Tobin Consulting Engineers has recently delivered the world’s largest sports air dome for Connacht GAA in Bekan, Co Mayo, and Chartered Engineer Brendan Heaney tells the story of how the smart air dome was built. 

Located on the site of the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence, the dome measures 150m (l) x 100m (w) x 26m (h). This high-spec facility accommodates a full size 4G synthetic GAA pitch, 130m indoor running track, extensive gym facilities which can accommodate up to 30 people at one time, internal performance testing facilities, 2G synthetic surface concourse areas and seating for more than 600 spectators for competitive fixtures. 

Monitoring and maintenance technology

The double-skinned energy-efficient smart air dome features specialist LED lighting, high-tech inflation, air exchange, ventilation and heating adaptations that are controlled by multiple systems which use automated fault detection, as well as monitoring and maintenance technology to control heat, pressure, humidity and lighting.

The innovative design of this air dome allows for the structure to transform itself from a sporting facility for the local community into a fully functional conference area within 72 hours.

Other prospective functions allow the dome to be used for executive training days, trade exhibitions, and concerts with the capacity to hold up to 10,000 people, making it one of Ireland’s largest indoor venues.

When Connacht GAA first embarked on a project to build an indoor sports facility at its Centre of Excellence in Mayo, it was estimating a cost of about €20m.

Connacht GAA wanted a venue that would hold football and hurling matches on days when poor weather conditions made other pitches unplayable. Dome grass can’t get waterlogged, and games can be played at summer-time pace.

But the figures from the calculations for a steel-frame construction were too high. It needed to find an alternative structure that would be as sturdy as steel, but at a more affordable price.  

“The idea came of a dome,” Brendan Heaney, a consultant engineer with Tobin consulting engineers and project director for what would later become the NUI Galway Connacht GAA Air Dome, told The42 recently.

First of its kind in Ireland

It is the first of its kind in Ireland, and the largest indoor sports air dome in the world.

“We contacted specialists and did some costs,” says Heaney. “We were coming up with a cost of about €3m.

“So, we went into Mayo County Council for a revised planning mission and secured that. I must say Mayo County Council were very helpful all along the process.

“So we secured planning permission and then we went on to tender it. We appointed a contractor [Prunty Contractors] as the main contractor for the dome project and as part of that, you had DBS who were the dome specialists and SIS Pitches who were the pitch specialists.

“And we were the project managers and overall design responsibility for the dome, with Connacht being the client.”  

A Chartered Engineer, Heaney has more than 27 years post-qualification experience in the construction industry; he is technical director in the building and infrastructure division and has extensive experience in project management, procurement, design and construction of numerous commercial, industrial, residential, retail and sports projects, from conception through to completion.

He has brought these specialist skills and techniques to a wide variety of projects in the private and public residential and commercial sectors, including the Galway Harbour Deep Water project and the National and Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence. A keen follower of all sports, and in particular hurling and football, Heaney trains underage football teams in his local football club and also enjoys walking and cycling.

Heaney and his company have been associated with Connacht GAA since 2010, when the land at Bekan in Mayo was first purchased for the impressive Centre of Excellence. A vision for this kind of indoor sports facility that would be an antidote to soggy pitches, was in their minds even then.

The first steps towards completing that project were taken in 2018 when they applied for funding. The construction phase got under way in late 2019, although the site was forcibly shut down just a few months later, due to the pandemic.

A total of 10 arctic lorries delivered all the materials that were needed to erect the dome, but it would be 2021 before the dome would be up and ready for use.

“I suppose my main concern was” says Heaney, “when sites closed down, we had 50% of the material delivered to site and the big risk was that something would happen and we wouldn’t get the remaining 50% delivered.

Strategy during the pandemic

“Our strategy at that point was to keep the deliveries coming, get it all delivered and have the complete dome on site to erect. There was a risk in that and we were nervous about it, but within about two months of the close-down, we were able to get all the material delivered to site successfully.

“It’s exactly what we wanted. The pitch itself is of similar scale to Croke Park but it would have a three-metre run-off around the pitch, whereas we have a 10m run-off and the reason for that is that the dome by nature and shape does taper down at the sides.”

With the Covid pause now behind them, the new dome is now full of air and functional. A few games were played there before Christmas, but it was through the FBD League that wider audiences were able to appreciate the true grandeur of the dome.

The dimensions, according to Heaney, are 150m long and 100m wide. The dome runs up to a height of 26m in the centre, and can easily accommodate the flight of a ball in either football or hurling.

“Having witnessed it and seen it played,” says Heaney, “I have yet to see a ball hit the roof.” 

High-scoring games

The feedback from players and managers so far has been encouraging too. Speaking after his side’s FBD League game against Sligo, Leitrim boss Andy Moran remarked that the €3.1m facility was “amazing”.

The opposition manager Tony McEntee was equally enthused, adding that “it does seem to play quick compared to what would be a sodden field outside in bad conditions.”

While spectators are prohibited from attending games at the moment due to the current restrictions, the matches so far suggest that crowds will be treated to high-scoring games when normality resumes.

The Leitrim-Sligo affair produced a 1-21 to 1-17 scoreline. It was similar circumstances in the two semi-finals, as Galway edged out Mayo by 0-17 to 0-13. Likewise, Roscommon defeated Sligo by 3-23 to 0-21.

It’s unlikely that the same games on wet and mucky grass would have had a similar scoring output.

The finalists Galway and Roscommon have both had similar brisk workouts at the dome before squaring off in the decider on Friday.

In addition to playing sport in the building, the dome can also be used to stage concerts and conferences and can safely accommodate a crowd of 10,000 people.

It’s also hosting the GAA Games Development Conference for 2022 on Saturday, February 19, and the annual GAA Congress on the weekend of February 25-26.

Potential to install one in each province

As for the future of such air domes in Ireland, Heaney is confident that there is potential to install one in each province. But he also cautions that such structures require constant maintenance and upkeep.

One thing about the facility is that Connacht’s facility down there is very well managed and they have a full management structure in place led by John Prenty and Kurt Reinhardt.

“In particular relation to a dome, if you have a standard pitch and all you needed was to cut the grass, then the maintenance is low.

“But you look at a dome, there is a lot of maintenance. It has to be checked weekly, monthly, and quarterly for various things. There is a system of generators and a backup generators in the event of high weather but they need to be checked to ensure that all systems are working.

“It can all be controlled from a mobile phone, and there’s a weather station there.

“And there is a cost to erecting the dome. It’s inflated with air and even with the lights inside, there is a cost to keeping it in operation.”

Connacht secretary Prenty put it succinctly: It’s a huge boost for the Connacht region

Renamed 

Connacht GAA and NUI Galway officially announced a partnership agreement recently, with the air dome at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence being renamed the NUI Galway Connacht GAA Air Dome.

The newly renamed facility was officially opened by the president of the GAA, Larry McCarthy, in mid-December 2021.