Design at a distance

  • Corona
    Caspar Grauballe

    Caspar Grauballe made progress on a bunker renovation project at Simon’s GC during Denmark’s lockdown

  • Corona
    Faldo Design

    A skeleton staff on site at Faldo Design’s Rumanza project allowed for some work to continue

  • Corona
    Beau Welling Design

    Beau Welling has used drones to ensure progress is made on the new West course for PGA Frisco in Texas

  • Corona
    Greg Norman Golf Course Design

    Workers on Greg Norman’s firm’s projects in Asia have used photography, drone footage and video conferencing to communicate with architects whose ability to travel has been limited

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

Society has remembered what a great activity golf is. The opportunity for escape, exercise and social interaction has been a salvation in desperate times. And while many industries remained closed, the sport provided a glimmer of economic activity, not just through play, but also with the progress of construction work.

The timing and extent of coronavirus impact has contrasted starkly from one country to another. Limitations imposed on everyday movement have depended on the severity of outbreaks and effectiveness of containment measures.

Denmark was the second European country to introduce a lockdown. Only in Italy, the first nation on the continent to be hit hard by the virus, were restrictions imposed sooner. The swift response of the Danish government came as a surprise for many, including golf course architect Caspar Grauballe.

He was in progress on a 27-hole bunker renovation project at Simon’s Golf Club in Kvistgård, about 25 miles north of Copenhagen. “All the planning for the project was done before we had even heard of Covid-19,” says Grauballe. Construction work began in April and was just getting under way when the lockdown was announced.

Grauballe is based near the club, so was able to drive to the site and carry out supervision as normal. However, the shaper was unable to get to the site, so a change in approach was required.

In addition to bunkers, the project plan also called for the creation of run-off areas around greens, expansion of tees, and upgrades to drainage and irrigation. The focus was shifted to irrigation work, extending some tees, and drainage on the existing fairways. “This slow start was of course better than not starting, but it was painfully slow compared to what we had planned,” says Grauballe.

“Luckily, our contractor Nelson & Vecchio was already present in Denmark with a few staff who wanted to stay and keep working.

“Our client was able to provide individual accommodation for the workers, making it possible to maintain social distancing and, since the work is outdoors, the risk of becoming infected has been minimal.”

The original plan was to work on three or four holes at a time. But to give Nelson & Vecchio more working flexibility and therefore speed up the project, nine holes were closed to golfers.

“It has been a huge help that the client is very understanding and has been able to make provisions and assist whenever necessary in order to get the project moving,” says Grauballe.

“After a couple of weeks with the small crew and establishing that it was possible to keep safe, the contractor decided to bring in more staff. This was possible as the Danish borders were opened for people with contracted work. With a shaper and an almost full crew on site, work kicked up a gear.”

By June, and as Denmark became one of the first countries in Europe to ease lockdown measures, turf was in place on all areas of the first nine holes. “We’ll now turn our attention to the two other nine-hole loops,” says Grauballe. “For the next phases, we are trying to make sure that the members can have a full 18, plus small loops of three to six holes open at all times.”

Lockdown in Pakistan began in late March. Most workers on the new Rumanza layout by Faldo Design in the city of Multan had to stop working completely. Only a handful of key staff, including construction manager David Mathews of Desert Group, remained on site.

“With Pakistan in lockdown, the rate of progress on the project slowed down considerably with most staff unable to attend the site, and distribution channels significantly impacted,” says Andy Haggar, lead architect at Faldo Design. “Along with David, some skilled workers remained on site, so we were able to keep an eye on works during this period. It also meant the turf nursery could be maintained and some shaping work could continue.

“In early June, many of the experienced golf course construction workers returned to the project following the Pakistani government lifting local restrictions, which has allowed much of the work to resume. The project has built a fantastic connection with the area, and by working with a predominately local staff we were able to resume much of the on-site work without facing too much disruption, for instance the local earthworks contractor is already getting going again.”

Gareth Williams, director of design and operations at Faldo Design, adds: “Staff are maintaining high levels of hygiene, regularly washing their hands and frequently cleaning all surfaces on site, while PPE has been provided and masks and gloves are being worn when necessary.”

The entire Faldo Design team has worked from home during the height of the pandemic. “We have taken the decision to postpone all planned site visits for the time being whilst mobility remains difficult,” says Williams.

“We have embraced technology more than ever and are really seeing the benefits. The likes of video conferences and two-way sharing has allowed us to stay in regular contact with all teams on the ground; and by using imagery and drone footage we are able to continue to provide detailed design input despite being miles apart! It’s not ideal but is working remarkably well.”

Haggar adds: “Looking ahead with distribution channels and mobility still impacted, waiting on the delivery of materials will be the next problem to overcome. However, with a great, experienced team out there and our remote support and input, we are optimistic about the site’s progress and very much looking forward to the course opening in 2021.”

Read more: Kevin Ramsey says little has changed to Golfplan’s design approach throughout the pandemic

Drones and other technologies, such as video-conferencing, have also helped Beau Welling and his design team stay on top of progress of the new West course for the PGA Frisco project in Texas, USA. Welling’s layout – plus an East course designed by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner that is also currently in construction – is part of a $500 million-plus development that will see the PGA of America relocate from its present headquarters in Florida.

Restrictions on travel meant that Welling had to adapt his methods to keep the West course project progressing. “We had to employ new techniques to oversee the project from afar while not travelling, to conform with local and state orders, but also to ensure we kept our team safe,” says Welling.

“At PGA Frisco, we deployed drones to our shapers and construction team so that we were able to get daily and sometimes real-time updates on the progress and review design features. I think having the drones capture daily updates was a great tool that we will continue to use as we return to resume business as usual to supplement our site visits.

“Our design team was able to resume travel in May, still adhering to state guidelines and social distancing measures. While nothing will replace being able to make adjustments in the field, the technologies used at PGA Frisco allowed us to still effectively manage construction at the onset of the pandemic. We have been spending a great deal of time on site lately as the course is nearly finished with rough shaping, but without the diligence of our construction team and the implementation of these new technologies the construction progress and schedule might have been significantly affected.”

Jeff Danner of Greg Norman Golf Course Design echoes that sentiment: “Any architect will tell you, there is no substitute for frequent visits all throughout construction.”

The Norman firm has a number of projects in construction in Asia, including two 36-hole layouts in Vietnam and a project near Osaka, Japan. “The contractor has been instrumental in achieving our design intent without our being able to jump on a plane,” says Danner.

“It has undoubtedly, been an adjustment for us. We have been working from home and under a company-policy no-fly protocol since early March. With many of our projects located in different parts of the world, and Asia especially, we have had to get creative and figure out how to adapt while minimising our risk of exposure.

“Our hands-on approach and on-site presence have always been one of our keys to success. Luckily, we have a strong team in Asia on the ground, helping to oversee our projects and ensure things are being implemented the way we like.

“Now more than ever, drawings are playing an important role,” continues Danner. “I’m not just talking about your typical grading or drainage plans. Perspective, hand-drawn sketches over dirt photos, and quick annotated diagrams have played a significant role in conveying adjustments we would typically make on-site during one of our visits.”

Photography, drone footage and video conferencing has allowed Danner to keep updated with progress and provide any feedback or direction to the construction team.

“My typical day might start with a video walkthrough, followed by carefully reviewing drone footage or still photos from all different angles,” says Danner. “Then I’ll spend a few hours sketching and diagramming so the thoughts and ideas discussed on the video conference can be further developed, thought through, and elaborated on in the form of a field sketch that the contractor can implement the following day. The primary efficiency is that we work while they sleep, they work while we sleep, and both parties burn the candle a little bit at both ends to accommodate one another’s schedule.

“To accompany the photographs, we are now requesting video walk-throughs with shaper commentary, and as-built spot elevations on a grid to review green surfaces. The green surface as-builts have always been a part of our process, but usually, as a site-visit tool to verify percentages and green strategy.

“Having great shapers is another crucial component. Being able to have our regular shaper-architect discussions and banter over a video call has been invaluable, especially when working with people who know what you’re after.

“The last few months have not been without it’s challenges. Sometimes spotty cell coverage, weather, lighting, barking dogs and a host of other variables can make it difficult to accurately process what we see on a screen. It also creates a lot more back and forth, which can be cumbersome at times, but it seems to get the job done.

Danner, like most architects, is looking forward to a return to normality. “I’m definitely itching to go back out and play in the dirt.”

This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.