Designing a winning sports venue

Sports and entertainment arenas are more than just seats and a playing field; they are highly complex structures bringing in thousands of fans—and millions of dollars—every year. Engineers with experience in the field share advice on putting together a strong game plan and ending up a champion.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 28, 2014


  • Jerry Atienza, EIT, Senior plumbing designer, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.
  • Douglas H. Evans, PE, FSFPE, Fire protection engineer, Clark County Dept. of, Development Services, Building Division, Las Vegas
  • Todd Mack, PE, Principal, DLR Group, Omaha, Neb.
  • Jeff Sawarynski, PE, LEED AP, Principal, M-E Engineers Inc., Denver, Colo.

CSE: Please describe a recent sports/entertainment venue project you’ve worked on—share details about the project, including building location, size, etc.

Jerry Atienza: The West End Zone expansion at Clemson Memorial Stadium includes four primary components. The first is a 107,000-sq-ft football team facility on the two lowest levels with home and visiting locker rooms, rehab/training areas, equipment rooms, 15,000 sq ft of strength and conditioning spaces, a recruiting lounge, team lounge, coaches offices, team/squad meeting rooms, and services functions. The second component is the third-level concourse connecting the sideline grandstand concourses to allow circulation around the entire stadium. It will provide new toilets, concessions, kids’ fun zone, and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant seating. The third component is 2,400 covered club seats in two levels above the concourse. This will include indoor lounges with seating areas, buffets, upscale concessions, toilets, escalator and elevator access, and views to the field and Lake Hartwell. The fourth component is an all-university museum and a 120-ft-high precast Oculus entrance centered on the west elevation. This 15,000-sq-ft facility will house the history of Clemson and athletic memorabilia. Construction of Phase I of the west end zone was completed in 2007. The work included new home team and visitors’ locker rooms, ticket booths, kitchen facilities, and a new team gallery for display of team and player awards. Level 2 provided a new team lounge and space for team meals served from the new kitchen. Entrance plazas were provided for a new concourse level with concession and toilet facilities and continuous concourse access to the existing north and south grandstands. Above this level was the new club level with covered outdoor chair seating and private concession, lounge, and toilet facilities. The second component is a 60,000-sq-ft expansion of team facilities and additional coaching staff and team spaces. The project includes a new 13,000-sq-ft strength training facility for the Clemson football team; expansion of the team equipment and training facilities with a new hydrotherapy room containing therapy and plunge pools; and a 24,000-sq-ft Level 2 expansion for new coach’s offices and team meeting rooms, including a new 150-seat team auditorium. The existing west end zone concourse will be expanded with a new 10,000-sq-ft plaza for additional fan-related activities.

Ranked as one of the top “Up and Coming” colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report and Success Magazine, Kennesaw State University (KSU), located 20 miles north of Atlanta, is the fastest growing school in the University System of Georgia. To accommodate this growth, KSU retained Heery International—the firm I worked with previously—to provide programming, architectural, and interior design for a new 6,000-seat multi-purpose convocation center with a 25,000-sq-ft classroom wing for health, physical education, and sports science instruction, totaling 147,000 sq ft. This flexible, multi-purpose facility provides a maximum 6,000 seats for convocations and concerts. It also accommodates a variety of sports venues including a varsity basketball court with 5,200 seats in the round and portable seating stored on the upper and lower levels; basketball practice with two courts on the lower level and two courts on the upper wings; volleyball competition with one court on each upper wing; and badminton competition with two courts on each upper wing. The facility also includes 12 classroom and laboratory facilities, two large teaching/multi-purpose areas totaling nearly 10,000 sq ft, 43 administrative and support offices, and three conference rooms. After completion, KSU converted several rooms in the convocation center into a new women’s varsity locker room for volleyball. The space includes an entry, locker room, and a toilet/shower area. Heery was also subsequently retained to conduct campus-wide athletic facility master planning for baseball, softball, soccer, football, volleyball, and cheerleading. Facilities included competition and practice areas, team locker rooms and lounge areas, training areas, coaches’ locker rooms, offices, and spectator areas. A separate master planning investigation was also conducted for a 23-acre off-campus site.

Doug Evans: The Las Vegas valley contains a number of sports facilities. All NASCAR fans are aware of the Las Vegas Speedway, which is located within the jurisdictional boundaries of Clark County, Nev. This venue contains more than 140,000 seats. The grandstands, skyboxes, and infield areas all included their own unique fire protection challenges. Several of the resorts also include sporting venues. Boxing and mixed martial arts fans are likely familiar with MGM Grand Gardens, Caesars Palace, and Mandalay Bay Arena. There are several additional sporting complexes that showcase rodeos and other equestrian events, as well as basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and virtually all popular sporting events. These venues can seat upwards of 30,000 patrons. Without exception, resorts in the Las Vegas region include multiple entertainment venues. Some of these venues may be as common as small platforms for a band, comedian, or other entertainers. Some include the multi-use facilities described above. Most of the resorts contain at least one stage with a proscenium (a fire and smoke separation between the stage and the audience). One of the nightclubs that opened within the past year includes performances by Cirque du Soleil. The performance area and ceiling include a substantial percentage of LED display boards to supplement the show. There are other unique performance features that also complicated the fire protection aspects of the venue.

Todd Mack: DLR Group recently completed the design for the University of Nebraska’s Athletic Performance Lab (APL) project. The APL comprises approximately 23,000 sq ft on the second and third floors of the East Memorial Stadium expansion. The Athlete Performance Lab represents a new model in athletics research and sports science, combining athletics, academics, and private sector research in focused collaboration to improve athletic performance. The APL has two primary levels. The Dynamic Level of APL is where the majority of the physical testing of athletes occurs. The Dynamic Level includes the following:

  • 162 x 4-ft turf track
  • 70 x 30 x 11-ft batting cage for baseball, softball, and golf
  • Cardio area
  • Power lifting racks and a retractable throws cage for track and field throwing activities
  • Half-court basketball court for basketball, volleyball, and other hard court activities
  • Various arrays of force plates located within a raised floor system used for athletic testing.
  • The Collaborative Level is located directly above the Dynamic Level. It includes:
  • A lab complete with instrumentation and testing equipment to support urine, blood, and saliva testing
  • Treatment rooms for blood draws and other testing procedures
  • A dedicated room for a bone density scanner
  • Office spaces for researchers
  • Collaboration spaces.

Jeff Sawarynski: We are currently working on the new Las Vegas Arena for MGM and AEG in Las Vegas, Nev. It’s a 20,000-seat venue programmed to NBA and NHL standards, and it has a focus on shows and concerts.

CSE: How have the characteristics of such projects changed in recent years, and what should engineers expect to see in the near future?

Evans: Venues are increasing in size to accommodate larger occupant loads. Smoke management systems are being incorporated into the facilities to allow these larger occupant loads and limit aisle width increases (Smoke Protected Assembly Seating). Over the past 10 to 15 years, theaters on the Las Vegas Strip have been constructed so the performance can surround the audience. Although this provides a more intimate experience, it makes it difficult to incorporate the level of protection provided by a proscenium. This inevitably requires using the alternate methods and materials provisions of the International Building Code to develop a performance-based fire protection approach to provide equivalency.

Sawarynski: We see new venues designed for specific leagues, such as Major League Soccer; specific uses, such as the College World Series Stadium in Omaha; and for mixed entertainment when no team is in place, such as Sprint Center in Kansas City. While venues are being built for diverse reasons, the common theme is that they are programmed and designed as multi-use venues. Today’s cost models require these venues be flexible and serve many purposes. Engineers need to understand how these varying uses affect system sizing, part load operation, and flexibility for growth and change.

Atienza: Sporting facilities like stadiums and arenas are very challenging when it comes to energy efficiency. These facilities have a very large carbon footprint that requires tons of steel and concrete to construct. These types of facilities require very large quantities of water to serve restrooms, showers, concessions stands, landscaping, and playing fields. Recreational facilities generally require large volumes of spaces to house indoor swimming pools and basketball courts, which results in very large heating and cooling loads. U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED is changing the way we think about how our buildings should be designed, constructed, maintained, and operated across the world. LEED addresses the entire building lifecycle, recognizing the latest technology in building strategies. State regulations and owner requirements, along with the sensitivity of the environment, have required the design industry to respond accordingly. Architects and engineers have not avoided the challenges sporting facilities pose. Improvements in building technology have allowed the design industry to reduce energy consumption for these types of facilities, while reducing the impact on the environment with the use of recycled materials. Finally, large sporting facilities are beginning to use alternative fuel sources such as solar thermal water heating systems. Rainwater re-claim systems are being designed to recycle treated wastewater back into the facility for flushing water closets and urinals. The large water demand created by these types of sporting facilities allows rainwater harvesting systems to have a much shorter payback period.

CSE: How does engineering systems in large-scale sports and entertainment arenas differ from working on smaller venues?

Atienza: Large-scale sporting venues consume large amounts of water, especially at halftime. Domestic water booster pumps and associated pipe sizing are increased in size to handle the peak water demands. To counter this high water demand, low-consumption plumbing fixtures, along with electronic faucets and flush valves, are specified for the restrooms. Technology is now available to capture the energy from running water to recharge the batteries serving the electronic faucets. Particular attention must be paid to the plumbing fixture counts with the proper balance between men’s and women’s facilities. Newer plumbing codes now require two women’s water closets per every men’s water closet. Lines outside of women’s restrooms are now becoming a rarity.

Evans: These venues accommodate large occupant loads that require designers to ensure a safe environment. Because large open areas do not provide fire-resistive separations, other means of protection are necessary. Automatic sprinklers are invariably installed, but in high-bay spaces there is little assurance they will perform as intended. Mechanical smoke management systems are common, but have their own design constrains and limitations that must be well understood. A well-designed egress system is a must.

Sawarynski: Wow, I could take this answer in so many directions. Clearly they require unique understanding of process; they require design/construction teams made up of many experts with countless ideas, experiences, and opinions; and they typically have cost and schedule controls that really drive early decision making in a way most projects do not experience.

CSE: What type of modeling tools do you use?

Mack: The Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab (APL) architecture and engineering BIM solution was modeled in Autodesk Revit Architecture 2012 and Revit MEP 2012. The challenge to the design team was that the APL was a fit-out within a much larger expansion project at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. The stadium expansion was under construction when the APL project was in design. The university provided DLR Group with the stadium expansion’s Revit model, and we integrated the stadium expansion’s architectural, structural, and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) models as well as the APL architectural fit-out walls and ceilings. Due to the rapid construction schedule, the contractor was required to produce 3-D coordination drawings to advance the construction as rapidly and as smoothly as possible. The contractor team used Autodesk Navisworks collision detection to predict any potential clashes and made minor adjustments as necessary. Presentation renderings were produced in Revit for design analysis purposes as well as to anticipate and reflect what the finished space would look like. The lighting illuminance target on the Dynamic Level was 100 fc to mimic conditions the athletes would experience during games. Dimmable LED fixtures were chosen to save energy at times when athletes were not undergoing testing. The lighting illuminance was modeled using AGI 32 software with very basic renderings to review glare conditions due to the high illuminance requirement combined with low fixture mounting heights required due to the existing structure.

Sawarynski: Our modeling tools include various energy modeling platforms, certainly Revit for building design/BIM, and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software to help look at system performance in what can be a very challenging building type to apply conventional HVAC design approaches.

Evans: The primary computer modeling that I review is used to design smoke management system(s). These days, most designers use Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS) for large open facilities, which is a CFD model available as a free download from the NIST website. Relatively simple algebraic equations are available, but typically provide more conservative results than the more sophisticated models. In order to save on construction costs, design teams seem to prefer the computer analyses.

Atienza: At Interface Engineering, our modeling software is Autodesk Revit. Using Revit, we can build models that link with architectural and structural models, resulting in very powerful collaboration during the design process. We also leverage the model using analytical software for lighting, energy, and HVAC design, such as AGI, IESVE, eQUEST, and Green Building Studio. For clash detection, we use Autodesk Navisworks Manage.

CSE: Please explain some of the general differences between retrofitting an existing arena and working on a brand-new structure.

Evans: It’s always easier to coordinate and install the fire protection aspects for a new building rather than retrofit an existing facility. One example that comes to mind is supply air for the smoke control system. As makeup for the air being exhausted, the supply air must be provided below the design smoke layer and at a low velocity (not exceeding 200 ft/min at the plume).

Sawarynski: Retrofits typically focus on upgrades to and replacements of failed systems and modifications to accommodate architectural changes to existing areas. Applying today’s approaches to revenue-generating spaces (suites, clubs, etc.) in existing arenas can lead to some significant challenges for engineers. These challenges typically include dealing with complicated and strained space planning, sequencing if arenas remain online, and adapting often archaic systems to meet new codes. We saw perhaps the most challenging example of this on the planet when we worked on the renovation of Madison Square Garden. New arenas don’t have these same issues, but they have their own set of unique variables and can be just as challenging.

CSE: What clash detection challenges have you overcome? Discuss interstitial space coordination at one of these projects.

Mack: For the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab, the interstitial space coordination was key to meeting the university’s goals, especially on the Dynamic Level where the athletes are tested. The Dynamic Level has a floor-to-floor height of 14 ft with structural depths that varied from 20 to 38 in. in depth. In addition to the structure, a 6-in. raised floor was required for placement of the force plates used for athletic testing. There was a requirement to maintain 11 ft clearance in the hitting cage area to allow enough space for baseball, softball, and golf. All other areas on the Dynamic Level were to be maintained as physically high as possible. With a limited floor-to-floor height, it was understood the MEP systems would be exposed so aesthetics was as important as and functionality. Galvanized steel supply and return ductwork was extended from the duct chase into the stadium concourse where the majority of the variable air volume (VAV) boxes that serve the Dynamic Level are located. Fabric ductwork was then extended from the VAV boxes into the Dynamic space. The fabric ductwork was specified with an internal wire frame to maintain the fabric duct round and taut at all times, with or without air pressure. The fabric ductwork was more cost-effective than an all-metallic duct system, did not require insulation, and was available in colors that were compatible with the space architecture.

Atienza: The biggest hurdle we have overcome is in educating our users about the importance of producing a clash-free model through the following principles: watch for other work to avoid creating clashes, check for clashes often, and fix clashes before you add more content to the model. It sounds simple, but it’s very easy to focus only on your own design when deadlines are approaching. If you wait until the end of the project to check for clashes, you will have an unmanageable amount of problems to fix.

Sawarynski: In any arena design there are significant clash detection challenges. Sloped structures, seating bowls with limited structural dead load capacity, and a plethora of unique “high-end” spaces means we are constantly dealing with design changes, unique one-off spaces, and minimal space “wasted” on allocation to MEP systems. Interstitial coordination can be very rigorous, especially when an arena is on a fast-track construction schedule. As MEP engineers, we are often trying coordinate with structural systems designed and released long before interior spaces are defined and MEP systems can be designed in detail for coordination.