Construction teams have faced a host of challenges on the Little Caesars Arena in the heart of Detroit, from tracking sustainability for multiple buildings to creating an arena with one of the steepest bowls ever built.

For the owner, Olympia Development, the construction arm of the Ilitch family’s business network, the big, bold ideas incorporated into the design are what make the new arena incomparable. President and CEO of Olympia Entertainment Tom Wilson says project team members traveled all over the country going to different arenas, asking each about the best aspects of their own design.

“And it’s all going to be in this new arena,” he says. “We’re not the first to do what we’re doing, but we’re definitely the first to do it on this scale. The simple size of it puts us on a whole new level.”

The arena, which measures 360 ft from east to west and 460 ft from north to south, will total 895,000 sq ft, with roughly 755,000 sq ft of that being usable area.

Work got underway in September 2014 with an initial budget of $450 million. However, the owner eventually decided to include additional enhancements, bringing the adjusted budget up to about $700 million. Despite these changes, the projected completion date is still September 2017. Maximum capacity will range from 20,380 for basketball games to 19,400 for hockey and 21,400 for concerts.

Deep Setting

For the owner and the design teams, some of the ideas behind the redesign and the location change were all about preserving what is special about Joe Louis Arena, the current home of the Detroit Red Wings, says Ryan Gedney, lead designer with HOK Architects. They also aimed to bring in the feel of other older hockey venues “in that a lot of them are really steep, really intimate and really just dense with people,” he adds.

The arena’s seating bowl is steep enough to create an intimidating wall of people, which will make it one of the more intense venues in the National Hockey League. The lower bowl is completely below grade, sitting 40 ft into the ground.

During excavation, workers were on site six days a week just to dig the massive hole. More than 50 double train trucks hauled out 482,813 cu yd of soil.

Through January, just under 67,000 cu yd of concrete have been placed—and more is to come. Teams are now working seven days a week on two different shifts.

Since the lower main concourse is completely at grade, district activity and concourse activity are one in the same, right at street level. That helps to blur the inside and the outside together, which is one of the main objectives of the new arena.

“By sinking it in the ground it’s not such an opposing monster” and instead is on the scale of a three- to four-story building, says Gedney. “This helps to bridge that gap so you’re not dwarfing anything around you.”

One of the main themes in the design of the new stadium was merging “old Detroit” with “new Detroit.” To achieve this look, the design teams specified 13 different colors of hand-laid brick for the exterior skin, harkening back to facades from the past. Cast stone is also incorporated, with the combination of materials creating an effect of multiple buildings.

“This new-age design created unique challenges that stemmed from this ‘bigger picture idea.’ To do something on this level, you have to be passionate about urban planning. This often requires designing well beyond the site of your particular project,” says Gedney.

“Make sure you have a smart plan for how it will integrate into the bigger fabric,” he adds. “Any venue has significant impacts in urban cores where they tend to be a catalyst project for urban redevelopment.”

The seating bowl alone uses materials that look to the future—clad with a custom metal facade that extends from the inside to the outside. The bowl introduces a modern jewel skin with articulated paneling that works its way around the bowl, allowing images to be projected onto it during games and concerts.

The amount of detail and time that has gone into just the skin provided its own set of challenges. Since this is a rounded form, it required parametric software to identify efficient ways of cladding the structure to minimize cost and preserve the overall design intent. This step was crucial during installation.

“Having automated form-finding that is more efficient and that can be directly transferred to the fabricator was key,” says Gedney. “Transferring the model allowed us to drive the fabrication directly. From the delivery standpoint, this led the charge in terms of helping us to create a more efficient delivery.”

Local Crews, Delivery Tactics

Significant effort was placed in manning this project with firms and people from Michigan. Tremendous community outreach and hiring initiatives enabled the team to bring on local brick masons, electricians, plumbers and fitters, rod busters, iron workers, laborers and carpenters.

“Over $600 million of work went to Michigan-based businesses, and $400 million of that was actually Detroit-based businesses,” Wilson says. “So a majority of the money was recirculated within our state and has done wonders for the local economy here. We were also able to create 12,000 jobs—and that doesn’t include the jobs that are yet to come once it’s completed.”

The project is also providing many people in Detroit and across the state with a launching point for entering the construction business.

“Hundreds of people going into the apprenticeship programs we’ve created have never been on a construction site,” says Sean Hollister, senior project director for contractor Barton Malow-Hunt-White. “This is starting to bring a ton of people into the industry, which is cool because it’ll have a long-term community impact. Not a lot of jobs offer that initiative.”

The development will include mixed-use office space, retail buildings and a parking structure adjacent to the arena. With these four independent projects on one plot of land, all with different elevations, plus roughly 1,200 people on site per day, logistics and planning were crucial.

For Barton Malow-Hunt-White, these challenges and time requirements have been the most critical issues. As a result, jobs had to be bought up in packages.

“So we were buying the earth retention and the soil before the concrete” was at final design, says Hollister. “Then we were buying the concrete and the steel before the skin and all the interiors were final-designed. So as you’re going through you’re always doing work in a fast-tracked manner before the other components are fully developed.”

The majority of the project is design-build, but a number of aspects, due to their complexities—such as mechanical and electrical—have been design-assist.

 “Some parts of our process were with traditional methods, some parts were design-assist methods,” Hollister says. “We even had design-build methods. So we’ve done a little of everything. It’s not a design-build contract, but for certain components it made sense to bring on these partners sooner and go through a design-assist so we could get things moving and never stop.”

The team is currently pursuing LEED certification on the project and is recycling all waste and using continuous tracking, Hollister adds. “We know all of the components that go into each building since they are procured separately, so it’s much easier for us to track.”