Skating Toward a New State-of-the-Art UBS Arena for the New York Islanders

Challenged with COVID-19 rules and restrictions, a Populous- and Thornton Tomasetti-led design team delivered an innovative steel superstructure with long span roof trusses, lateral load resisting braces in the elevator cores and perimeter and a large rigging capacity for concerts, venues and sporting events.

Written by Barbara Horwitz-Bennett 

The arena under construction.

The New York Islanders’ new $1.5 billion UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., boasts some of the best sightlines and the largest arena scoreboard in New York State. However, bringing the project to near completion while complying with COVID-19 restrictions and safety requirements was no small feat.

Designed by Populous and JRDV Urban International, the 18,853-seat arena for sporting and concert events is targeted to open in November, and features clubs, suites and lounges; a plethora of bars and concessions; a state-of-the-art sound system; an NHL locker room and player campus with a cardio mezzanine level and shoot room; and an updated sports lighting, ice mapping/projection system and “All-12 Player” tracking camera.

As for the high level of structural engineering that went into creating the state-of-the-art 700,000-square-foot arena, the superstructure’s gravity system is a steel composite beam/column system with a steel braced frame lateral system. Four long-span roof trusses, each weighing approximately 180 tons and running 35 feet deep at the middle, support the primary roof and create a 350-by-460-foot column-free space for the seating bowl

Bigger and Better Rigging System

Unlike last-generation arenas, which were designed for an end stage or center stage concert with an approximate weight of 100,000 pounds, today’s modern arenas are designed for a rigging capacity of 250,000 to 350,000 pounds with the option to go higher. 

To help enable the 150 annual events scheduled for the arena, in addition to the hockey season, full depth infill trusses span between the primary trusses to support a full rigging grid for concerts and events, and a catwalk and platform system supports scoreboards, speakers and sports lights. Lumpkin explains that the full-depth infill trusses are advantageous because the bottom chord can also serve as a rigging beam for concerts.  

The long span roof was also designed for a center hung scoreboard with a weight of 120,000 lbs and a 30,000 lbs offset hoist to lift the scoreboard. Fully nested into a 60-by-60-foot hole in the roof, this location supports show loads for concerts positioned under the scoreboard. 

Working Through the Pandemic

When COVID hit the U.S. in the spring of 2020, arena construction shut down for 50 days. When work resumed, New York State’s mandatory quarantine for all out-of-state visitors prevented the Kansas City-based Populous architects from visiting the site, with the exception of two individuals who were New York residents.

Thornton Tomasetti was able to rely on local colleagues for handling any necessary site work. “Luckily, we had a great group of staff from  our New York office who were able to make site visits and be the eyes and ears for the design team back in Kansas City,” says Lumpkin.

“Each night, the design team would review site photographs taken during the day in order to give real-time feedback to site staff. Additionally, video calls over smart phones with site staff became a regular occurrence to review complex conditions in the field,” he says. 

Quickly adjusting to these unique circumstances, the project team began using tools like Microsoft Teams, for group chats, and HoloBuilder, which enabled the team to get a better look at slab reinforcing and structural steel with the software’s high-resolution, three-dimensional images that rotate, pan, and zoom. 

In response to the new health and safety concerns, the design team also modified food service operations, MEP and filtration systems, patron circulation paths with added doors and entry-egress routes.

Another interesting byproduct of the travel ban was the architects’ ability to spend the extra time not on airplanes turning around Requests for Information and Submittals at a faster pace.

Fortunately, the majority of the arena’s structural materials—mainly steel, concrete, and rebar—were procured prior to the pandemic, so contractors AECOM Hunt and Barton Malow didn’t run into any major supply-chain issues. 

In creating its own Tekla model of the steel structure, Thornton Tomasetti streamlined and sped up the process of coordinating construction drawings, connection design and fabrication models.

Though the steel design and procurement was performed pre-COVID, the fact that Thornton Tomasetti had built its own Tekla model of the steel structure allowed the engineers to fully coordinate construction drawings, connection design, and fabrication models, which sped up the beginning of the project, and ultimately helped keep things on schedule despite the shutdown.

“Our Tekla model had all of the connections fully detailed and modeled with plates, bolts, weld sizes, holes, etc.,” says Storm. “The model was then passed along to the fabricator to generate shop drawings. The greatest advantage of this delivery method is the time savings achieved by eliminating the traditional pass off to a third-party detailer and delegated connection designer.”

The design team also utilized Revit BIM360 to generate construction drawings. With the full design team in a shared cloud model, this eliminated the need to pass models back and forth between design firms. “This is advantageous from a coordination standpoint because engineers could see any changes in real-time in other engineering and architectural models,” adds Storm.   

Digital modeling technology was also used to map out installation and track as-built progress for steel erection. With these geometric details precisely established, steel elements were positioned correctly the first time. The project site also worked to the team’s benefit as the contractors had ample room for steel laydown and staging.

Alongside the new venue are plans for a 340,000-sq-ft retail and dining complex, a 200-room hotel and a new Long Island Rail Road station scheduled to begin construction in 2022.

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Below: A rendering of the completed arena courtesy of Populous.