Lucas Spruch and his friend Noah Ducato, both eighth-graders, finished a bridge-design project over the winter. With a bit of free time to explore, they discovered that Minecraft Education software was installed on the computers in the Depew Middle School lab. Lucas asked his teacher, Aaron Nolan, if he could use the software, which allows multiple users to build in the same virtual world.
"Sure, if you are doing something productive," said Nolan, who had a suggestion: The Buffalo Bills had recently unveiled the first two renderings of the team's future stadium, which will be built across the road from Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park. Why not use Minecraft to build out your own version of the stadium?
Lucas and Noah got to work. Soon they were joined by a dozen of their classmates; together, they imagined what the inside of the stadium could look like.
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"We started building the field, then the logo, and it spiraled out of control," Lucas recalled this week.
Back then, Lucas and Noah couldn't have suspected that their free-time project would evolve into something that would attract the attention of the real-life stadium designers, prompting a visit to their school and giving them and their classmates one of the earliest in-depth looks at the plans for the Bills' next home.
With no glimpse yet at the actual plans for the stadium's interior, the students created a concourse with food and retail shops: Omar's Coffee. Anthony's Apparel. Josh's Jambalaya. Using a rendering that depicted the stadium's seating bowl, they imagined what it would look like to walk through one of the stadium's multiple tunnels onto the field. They built a locker room for the Bills, including offices for the coaches and, generously, owner Terry Pegula, who actually doesn't get an office inside the real-life locker room, but will be sharing a small space near it with General Manager Brandon Beane.
Nolan, a technology and engineering teacher, shared a few clips of his students' work on Twitter: "Cool to incorporate the biggest construction project in WNY with #stem," he wrote, referring to the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.
His tweet was shared several dozen times and caught the attention of media, including WIVB-TV, which visited the school, and The Buffalo News, which asked architects and designers from Populous, the Kansas City firm that is designing the Bills stadium, to consider doing a video call with the students and chat about both the Minecraft plans and the actual stadium plans.
Populous officials took the idea a step further: Rather than meet over Zoom, they had four members of their 31-person Bills stadium design team travel to Buffalo to meet with the students. Joined by two Bills officials, they met earlier this week with the full student body followed by a smaller session with the group of Nolan's students who created the Minecraft stadium.
"Each building has its unique story, and that's what makes the job so much fun," said Kelly Holton, a principal and brand activation director who is based out of Populous' Kansas City office. Standing onstage with a slideshow running behind her, she highlighted several examples of the company's other sports venue work, including Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, the New York Mets' Citi Field, and Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle.
Turning to the Bills stadium plan, Holton added, "It's a little different from the Minecraft design, but very similar in a lot of ways."
The Depew students and staff then received what has been the most detailed public presentation of the Bills stadium plans since the first renderings were unveiled.
Jac Griffiths, an architect from Populous' New York City office, stepped to the microphone.
"One of my favorite parts of being an architect is how we can take a single thought, and a single sketch, and really turn that into something real," Griffiths told the students. He flipped to a slide that depicted five hand-drawn sketches of a stadium's exterior, each with strong vertical panels reminiscent of the exterior of old Buffalo architecture: Kleinhans Music Hall; the front of the now-demolished Buffalo Memorial Auditorium; and the columns of the former War Memorial Stadium, which today stand tall as the entrance of the Johnnie B. Wiley Pavilion.
"We sent out a number of concepts that turned into the design of the stadium," said Griffiths, who then showed the students several renderings of the future stadium's exterior – vertical panels, curved roof and buffalo statues included.
Todd Spangler spoke next. "Jac is responsible for the exterior design," he told the students. "With a lot of help, (I) am responsible for everything inside."
A principal and senior architect with Populous, Spangler has developed a specialty that is vital to the fan experience – because it affects what you see – and to the ticket revenues – because it affects what, and how much, the team can sell.
"I am solely responsible for the seating bowl," he told the students. "It's my favorite thing to do at Populous."
Spangler showed the seating bowl from different vantage points, landing on a slide that depicts a cross section of the stadium, with dotted lines pointing diagonally downward and upward from seats. These are sightlines.
"We studied all those for every single seat and not just to the field," he said. "What do you see looking up? Can you see a punt? Can you see all the kicks? Can you see the scoreboard? There are a lot of components that go into designing a seating bowl."
Spangler told the crowd that the new stadium is shaping up to be about 1.59 million square feet. Highmark Stadium, by contrast, is about 900,000 square feet.
"To put that in perspective," Spangler said, "your middle school is about 85,000 square feet. So 19 of your schools fit into this stadium."
The crowd murmured and a few "wows" were audible as Amy Stortz Miller took over next. A senior interior designer and principal with Populous, she shared a few slides depicting concession stands and club areas in TQL Stadium, a soccer venue in Cincinnati, and Wrigley Field in Chicago. She noted that the Bills plans' are still underway and under wraps, but the students' own vision for food offerings was on track with the pros.
"These are kind of like what you have in Minecraft – the concession stands you designed for yourselves," said Stortz Miller, referring to areas with bright, sleek open spaces and subtle branding, such as a small Cubs logo in the top left corner of a lounge. "This is what the fan-focused spaces would look like."
Most of the new stadium interior design will be hued with softer references to the Bills' team colors, but there are some splashier areas too. Holton, the brand activation director, gave the students insight into the designers' thinking by sharing a "concept for a potential experience." She flipped to an image of fans gathered in the open concourse of the stadium, a series of colorful flags hanging overhead. "It's an opportunity to bring some of the tailgating atmosphere into the stadium," she said.
"I think this speaks to being authentic," added Frank Cravotta, the Bills' executive vice president of creative services. "A lot of spaces that we say in new stadiums are very highly polished. …When you see this, it feels like Buffalo, right?"
Holton showed two more slides: One with a giant charging Bills logo illuminating the concourse; the other, the word "SHOUT" – a reference to the team's longtime theme song – spelled out in tall, sharply vertical letters.
"We want you to feel like this is the Buffalo Bills stadium everywhere throughout," Holton said. "This would be a concourse experience, a large-scale, Buffalo Bills logo, celebrating the architecture, charging through, reflecting the energy of the fans."
After the assembly, the Populous and Bills executives gathered in a computer lab with Nolan and about a dozen students
"The whole presentation, I just was eating it up," Nolan said. "A sketch, a thumbnail sketch, a brainstorm sketch. This was awesome to see."
His students, now working on a baseball stadium in Minecraft Education, were showing the real-life architects and designers how they collaborate.
"We all actually work in one model as well," Spangler told the students. "We'll all be working at the same time. It's a very similar process."
"Do you each have a role?" asked Kelly Seward, the Bills' manager of new stadium relations. "I see you're working on the grass. How do you know who's going to be working on what?"
One of the students explained that they pick an area each day.
"Do you ever change someone else's work?" Spangler asked.
The kids laughed. A few glanced at each other, nodding.
As the group chatted and worked, Holton mentioned that one of the important jobs that happens near the end of the stadium development is a "super flush." Workers from several companies on the design and construction team gather in the stadium, each taking a toilet, and communicate by walkie-talkie to coordinate the simultaneous flushing of every toilet. The exercise amounts to a mega plumbing test before filling the stadium with fans.
"You guys can volunteer for that job," Nolan joked to his students, most of whom will be entering their senior year of high school when the new stadium opens.
In the meantime, Cravotta, himself a former Depew Middle student from the 1980s, gave the kids an offer: When the construction advances over the next year and hard-hat tours begin, they could come to Orchard Park and see the stadium in the making.
"You're kind of part of the design team now," Cravotta said. "You're honorary members."