Artificial turf begins to appear on football pitches, golf coures, parks and family gardens

Hard-wearing and easier to maintain, artificial turf is beginning to attract more attention in the industry. Gavin McEwan reports.

Artificial grass used on competitive pitches. Image:Technical Services
Artificial grass used on competitive pitches. Image:Technical Services

Synthetic turf is quietly encroaching on various areas where once only natural grass would have been considered.

Already Russia's national football side plays competitive matches on the synthetic surface of its Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. And in golf, artificial turf is creeping from the practice ranges onto tees and even greens in some new courses.

The market for synthetic turf in domestic gardens is also growing steadily (see box on p22). And in New York, artificial grass is becoming an increasingly common sight in parks and open spaces.

Dr Paul Fleming, senior lecturer in engineering at Loughborough University, has managed the interdisciplinary SportSURF Network since establishing it in 2005. He says: "It's not a case of 'either or'. Natural and synthetic have a place. Artificial pitches suit high-volume, year-round use and there's a dazzling variety of products on the market.

"It's something I'm interested in as an academic. There are a lot of questions there, for example on player-surface interaction, on construction quality, and on longevity. But then there are questions about natural surfaces too, such as their value for money and ability to cope with climate change.

"Some countries such as Australia have water bans, and these may be areas that get only an hour of rain a week. Some states are already shutting grounds, and for them artificial surfaces may be the only solution."

The SportSURF Network will shortly hold its second conference, at Loughborough University on 21-22 April. "The network has had a bias towards synthetic surfaces, though the conference will cover both artificial and natural," Fleming adds.

"We bring together academics, practitioners from a range of disciplines such as medical and biomechanical, as well as suppliers. It's non-profit-making - the aim is to bring people together and to raise awareness of issues in the industry."

The subject has already gained some academic interest. Cranfield University hosted a study of best practice in synthetic turf maintenance which completed in 2008. According to head of sports surface technology Iain James: "An outcome of that is a set of guidelines which are available on our website. But it looked only at second-generation surfaces - there's still room for advances."

Alternative surfaces for golf are often thought of as the preserve of hot, dry climates. Recently the Kikuoka golf club in Luxembourg opened a six-hole course with synthetic tees and greens.

Gaunt Golf Design director and senior golf course architect Jonathan Gaunt supports the trend. He says: "I haven't done a course with synthetic greens yet, but it's probably only a matter of time.

"Having seen them in action, I was impressed with the playing quality and the bounce, though it's not exactly like a natural surface. The putting quality is excellent. I am specifying it on a couple of projects such as practice facilities. They are ideal for driving ranges, chipping ranges and putting greens, which are prone to wear."

So far the playing surface supplied by Nomow has particularly impressed Gaunt. "A lot of them are sand-filled, which is an extra maintenance operation, but Nomow isn't - it has a solid base which means you can get some nice shapes and contours.

"As well as removing the need for mowing, there is a big saving on irrigation, which you don't have to install. There is a question about the lifespan, but you would do well to get 20-25 years out of a modern conventional green."

Gaunt accepts that the trend will not be welcomed by everyone. "Golfers are wary, and will say, 'I want to play off grass', but if you get the quality, they will be more understanding. Even St Andrews will ask you to play off an artificial turf mat in winter."

The trend has spinoffs outside golf courses themselves, he adds. "Keen golfers often want practice facilities in their gardens. And we were asked by a pretty forward-thinking head teacher to put in a small putting course in a school playground. It's a good way of getting kids involved in the game, as it will build up their confidence. It doesn't have the anomalies of grass, which makes it less intimidating."

Financial gain

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme has ensured a steady stream of recession-proof investment into outdoor facilities. Kestrel Contractors has been among the beneficiaries and has gone from being a purely natural turf installer to a major artificial turf contractor, according to marketing executive Matt Stubbs. "There's still about 10 years left on the BSF programme, although we also install for sports clubs and youth clubs, who can rent them out. Third-generation versions are more forgiving and can be used on multi-sports areas, though at 40-60mm they're too long for tennis."

The training ground installed by the company at Barnet FC in north London is reckoned to be one of the best training grounds outside the Premiership, he says, although a full-size pitch installation complete with floodlights can cost upwards of £400,000.

"Compared to natural surfaces the maintenance is minimal - mostly it's picking up leaf and litter. But we do recommend getting in specialist contractors such as ourselves to carry out maintenance work two or three times a year - that will improve its life expectancy, which will be 8-10 years."

The company uses turf from the growing range of manufactured weaves available. "We are not committed to just one supplier, and different manufacturers use different percentages of infill," says Stubbs.

Kestrel claims to be the first contractor to install "fourth generation" synthetic surfaces, which use no infill at all. In this case, the synthetic blades have a "memory" and that ensures they return to upright after being flattened.

CONSUMER

The presence of an artificial turf-themed garden at this spring's Chelsea Flower Show suggests that synthetic turf may finally be shedding its unacceptable image for the consumer market.

B&Q is already enjoying healthy sales of artificial turf since beginning trail sales at several stores last autumn. The DIY giant will literally roll out the turf to its other stores this month, and anticipates that it will be a big hit with families in the run-up to the World Cup.

Retailing at £10 per sq m for the short-blade version, £15 for the deep-pile version, more than 10,000sq m of artificial grass will be sold through its stores this year, the company estimates.

Despite its name, Preston-based Sports Grass owes its rapid growth from its formation five years ago to expansion of the domestic market. According to operations manager Josh Gauld: "These days, people are more focused on time and how to save it."

The company has gone from "working out of a bedroom" to having offices in Preston, London and Scotland he says, adding that improvements in the quality of synthetic turf have done much to drive the market.

"It has come on in leaps and bounds. People here still think of Preston North End's old synthetic surface, which was shocking. But now we have versions with four different colours and a varied pile height, which looks very natural. There's no need for sand or rubber infill, and it has a life expectancy of around 15 years."

LINKS
- www.asgoodasgrass.co.uk
- www.mcardle-astroturf.co.uk
- www.charterhouseturfmachinery.co.uk
- www.nomow.co.uk/products/golf
- www.bit.ly/kingstonpitch


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