Designing sports arenas, theaters, and other specialty structures

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.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 29, 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’s the biggest trend you see today in these types of specialty structures?

Edward Clements: First and foremost, the trend that I see is focusing on the patron experience. Whether it be occupant comfort, improving sightlines, optimal acoustics, or amenity offerings, the focus is definitely on improving the overall experience for the people filling the seats. Efficiency and sustainability are also major factors, but they are there to augment the overall experience rather than the primary drivers of the projects’ design and construction.

George B. Holzbach III: We’ve seen a lot of combining of disparate spaces into consolidated structures. Our current ESA-Washington Wizards/Mystics project in Washington, D.C., combined a practice facility with office space, as well as an entertainment bowl for Washington Mystics games and a large swath of entertainment events (Amateur Athletic Union basketball, concerts, e-gaming tournaments, etc).

Kevin Lewis: The biggest trend we are seeing in venues is the continued move toward entertainment destinations. Venues such as stadiums, arenas, conventions centers, and theaters lend themselves well to supporting additional square footage, such as retail, restaurants, hospitality, office, and residential spaces. Venues anchor what essentially become "microcities" in a larger setting.

Michael Rogers: The size and services provided in today’s stadiums have to be one of the most dominating trends. Nine years ago, when AT&T Stadium was completed as the Dallas Cowboy’s new home, it was the biggest, most expensive stadium in the United States. Now, with the L.A. Rams stadium underway and the Las Vegas Raiders stadium fast on their heels, there seems to be a new standard for size, cost, and amenities in these structures. It’s not seat counts that are driving these changes, but the experience. Numerous clubs, specialty dining, indoor activity areas, and a vast array of retail spaces are quickly turning these stadiums into destinations for the day, not just during the few hours a game takes to play.

Michael Troyer: Passive optical networks (PON) and Gigabit Passive Optical Networks (GPON) is a trend. These systems allow for the transmission of digital signals over fiber without using active electronics. One of the best uses for this is the point-to-multipoint distribution typical in broadcast or massive distribution-type scenarios. They will work similarly well with bidirectional use, such as facilitywide Wi-Fi and intercom systems.

Corey Wallace: We’re seeing more performance-based design using fire modeling.

CSE: What trends are on the horizon for such projects?

Holzbach: We’ve seen a number of growing trends in our current and past projects. Biometrics for security/access is not exactly a new trend, but it’s one that’s growing and being used more frequently. This technology allows access to a facility or area within a building according to an individual’s bodily elements or biological data. In a sports arena, this can allow for very secure access to certain player areas. Another burgeoning trend for these larger and specialty facilities is to use "ionization" to clean air and reduce ventilation requirements. The most successful of these technologies uses tubes inserted in the airstream that break down air into oppositely charged "ions." This, in turn, allows particulates in the air to be removed, thus cleaning the air. Additionally, most municipal codes are now allowing for these technologies to reduce the amount of ventilation air required by code to be brought into a building. In the end, you have much cleaner building air and the ability to significantly reduce HVAC equipment sizes due to the reduced outside-air requirements, saving the project on first cost as well as operating cost over the lifetime of the building.

Wallace: A trend I see is an adjustment to current codes.

Lewis: Continuing on the theme of venues anchoring additional spaces, we are seeing a movement where health care plays a big role in this development. In this sense, health care encompasses support of young athletes as they hone their skills, providing specialized facilities for empty nesters looking to be more physically fit, and the more traditional approach of providing care for those that are injured or sick. In essence, the health care aspect really supports the microcity approach.

Clements: I would definitely anticipate more development in augmented reality and increased incorporation of technology into theater facilities. So much is available at the touch of a button from the comfort of peoples’ homes-the theater has to be able to deliver a unique experience that makes the visit worth the patron’s time and admission.

Troyer: One recurring trend in sports arenas, specifically, is they are becoming more of a destination in and of themselves rather than just a venue. Many stadiums are now hosting multiple sports rather than catering to just one. We are seeing an increase in an arena’s amenities areas so circulation is not as crowded and spectators can have more options for entertainment than just the event itself. Along with the increase in spaces not dedicated to seating or the event itself, we are seeing more audio/video (AV) distribution throughout these facilities such that a spectator does not have to be in a seat to continue viewing and hearing the event.

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale, or otherwise noteworthy. In your description, please include significant details-location, systems your team engineered, key players, interesting challenges or solutions, etc.

Wallace: We worked on Resort’s World in Las Vegas. The project was initially under construction and was placed on hold in 2008 as a casualty of the recession. The site construction restarted in 2017. The property will contain structures of more than 21 million sq ft once all phases are complete. There will be four hotel towers with the largest tower height of approximately 663 ft from grade to roof. The site has a central plant building, facilities building, theater, nightclub, casino, restaurant, retail spaces, and two aboveground parking garages. My team engineered the sitewide fire-suppression systems including dual-site fire pumps, tower fire pumps, water-storage tanks, a standpipe, and sprinkler systems. Key players included a Resorts World owner fire life safety representative, FEA Consulting Engineers, JENSEN HUGHES, and Clark County Building and Fire Prevention. Interesting challenges were the design had to account for the original project construction constraints, the sure size of the sprawling site generates issues to have a comprehensive fire-suppression design as well as the building height, and the owner’s team involved key stakeholders early on in the design process to ensure fire protection design solutions included well-thought-out engineering and constructability. Many projects do not use contractor input/experience at the concept phase. The early involvement has alleviated design issues that generally surface late in construction. The true coordination between the sprinkler contractor consultant, fire/life safety consultant, owner, and fire department allowed clear solutions.

Rogers: Little Caesars Arena recently opened as the new home for the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons, replacing the Joe Louis Arena and the Palace. It also is the anchor for a new sports and entertainment district in downtown Detroit. This unique arena not only supports professional hockey and basketball, but is a multi-use facility suitable for concerts, action sports, trade shows, conventions, and other events. The arena itself is separated from the retail and office spaces by a covered "via," giving patrons the feeling they have left the arena and ventured out to the retail areas without actually going outside. SSR provided mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection (MEP/FP) and energy consulting on this project. Construction was accomplished by a joint venture between Barton Malow/Hunt/White Construction, and the design was completed through a design-assist process allowing the contractors to play an intimate roll in finalizing the design.

Lewis: We are the engineer of record for the new Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District located in Inglewood, Calif. Specifically, we are focused on the 75,000-seat stadium and 6,000-seat performance venue. Both of these venues will represent state-of-the-art facilities with truly unique amenities and structures. The size and scale of this project, combined with its location relevant to its surroundings, posed several challenges that required a high level of coordination with all design and build partners involved in the project.

Clements: The largest specialty structure I’ve worked on was a large church in Leawood, Kan. HGA was commissioned to design the architecture, structure, and HVAC systems for the building. The sanctuary seats roughly 4,000 patrons, with room enough on the platform for a full orchestra and 100-person choir in the loft. The facility includes a video-production suite-the church simulcasts services to each of the three sanctuaries in the Leawood campus location as well as to sister locations in Kansas City and online. The HVAC systems for the building incorporate energy recovery for ventilation and use displacement ventilation for conditioning of the sanctuary. The existing campus central plant was upgraded to add capacity for the new sanctuary and a narthex, along with provisions for a future addition to the chapel.

CSE: Each type of project presents unique challenges-what types of challenges do you encounter on projects for sports arenas, theaters, and other specialty buildings that you might not face on other types of structures?

David Conrad: The biggest challenge we face is the need to have these spaces, including theaters and sports arenas, prepared for two extremes: dormancy and functioning at full capacity. This would include smaller venues, which may only meet full or close-to-full capacity a handful of times per year.

Holzbach: Large occupancies and the associated design that goes along with them are typically what we see in the larger sports arenas. The requirement of specialty systems, such as large-scale smoke-management systems, come into play due to the size of the building space and the number of occupants. Things like smoke evacuation in the event of a smoke emergency or fire have to be considered as well as entertainment-specific events, such as pyrotechnics in a sports event or concert or a smoke or fog machine for some concerts. Systems must be designed to specifically account for these events.

Clements: Buildings for the performing arts are unique in that the focus of the design of the systems is to make them completely disappear-from sight and sound. To achieve optimal acoustics, extremely low distribution velocities are needed for air systems, which means that the duct networks get very large. Threading the system through the building in an unobtrusive way is a challenge that changes with each venue. The best results are those in which you don’t notice where any of the systems are, yet the environment is completely comfortable and quiet.

Wallace: These types of structures generally have larger occupant loads and higher ceilings/roof decks. The larger occupant loads dictate a larger population to protect and potentially the need for the systems to stay operational for a longer duration during a fire event. The higher ceiling heights cause concern for the effectiveness of suppression systems. Care must be taken in selecting sprinkler characteristics and the anticipated fire size upon the system activation.

Rogers: The collaborative nature of projects the size of modern NFL stadiums or NHL/NBA arenas creates the challenge of providing a technology solution to allow all parties to work in, and view in real time, the current design model. In addition, it makes little sense to have a design model and then toss that out when the contractor comes on board and develops their construction model. The lines are being blurred between design and construction modeling. Defining where the design team stops and contractors pick up is a conversation that requires detailed knowledge of all steps when moving from concept to construction. Cloud-based solutions to manage the models are beginning to emerge, but can still be cumbersome, labor-intensive, and require extensive management to avoid issues. These modeling challenges seem to hit the engineers hardest, as our equipment must coordinate with all other features in the building, requiring a large model environment for design activities to occur.

Troyer: Specialty buildings have unique challenges that other buildings do not. A primary concern in most specialized structures is the acoustic consideration. Obviously, there is a great difference in the approach to a sports arena or stadium sound system than with a theater. Dispersion concerns in a sports arena and coverage patterns, as well as sound-pressure level, are primary. In a theater setting, accurate reproduction of sound at every location in the theater is primary.

Lewis: With large venues, the challenge is usually centered around the people and the experience. We need to provide a high level of experience to a vast amount of people, yet we must focus on providing a unique experience on a big scale. This often tests our ability to design in a way that is not intrusive. That is, the building systems should support the experience and play a supporting role while letting the fit and finish tell the story.

CSE: How are engineers designing such facilities to keep initial costs down while also offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes, and meeting client needs?

Wallace: Fire modeling has been used to remove sprinkler protection in locations in which they would not be effective if they were installed; for example, on the roof of an enclosed football stadium or sports arena with ceilings exceeding 110 ft above the finished floor. These systems are not being installed while still meeting the definition of a fully sprinklered building.

Clements: It starts with understanding what the drivers are for the project. There is always a trade-off between efficiency, longevity, acoustic performance, maintenance, and capital cost. For some owners, efficiency is the paramount goal, even if the capital cost goes up. For others, acoustics drive everything. The key is in understanding where the biggest result in each criterion can come for the owner’s investment. If the focus is efficiency, then systems selection may swing one direction over another. More often than not, the best results come from tailoring the performance on a granular level to the end space that a system is serving. For an auditorium, for example, acoustics will likely be the driver. For the back-of-house areas, efficiency and flexibility are more likely to be most important. Open communication with the owner’s project leadership is key in understanding what the goals are. As designers, it is then our responsibility to tailor what we deliver to meet those needs.

Troyer: An engineer’s approach to most projects is to design the most appropriate system for the project’s goals and needs. If cost is the primary driver for a project, the design will lean in that direction. If performance is the main driver, the design will be aimed to higher-performing (and possibly more expensive) options. Our goal is always to provide as much as we can for the owner’s budget and resources.

Lewis: For big venues, small costs add up fast when multiplied over a large square footage. We start each design with the relevant project experience in mind so we don’t make the same mistakes twice. That is, we understand what the right materials and design points are. Starting the project out understanding that cost control should not compromise design is important. We also want to work collaboratively with the subcontractors to help deliver the owner the most seamless project possible.

Holzbach: The value-engineering process becomes a very important part of the equation. And this process, which is typically approached for more traditional projects at the tail end of the design process, is required at the very outset of these types of projects. So very specific conversations about creative, design-related approaches to keeping down costs are held at the initial stages of the design process.

Conrad: Understanding the client’s needs-which typically include what the space will be used for, what are the overall energy (LEED, net-zero buildings, etc.,) and any other special effects the owner is trying to achieve-is key. Once you determine the needs of the space, you can put together system options, preliminary energy modeling, and cost-effective, energy-efficient systems.

CSE: Have you worked on such projects for overseas clients? If so, how have you found project requirements compare between the U.S. and other countries?

Holzbach: Yes. Depending on the part of the world, there can be myriad different project requirements. Some countries have very complex and modern codes and design standards similar to the United States and Western Europe. Some countries have no "enforced" codes or design standards whatsoever. One example of this is in certain parts of India, where we have an office and have designed extensively. Things are very different there. There are really no enforced codes or building requirements. Many times, the contractors take on a large part of the engineering in lieu of a traditional professional engineer, which can lead to a number of design and operational problems, in addition to buildings being built that would not stand up to any kind of United States or Western European code requirements.

CSE: What types of specialized acoustics knowledge is needed for each type of building (sports arenas, theaters, and other specialty projects)?

Clements: Understanding how the systems interact with the acoustics of a space is absolutely paramount to a successful design of a theater building. If you don’t know how sound is transmitted, and what measures are likely to be effective in mitigating systems noise, the project will likely have noise challenges.

Lewis: The acoustics in large venues, regardless of type, are always important. At Henderson Engineers, we have in-house acousticians that work collaboratively with our design team to help analyze either the existing spaces and/or provide a coordinated design for the new venue. The biggest culprits are typically noise from the mechanical systems that must be mitigated or reverberation from the venue areas where the people are located. Regardless, there are several strategies that can be used to design the noise out.

Troyer: In most cases, specialized acoustics knowledge is required for these types of facilities. This can take the form of an outside consultant who specializes in acoustics or the use of software designed to model the sound performance of spaces.

Holzbach: Typically, the mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) consulting engineer works with an acoustical consultant to flesh out these requirements. The MEP engineer then designs the MEP systems around these requirements. Each space has its own acoustical requirements (typically maximum allowable decibel levels; dbs), and the MEP system is designed accordingly. Silencers can be used in mechanical ductwork, acoustical curbs can be used on rooftop HVAC equipment, soundlining can be placed in mechanical ductwork, etc. Air diffusers in each space are designed to comply with the local sound-level requirements.

CSE: How is the sound and vibration of large equipment mitigated in these specialty structures?

Troyer: There are several approaches to mitigating sound and vibration. We work very closely with the architect to determine the best location for all equipment, taking into consideration the location of adjacent spaces and their uses. We try to keep loud, vibration-emitting equipment above or below support spaces or open areas as much as possible. In cases where we cannot, we use other mitigating designs, such as isolation dampers, sound attenuation, and thickened slabs or equipment bases.

Clements: The best way to handle equipment noise in an acoustically sensitive building is to start at the source. The more careful the designer is in selecting equipment that has superior acoustic performance in the first place, the more likely that the installation will be successful. Fan selection, for example, is a critical factor too easily overlooked. Choosing the right type of fan for the application can have a substantial impact on the noise that it produces, which must, in turn, be mitigated through silencers and other means. If you start with a quieter selection, you’re likely better off in the end, as fewer means will be needed to deal with the noise. Likewise, the best solution for vibration is to carefully plan where equipment will be placed from the outset of the project. Planning for spaces that are less prone to structure-borne vibration potential (either on grade or on massive structures) will likely yield the best outcome with the least amount of effort put into damping the vibrations. In theater buildings, though, it is not unusual for every piece of equipment, ductwork, and piping to be on isolators, depending on the noise threshold targeted. The quieter the listening environment is, the more critical the mitigation measures are to have a successful outcome.

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery (IPD) or virtual design and construction (VDC) into a project? Define the owner’s project requirements and how the entire team fulfilled them using these methods.

Holzbach: For Washington, D.C., projects, we use the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affair’s digital submission system for the permit submissions, permit review, etc. There are no hard copies. All drawings are submitted through a digital portal with digital stamps and signatures. We also use Revit and Navisworks technology to design concurrently with the architect and other consultants (structural, civil, etc.), as well as coordinate and fine-tune designs in the construction-document phase with the contractor prior to (and during) construction.

Troyer: We have been using BIM primarily for several years now. IPD and VDC usually will come into play with most projects depending on the contractor’s sophistication performing the work. In very complex projects, we try to coordinate with the contractor throughout both the design and construction process to eliminate any interdisciplinary conflicts that may have been missed if we did not use that approach.