Designing sports arenas, theaters,and other specialty structures: Codes and standards

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 while also having to comply with codes and standards.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 30, 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: Please explain some of the codes, standards, and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process for these facilities. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of?

Clements: The codes/standards aren’t really different for theater buildings than other types of facilities. Designers need to understand what is applicable and what are the goals of the project. For theater buildings, one of the most critical (and most often overlooked) are energy codes. These buildings are inherently energy-intensive. Systems designers need to focus on incorporating as many cost-effective measures as feasible into the design while still meeting project acoustic requirements.

Wallace: They should be aware of the International Fire Code, International Building Code (IBC), FM Global Property Loss Prevention Data Sheets and NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, NFPA 14: Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems, NFPA 20: Standard for the Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection, NFPA 22: Standard for Water Tanks for Private Fire Protection, NFPA 24: Standard for the Installation of Private Fire Service Mains and Their Appurtenances, and NFPA 2001: Standard on Clean Agent Fire Extinguishing Systems.

Troyer: From a building technologies perspective, we most commonly refer back to the Building Industry Consulting Service International (BICSI) Telecommunications Distribution Methods Manual (TDMM). As an industry support group, BICSI offers up-to-date design best practices, white papers, and access to members for professional assistance in situations where a highly specialized person is required to complete a design.

Holzbach: As MEP engineers, we need to comply with international, national, and local codes/standards. Many times, the local code will have a revised, interpreted version of national or international codes, so we have to be careful to vet all applicable codes to ensure the proper final design. Some examples of codes/standards we use currently include ASHRAE, International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), International Mechanical Code, IBC, and International Plumbing Code. Additionally, we design according to various green building standards as well, depending on the project and local code requirements (for example, U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program, Green Communities, etc.).

Conrad: The most recent version of ASHRAE 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings is commonly used.

CSE: What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

Lewis: Code implications for venues with high levels of occupancy are important. The safety of the occupants is the No. 1 priority. At Henderson Engineers, we have a core group of technical veterans that review all projects at each milestone to ensure we are in compliance with not only the national codes, but also any local amendments. We also work with the code authority for any variances or interpretations that offer betterment for the occupants and owners.

Clements: It’s key to take a holistic view of the building from the outset in the design. All factors interact with each other. For example, changing a glass type in the lobby of a theater building can reduce the size of the HVAC system needed (and energy used) by more than half. If the designer focuses only on their portion of the design, opportunities for optimization will be missed.

Holzbach: Always have current codes available, and always reference them in your design. It’s also important to vet each new code or standard guideline as they are updated to see what has changed. When exceeding code or standard requirements, it’s important to include the owner in any "over and above" conversations that come with increased costs, complexity, or maintenance concerns.

CSE: How are codes, standards, or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such buildings?

Rogers: As energy codes, such as ASHRAE 90.1, continue to squeeze efficiency into designs, engineers designing these large-volume, high-occupancy spaces have challenges. We are finding it prudent and necessary to incorporate code-compliant energy modeling into all of our designs. It’s very difficult to meet current energy codes by prescriptive methods. Instead, we are looking at whole building performance. This allows for creative approaches to be vetted by providing a clear picture into energy performance.

Holzbach: All of these items are having a major influence on building design. LEED and IECC standards, especially, are guiding all aspects of building systems and need to be considered at the kickoff of each project. These standards affect all manners of equipment selected and the overall design and implementation of systems. These requirements also impact the building’s budget significantly.

CSE: What new code or standard do you feel will change the way specialty facilities are designed, bid out, or built?

Wallace: Adopting energy requirements will affect the selection and availability of large, energy-consuming equipment, such as fire pumps.

Clements: Energy code changes have been the biggest driver. Theatrical lighting loads used to be tagged as process load, which didn’t count against the overall performance of the building from an energy-incentives view. That is no longer the case. This is stemming from the energy codes updating to take aim at reducing loads like those and at plug loads that now make up a disproportionately large portion of the total building energy use. With more focus on energy codes, the performance of the systems and the cost of higher efficiency is more of a driver in the cost modeling for the buildings.

Holzbach: As ventilation requirements increase, the ionization technology will change things significantly in these larger, high-occupancy buildings. This technology allows for greatly reduced ventilation quantities of air being brought into the buildings via the HVAC units. And as a result, these units are able to become drastically smaller in size and capacity. This, in turn, affects mechanical room size, rooftop footprints, screen wall size, project cost, and its lifetime operation and maintenance.

CSE: What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing facilities?

Clements: One of the biggest challenges comes from incorporating newer ventilation-code requirements, which necessitate more outdoor air than designs from the 70s and earlier. This has the ripple effect of needing more shaft space and (without energy-recovery systems) more energy use than in buildings of the past.

Conrad: Trying to fit larger equipment that may be required by code into the existing building structure or masking them with existing building facades.

Lewis: The most challenging aspects of working with an existing building or doing a major renovation is finding the existing code issues and bringing them up to the latest standards. In this case, it’s a group effort between the building owner, designers, and code officials to identify the issues and work through the implications. Ultimately, we want to make the building as safe as possible for all users while using good judgment on cost and the finished product.

Holzbach: Staying current with changing codes and standards is a challenge. Also balancing a project’s budget with the design strategy and codes/standards’ changing requirements. With each and every update of a code or standard, an older way of designing becomes obsolete. These situations need to be recognized in the design stage, and new ways of designing need to be implemented accordingly.

Wallace: The challenge is defining how much of the existing facilities systems will remain "as is" versus bringing every portion of the building up to current requirements.

CSE: What are some of the challenges that exist between what the building owner wants, how the building needs to accommodate occupants, and complying with particular codes and standards?

Holzbach: The building owner needs to be present in the predesign and design phases of these buildings and have a strong voice in the design strategies (and operation thereof) being considered. The owner needs to have a good idea of the building’s future occupants and weigh in on their needs in concert with proposed designs.

CSE: How are certain codes or standards applied differently for these specialty structures?

Holzbach: They are typically not. Codes and standards are required to be met irrespective of building type.