Embrace Tradition Defy Convention

The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, cherishes innovation. That spirit was everywhere in the construction of UVA’s John Paul Jones Arena, the region’s most versatile sports and entertainment complex.

Architects VMDO/Ellerbe Becket established a footprint of 160,000 sf and total height of 111 feet. That met scope requirements, but was disproportionate on this architecturally sensitive campus. The design solution, dropping the building 40 feet into the earth, was inventive, but intensified existing site issues. Barton Malow, with the team, met some very unusual challenges!

The Dell

The site frequently flooded, overburdening the Charlottesville storm drain system. And so, the University opted for a comprehensive environmental solution: the Dell.

Biohabitats, Inc., designed a low-flow stream that runs into a one-acre retention pond with an outlet into an underground pipe. This required bringing 1,200 feet of Meadow Creek, which had run underground, up to the surface. Further, the land is graded, with native trees acting as bioretention filters. These steps, which control flooding, earned environmental credits for the University.

MSE and Geopiers

Creation of the Dell literally cleared the way for construction.

Sinking the arena into the ground, though, triggered concerns with soil pressure. The solution: a Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MSE) wire-faced wall, which holds 50,000 tons of stone, with tendons holding the base one foot from the building. Subcontractor Tensar Earth Technologies had to work around roof drains, telecom duct banks, column footings, and steam tunnels housing utility lines.

The soft earth was another complication. The team chose a Geopier Intermediate Foundation System – drilling cavities and ramming them with crushed aggregate – to stabilize the soil. Subcontractor GeoConstructors drilled 1,028 cavities in just six weeks, maintaining overall schedule.


With a steep bowl that brings visitors into the action, advanced audiovisual systems, and plush surroundings, John Paul Jones is THE entertainment venue regionally, drawing crowds for everything from Lipizzaner Stallions to Cirque de Soleil. Further, its athletes’ village attracts star basketball recruits.

The arena is built for fun, and Barton Malow greatly enjoyed its role in bringing this beautiful building to life.