While studying architecture and civil engineering in her hometown of Lincoln, Erleen Hatfield sat through plenty of speeches and picked up tips from professionals in the field.
Two decades later, the New York-based partner at international engineering firm Buro Happold has come full circle to share some of her own expertise.
She's leading a structural engineering team working on the 16,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena, the new home of Husker basketball to be completed in August.
Making a mark on one of Lincoln's most transformational projects has meant monthly work trips to her hometown over the past year and a half, most recently this weekend to check on the scoreboard, catwalks and other structural details. It also had her kicking off a popular lecture series for the UNL College of Architecture, and fielding questions like those she once posed to pros ahead of her.
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“Twenty years ago I was sitting in their seat, listening to speakers and learning from them,” said Hatfield, 45. “For me to go back and actually speak was an honor, a thrill.”
Overall, she said, her greatest personal satisfaction will be in knowing the progress the arena will spur in the West Haymarket District.
As a kid growing up in the capital city, she recalls little action in the area that is to become an entertainment and restaurant district with condos and an $800,000 digital screen called the Cube where movies would be broadcast.
“There wasn't much there,” Hatfield said. “The train station was a train station. To see this transformation is fantastic.”
Hatfield — who graduated from UNL with a bachelor's in architectural studies in 1991 and a master's in civil engineering in 1996 — actually was born in Ohio but was raised since elementary school in Lincoln, so she considers herself a Nebraskan. She has worked worldwide and now is Buro Happold's regional discipline leader for structural engineering in North America.
She also was a project manager in the construction of Omaha's CenturyLink Center, which opened in 2003, an assignment Hatfield pursued largely because it was in her home state.
When she started hearing rumblings of a possible arena even closer to her childhood stomping grounds, she was dogged about playing a role. “Back before it was even a project,” Hatfield said, she placed strategic calls to see if there was something she could help out on.
Hatfield's Burro Happold team worked closely with DLR Group, whose architectural work she praised.
Specializing in the structural design of sports facilities, Hatfield also is a frequent lecturer on new technologies, including Building Information Modeling, which played a pivotal part in the creation of the Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Using BIM technology, the team developed solutions that allowed the project to be built in two consecutive parts, a necessary feat as the arena site was on rail lines that were still in use and wouldn't be fully removed until after the project was in full swing.
Faced with a time schedule, the arena was planned in a way that most construction could take place as tracks were removed. A concrete structure went up in the center where no tracks impeded progress, and the outer structure was made of steel that was prefabricated off site and assembled after the edges of the site were cleared of tracks.
The resulting “hybrid” structure makes the facility somewhat unique among sports arenas, Hatfield said.
“By finding this clever way of concrete and steel, it allowed the arena to be built on schedule,” she said.
As Hatfield prepared for her latest visit, she marveled at its potential impact on the city where her parents and brother still live.
“How exciting this is for Lincoln and the university,” she said. “For me to be able to do this in my hometown is really, really satisfying.”
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