.” It started with demolition of an old press box and its supporting structure, followed by design and construction of a new press box, a new bi-level VIP suite with covered seating, restrooms, elevator access, stair towers and observation decks.
“The project is beautiful,” Chris says, “but it came with difficulties. As great as the folks I worked with were, they didn’t have a lot of information on subgrade conditions. Apparently, when the stadium was built in 1926, it replaced a residential neighborhood. The slabs the houses were built on were still there, 15 feet underground. That’s not a problem for building a field but it was for anchoring and supporting the press box and suites.
“We kept hitting buried foundations and I had to reconfigure the job every day. It slowed progress tremendously. The Howard folks were understanding, but they were nervous, telling me, ‘You’ve got to make the game on Oct. 12! That’s our home opener! You have to make that game!’ ”
He adds, “In my world, the deadline is the game. We made the game. We always do.”
Small Colleges Go Bigger
Whatever the caliber of their respective football programs, when Chris began general contracting in 2005, he noted one significant difference between his high school and college alma maters: “In terms of playing fields, my high school blew my college’s stadium out of the water.
“For a long time,” he says, “the only college-level schools interested in first-rate facilities were the Division I schools. Others had generally mediocre facilities, at best.”
In recent years, he says, lower-tier schools have awakened to the idea that better facilities attracted better athletes and jazzed up student, parent, alumni and donor engagement.
“Granted, these small-school programs don’t warrant giant stadiums,” he says. “They may only have 5,000 seats, but they’ve still got to be nice. In Maryland, I’ve built facilities at McDaniel College, Mount St. Mary’s University and Frostburg State University up the road. Most of their kids don’t have athletic scholarships, but they get to play in facilities that are every bit as good as a Tier I stadium.”
“That’s good for me as a general contractor,” Chris says. “But more importantly, it’s great for the schools, the athletes and the fans. It builds support, enthusiasm and program quality, and that’s all great!”