Designing sports arenas, theaters, and other specialty structures: Automation, controls, and technology

Specialty facilities like sports stadiums and theaters have to do more than host the entertainment these days—they’re full of technological bells and whistles and high client expectations especially in regards to automation and controls.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 31, 2018


  • Edward Clements, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice President-Mechanical Engineering, HGA Architects and Engineers, Alexandria, Va.
  • David Conrad, PE, Vice President, Peter Basso Associates Inc., Troy, Mich.
  • George B. Holzbach III, PE, Associate Director of Mechanical Engineering, Setty & Associates, Fairfax, Va.
  • Kevin Lewis, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Vice President, Venue Practice Director Henderson Engineers Inc., Overland Park, Kan.
  • Michael Rogers, PE, LEED AP, Senior Principal, Smith Seckman Reid Inc., Nashville, Tenn.
  • Michael Troyer, PMP, RCDD, CTS, LEED AP, Principal/Senior Technologies Designer Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.
  • Corey Wallace, PE, SET, Principal Engineer, Southland Industries, Las Vegas

CSE: From your experience, what MEP or fire protection systems within these structures require specialized automation or controls that previously might not have?

Rogers: Fire protection and detection are unique challenges with large-volume open areas, such as the seating bowl in an NFL stadium. Traditional methods of detection/activation, such as sprinkler heads, laser-based smoke detectors or aspirating smoke detectors, do not work well at 140 ft above the playing surface. In addition, these facilities deal with indoor fireworks, theatrical smoke, and other events that can trigger false alarms. Most fire marshals are not dealing with these types of buildings often, therefore rounds of discussions are needed to come to an effective solution. Computation fluid dynamic (CFD) models are routinely used to help us understand fire-event smoke migration and how long it may take to fill a seating bowl and reach the exiting patrons. Dynamic smoke control strategies are needed to react to differing fire locations and intensities. CFDs help design teams develop strategies and provide appropriate control sequences to protect occupants.

Holzbach: Many of these facilities, by code, require a smoke-management system. There are a lot of specialty controls and automation that go into this system, encompassing the mechanical, fire alarm, and fire protection systems. Typically, the building automation system (BAS) controls the operation of the smoke-management system (exhaust fans, incoming make-up air, etc.) and is tied into the fire alarm system. A smoke or fire event triggers the system and a complex sequence of events begins, including the fire-annunciator panel, the BAS, and the associated controls and connections between all panels and equipment. The MEP designer is left to coordinate and tie together all these systems in addition to ensuring proper operation and code compliance.

Lewis: Venues have many of the same control systems that other building types have, but they are typically more dynamic and wide-ranging. Because of the size of these facilities, you have more items that need to be controlled, regardless of system type. The most important aspect is to maintain and keep up with the systems, as they all rely on sensors that can get out of tolerance, causing issues.

Clements: A BAS is ubiquitous, and theater buildings are no exception. As energy costs have risen and operating budgets strain, there has been a significant increase in the focus of instrumentation to allow systems to operate more efficiently when off-peak. This has led to much more discrete zoning and scheduling, occupancy-based setback controls, demand-controlled ventilation strategies, and optimal start strategies. Without a sophisticated BAS, none of these are possible from a practical sense, yet all are now expectations-and even requirements in some parts of the country with more aggressive energy codes.

CSE: What types of automation and control features are you seeing on these types of projects that you wouldn’t on other facilities?

Conrad: Metering utilities has become very popular. With metering, you can see how much electric, water, steam, and gas are being consumed. The metering also allows facilities’ personnel to monitor building loads and, consequently, adjust the equipment based on usage, which in turn helps your equipment run more efficiently.

Clements: We tend to use displacement ventilation systems for large auditoriums. In a displacement system, the thermal mass of the structure can impart a significant lag in the response of the space to changes from the HVAC system. Cooling down-or warming up-a hall that has been unoccupied for quite some time can take significantly longer than with more traditional overhead air-delivery systems. As such, we have been incorporating temperature sensors into the slabs of the seating area to help the building operators anticipate the response time needed to bring the hall into control. These, coupled with plenum pressure sensors that help to fine-tune the fan speed, can be greatly beneficial to the operator in giving patrons the best possible experience.

Lewis: The biggest difference and movement in large venues is toward integrated control systems. Controls are currently designed so that each system lives on its own platform and does not talk to the other systems well. Integrated controls have all systems on one platform for better integration. The biggest value in integrated controls, however, is that you can create algorithms to optimize the systems-saving energy and money.

Holzbach: On the projects we’ve worked on, automation and controls features are not that different from smaller or nonspecialty structures, for the most part. Typically, it is just the scope and coordination effort that increases.

CSE: Have you experienced the Internet of Things (IoT) come up in discussion or implemented on such projects? If so, please give an example.

Lewis: The idea of electronic items all connected via the IoT is an idea that is catching on quickly as manufacturers embrace the idea. As more devices are connected to the internet, it underscores the need for a robust network within these venues. Due to the scale of these structures, it is important to design with future needs and capacities baked into the final installation, as technology will continue to evolve.

CSE: For new structures, have you experienced building owners requesting that all products and systems be cataloged using IoT technology or some other type of asset-management or automation tool?

Rogers: Facility owners/operators are beginning to see the value of incorporating Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBIE) data into construction models. This information is used as a starting point for asset management, but there are still difficulties with file size and the magnitude of information to be included with larger facilities. Other facilities are using third-party software to categorize and manage their assets.

CSE: How have your engineers worked with building owners and facility managers to implement integrated technology in these specialty structures?

Holzbach: As the engineer of record, we are significantly involved in the commissioning process. For this process, all equipment and technology are vetted, coordinated, and implemented with the coordination and participation of the owner.

CSE: Is your team using BIM in conjunction with the architects, trades, and owners to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM model to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance (O&M) or measurement and verification (M&V).

Holzbach: It varies per project, but there are instances where the BIM is turned over to the owner. However, that instance is detailed in the project contract and typically comes with its own set of conditions and requirements. Setty has also created a process and software called "SYYCLOPS" that allows the owner to use an evolved version of the BIM on a daily basis for maintenance, future tenant renovations, plan review, etc. This SYYCLOPS model incorporates all aspects of a building (architectural, MEP, structural, etc.) and gives the user an easy view and an even easier way to navigate the visual user interface, which is tied to a database of all the equipment and systems in the building.

Lewis: Using a BIM for more than just the design is now commonplace for venues. For almost all of our projects, we work with the subcontractors, general contractors, and owners to make sure the model has the right information for all parties. Most important, the BIM is a road map for the operators as they take over the operation of the facility. A model that represents the design creates the starting point for all future renovations and maintenance required.