ATHENS — Last week was not the first time that concrete fell from the ceiling of Stegeman Coliseum. It also happened in May 2018, not long before a University of Georgia commencement ceremony was held in the building, and again in 2020.
This time, though, the piece of concrete that landed in a seating section of the 60-year-old facility was big enough to facilitate a shutdown. In an email circulated Monday afternoon, UGA officials identified the chunk that fell into a spectator area of the 10,523-seat facility as “palm-sized.”
“While still small, it was the largest piece discovered to date,” James Hataway, UGA’s assistant director of media relations, said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The facility was immediately closed out of an abundance of caution. Safety is the university’s top priority, and the facility will not reopen until necessary repairs, improvements and inspections are complete, which could take several months.”
As a result, all of UGA’s spring commencement ceremonies are being relocated. Local high schools that also hold graduation ceremonies at Stegeman, including Cedar Shoals, Clarke Central and Oconee, were told last week to find alternative venues.
UGA’s graduate ceremonies, which were scheduled to be held as separate events for master’s/specialist degrees and doctorates, have combined into a single ceremony at Sanford Stadium on May 11 (with a backup date of May 12).
Meanwhile, a convocation for the Terry College of Business, as well as commencement ceremonies for the College of Pharmacy, College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Law, were also planned for Stegeman. They all are having to make alternate plans.
However, the university’s main undergraduate ceremony remains unchanged. It will be held at 7:30 p.m. May 12 in Sanford Stadium. Dexter Fisher, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner, was UGA’s director of facility management for 25 years before retiring in 2019. He confirmed to the AJC that concrete and “other debris” was discovered to have fallen in or near Tunnel 3 of Stegeman Coliseum shortly before a Terry College of Business commencement in 2018. The area the concrete fell was cordoned off from spectators, and the event was held as planned.
Afterward, engineers from UGA’s facilities management were called in to inspect the ceiling as well as the outside of the Coliseum’s expansive concrete roof. UGA said no structural distress was discovered but that repairs were recommended and completed that summer.
In 2020, another “small piece” was discovered, according to UGA. This time, an engineering firm was hired to survey the ceiling and make repairs.
The last two years, periodic condition assessments have been done regularly which utilize both in-person inspections and drone technology. They have discovered “small flakes (of concrete),” but UGA insists “no conditions have indicated a hazard.”
Roof work was done last year that included the application of highly reflective white paint to deflect the amount of heat being absorbed and to reduce moisture infiltration. That’s important to decrease the chances of “delamination” and “spalling” developing.
Delamination and spalling are common – and undesirable – conditions in concrete construction. It’s not uncommon for homeowners to see it develop in their driveways or garages. It occurs as a result of air and water penetrating the porous concrete to reach the reinforced steel within.
In the case of large structures such as the Coliseum, not only can that create a potential “struck-by hazard” should spalled concrete fall and strike a person, but it also can reduce the cross-sectional area of the concrete and decrease its ability to safely carry imposed loads, according to Robson Forensic, an online “concrete expert.”
Georgia officials insist they do not have a structural issue at Stegeman. In the meantime, the engineering firm of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. has been contracted to evaluate the ceiling and devise a more permanent solution. A second opinion was sought from the structural engineering firm, Walter P. Moore. Representatives were actually on site for an evaluation last Wednesday when the latest piece that fell was found.
An all-concrete structure built around two giant parabolas, construction on the Coliseum began in 1963 and was completed in 1964. It has undergone numerous renovations, costing millions over the years. Most recently, a giant, center-hung scoreboard was secured to the roof in 2017 in a renovation that cost $8 million. A $13 million renovation was completed in 2009.
Unbeknownst to many, the athletic department doesn’t own the Coliseum. It belongs to the university and is considered a “resident instruction building.” Once occupied by the College of Agriculture, it is primarily utilized now by UGA Athletics, which uses the arena for basketball, gymnastics and volleyball competitions about nine months a year.
Reopening Stegeman as soon as possible is important to athletics. The spring signing period for recruiting begins in just over a month. Not only will recruits want to see the facilities, they’ll want to know where they’re playing next year.
As it turns out, construction is already underway on a 7,500-seat arena in downtown Athens. Known now as Classic City Arena, it is scheduled to open in the fall. The school’s club hockey team is scheduled to play there. However, UGA Athletics previously has not shown any interest in utilizing the new facility for any of its NCAA-sanctioned sporting events.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com