Designing sports arenas, theaters, and other specialty structures: Sustainable buildings/energy efficiency

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 in regards to making the building sustainable and energy efficient.

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: What unusual systems or features are owners requesting to make their facilities more efficient?

Clements: I wouldn’t say unusual-increasingly more owners are asking for better instrumentation so they can understand how their building is operating. Additionally, most are interested in potential energy-recovery options, whether those be air-air, condenser-water energy recovery for preheating domestic water, or energy-recovery chillers to produce heating water, to name a few. The degree to which these make it through to the final design depends heavily on how important efficiency is for the owner on a given project.

Holzbach: Green roofs and photovoltaics (PVs) are being requested more often, especially on larger structures with large and available roof space. We’re also seeing rainwater storage and flushless urinals.

CSE: What types of sustainable features or concerns might you encounter on such facilities that you wouldn’t on other projects?

Lewis: Facilities of this type are typically served by a central plant, so you have more flexibility in how you can make the project more sustainable. Because of the large roof areas and footprint of the building, it becomes more feasible to do roof- or ground-mounted PVs to help offset the amount of power needed from the electrical grid. It’s also possible to work with the utility company in evaluating deals on either electrical or gas services and then provide systems that take advantage of the best rates.

Holzbach: Higher occupancies can lead to issues with certain strategies that would not arise on more traditional structures. For example, flushless urinals may not be as feasible in a sports stadium due to the massive amount of fixtures and usage.

CSE: What types of renewable or alternative energy systems have you recently specified to provide power? This may include PVs, wind turbines, etc. Describe the challenges and solutions.

Holzbach: We’ve used PVs on a number of projects. We’ve had situations where the budget is not up to installing a system in the initial phase of construction. As a result, we’ve had to design the system "backbone’ for a future installation.

Clements: We have used PV extensively on buildings-especially in the California market, where the industry is more mature than much of the rest of the country. Theater buildings inherently have a significant roof expanse, which is ideal for PV applications. One of the biggest challenges is incorporating the feature in an aesthetically unobtrusive way.

CSE: What are some of the challenges or issues when designing for water use in such facilities? What types of low-flow or other water-saving strategies have you incorporated?

Clements: Theater buildings have a huge swing in water use depending on occupancy status. There will be a large-demand peak, which then returns to very low usage for any nonperformance times. As a result, designing appropriate water-heating systems can be a challenge. In terms of water use, as a standard, we incorporate low-flow lavatories, showers, urinals, and water closets to reduce the water use as much as is feasible. Some projects have discussed greywater reclaim systems for flushing, although we haven’t had it pass the cost/benefit ratio test unless reducing or eliminating water use was the driver for a building’s design.

Conrad: One challenge with these types of venues is the intermittent usage and storing of domestic hot water. Some strategies to offset the intermittent usage of the facility are to incorporate flushless urinals, dual-flush water closets, and low-flow shower heads. To accommodate the domestic hot-water demand, we have used plate and frame heat exchangers connected to the main heating system to provide instantaneous hot water in lieu of storage-type water heaters. Usually, the size of the heating system provides plenty of capacity for the domestic hot water.

CSE: How has the demand for energy-recovery technology influenced the design for these kinds of projects?

Holzbach: On the MEP side, energy recovery has really been nearly automatic in a lot of situations for at least a decade now. This aspect is typically an intrinsic part of each and every design.

CSE: High-performance design strategies have been shown to have an impact on the performance of the building and its occupants. What value-add items are you adding for these kinds of facilities to make the buildings perform at a higher level?

Holzbach: PV design, DOAS, low-flow fixtures, cutting-edge lighting, and BAS controls systems-all of these systems contribute to a building’s higher performance level.

Lewis: One of the biggest energy-saving strategies is under-floor or under-seat air distribution. In conjunction with AECOM, we used this strategy at the Golden 1 Center for the Sacramento Kings, and it has been proven as better for the fans. The system delivers air at a warmer temperature where the fans are, so the air is cleaner, it uses less energy, and it creates a more even temperature distribution.

CSE: What level of performance are you being asked to achieve, such as WELL Building Standards, LEED certification, net-zero energy, Passive House, or other guidelines? Describe a project and its goals.

Holzbach: We’ve had to comply with all items above on different projects. On a recent project, we were tasked with satisfying LEED-NC. The owner’s requirement was that we design according to a Silver target level. We complied with all prerequisites, as well as went above and beyond on a significant number of MEP LEED credits, to bump that expectation up to a final Gold rating, much to the owner’s appreciation.

Clements: This depends almost entirely on the client. We will push for incorporation of sustainable design practices on every project, but certification requirements are typically driven (or not) by our customers. We have had multiple LEED projects, including the LEED Gold-certified Soraya Performing Arts Center at California State University-Northridge. We are also working on or have completed a number of net zero-targeted projects. The discussion of whether or not to certify a project varies widely depending on the customer and their organization’s own rules or associate politics.

Lewis: Almost all of the projects we are involved in have a sustainable element. We still see that LEED certification leads the way. In conjunction with AECOM, we recently completed the Golden 1 Center, which is the first LEED Platinum arena. This venue incorporated cutting-edge technology to reach the achievement. We see that venues are not moving toward net zero energy yet due to the additional cost required.