With no professional sports teams in the entire state of Kentucky, University of Louisville basketball enjoys a uniquely devoted following. The Louisville Cardinals have led the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in revenues for the last six years and Sports Business Journal recently ranked Louisville Ky., as the most passionate college basketball market in the country. The 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center was designed to be the finest college basketball facility ever built.
Opened in October of 2010, the KFC Yum! Center is an iconic landmark for the city of Louisville that combines unsurpassed basketball facilities, amenities, suites, and premium seating with the maximum flexibility of a public, multi-purpose arena. Renowned sports architecture firm Populous teamed with structural engineer Walter P. Moore to create exactly what the people of Louisville expect and deserve: an NBA-worthy arena built for a college team in a college town.
Building a foundation
The KFC Yum! Center is situated prominently on the banks of the Ohio River in the heart of downtown Louisville. The arena enjoys excellent visibility from the river, its bridges, and major roadways, and is linked by pedestrian bridges with nearby hotels and entertainment venues. Although it is a spectacular location for an arena, the site posed considerable challenges.
The native soils near the river consist of sand and gravel, and the site had been raised by up to 17 feet over the course of 150 years using gravel, brick, coal, and concrete. As a result, arena foundations consist of augercast piles extending up to 95 feet below-grade.
Because the majority of the site was initially below the 100-year flood plain, the on-grade event floor was elevated using 15 feet of engineered fill to mitigate potential water damage. Visually exposed, perimeter foundation walls retain soil beneath the arena footprint and resist the onslaught of a major flood event. Pile foundations withstand significant negative skin friction and flood-induced scour. In the below-grade parking garages — as is typical along the riverfront in Louisville — slabs on grade are fitted with valves that relieve upward hydrostatic pressure and allow parking areas to be inundated during periods of high groundwater.
The site had also been home to key elements of Louisville’s energy infrastructure for more than 100 years. The Waterside Station of Louisville Gas & Electric, built in 1906 and continuously expanded during the course of the next century, featured three-story tall condensers located in enormous below-grade concrete pits and multiple sets of concrete tunnels connecting those condensers to the river. The facility was founded on a 4-foot-thick concrete mat supported by more than 1,500 precast concrete driven piles. The foundations for elevated rail lines, along with abandoned, boulder-lined, brick sewers and numerous ancillary structures buried over time also lurked beneath the surface and often beneath arena columns. Massive concrete caps and transfer-grade beams span — and in some cases bear upon — these obstructions; a structured slab on grade mitigates the risks of a conventional slab on grade failure due to tunnel deterioration or collapse.
The arena’s riverfront position accentuates its most iconic design element: the signature curving roof, which is inspired by the wing of a Louisville Cardinal and imitates the flow of the Ohio River. With the roof serving as a key architectural feature, three-dimensional modeling was essential in accurately coordinating complex geometry and encouraging timely decisions from both the design and construction teams.
The 406-foot primary roof trusses vary in depth to provide the architecturally-critical roof shape with maximum efficiency. The top chord is segmented at each panel point and forms the curved roofline through subtle variations in each truss chord connection.
The wave-like form of the roof continues its downward curvature on the north face of the arena, transitioning from steel-supported roof deck to aluminum panels and then glass to form the arena’s other signature architectural element. The “waterfall” is a three-story, curved glass facade that provides panoramic views of the river from meeting rooms and restaurants and creates a spectacular setting for events and special occasions. Outdoor balconies at each level establish an even greater connection to the river below.
The lateral system for the arena roof consists of roof deck, collector elements, and braced frames that transfer loads to the concrete bowl. The diaphragm is supplemented by two horizontal steel trusses that follow the undulating plane of the top chords of the primary trusses, transfer wind and seismic loads to the braced frames, and provide stability to the roof structure.
Seating 23,000 for concerts, the arena will be the premier venue in the region and is expected to host up to 170 events per year. The 200,000-pound capacity rigging grid was developed to support rapid loading and unloading of shows for a wide range of rigging configurations. The spacing and depth of the primary trusses allows a 65,000-pound, center-hung scoreboard to be recessed completely into the roof structure during concerts, and statistics boards in each corner of the roof can be raised or lowered as necessary. Offset hoist machines for each are can be easily accessed from the nearly 1/2-mile network of catwalks.
Because of its size, amenities, versatility, technology, and architecture, the KFC Yum! Center is perfectly positioned to host concerts, conventions, ice shows, the circus, and even Olympic swimming trials. In addition, few facilities have ever incorporated as much input from the NCAA, since the arena has been custom-designed to host NCAA Championships for volleyball, tennis, and wrestling, and will compete annually for the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament Regionals, the NCAA Hockey Frozen Four, and the Women’s NCAA Basketball Final Four.
The KFC Yum! Center already has become a major asset in recruiting for one of the premier collegiate basketball programs in the country. With its bold architecture and signature curving roof, it also promises to generate new revenues and visibility for the city of Louisville and dramatically enhance its increasingly dynamic riverfront skyline.
Bart Miller, P.E., is a principal in the Houston office of Walter P Moore. He is the project manager for the KFC Yum! Center and can be reached by BMiller@walterpmoore.com or 713-630-7487.