Exploring complex hotels, resorts, and casinos

Casinos and resorts are designed for fun and relaxation, but with such projects becoming increasingly complex and high-tech, engineers charged with tackling these structures have challenging work ahead of them.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer May 16, 2018


Brant Dillon, Director of MEP, Mortenson Construction, Minneapolis
Matt Dolan, PE, LEED AP, Senior Design Engineer, Southland Industries, Las Vegas
Jeffrey S. Grove, PE, Director, JENSEN HUGHES, Las Vegas
Ronald R. Regan, PE, Principal, Triad Consulting Engineers Inc., Morris Plains, N.J.
Mark Richter, PE, LEED AP, Partner, National Residential & Hospitality Practice Leader, AKF Group LLC, New York City
Gregory K Shino, PE, Technical Director of Fire Protection Engineering, NV5, Las Vegas
Toby White, PE, LEED AP, Associate, Sr. Fire Engineer, Arup, Boston

CSE: What’s the biggest trend you see today in hotel, resort, and casino projects?

Brant Dillon: There has been a large increase in the amount of low- to midlevel hotels coming into the marketplace. These hotels are usually around 250 keys and have a very tight budget to meet the developer’s financial performance. As such, increased demand for an economical design that meets both performance and brand standards has made us look for new HVAC solutions.

Matt Dolan: Depending on the project location, there have been changes in space programming that move away from gaming as the main source of revenue and bring out more entertainment and dining opportunities, which widen guests’ options and improve their experience. These include nightclubs, restaurants, sporting-event and music venues, and conference spaces. For life safety system designs, we have seen a reduction in active smoke control designs/systems and the removal of hoistway venting for elevators in hotel towers. Prior to the 2012 International Building Code (IBC), pressurization-method active smoke control was common for guest room-tower corridors as defined under IBC Section 909. Section 403.4.7 of the IBC 2012 edition brought about the requirements and applications for post-fire salvage, which allowed the guest room-tower corridors to use this passive salvage method (after the fire is extinguished) in lieu of active methods. Post-fire salvage removes some of the testing and commissioning complexity found in active smoke control systems and associated pressure measurements at the zone boundaries. Several recent tower designs within the United States have used post-fire salvage, while towers in Macau maintain the active smoke control system designs and testing.

Jeffrey S. Grove: We see the audio/video (A/V) experience of these types of properties increasing to include large LED screens, music, virtual reality, and natural lighting to give the end user a unique experience for each new property. With these new experiences come fire protection challenges as various combustible materials (e.g., plastic, fabrics) are introduced.

Ronald R. Regan: We are seeing interest in and requirements for renewable, eco-friendly, and sustainable design and installations. These requests in the mainland United States tend to be more passive in requests—more electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, solar for incidental requirements, gardens, walkways, water features, etc. Offshore Caribbean sites, which are to be eco-friendly, also feature a major economic and resiliency aspect. We’re seeing larger solar content with storage, solar thermal systems, and in the past 18 months, more emphasis on gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) for resiliency and to offset local-utility capacity deficiencies to ensure 24/7 power at any cost.

Mark Richter: From a design standpoint, the focus continues to be on the customer—enhancing the guest experience by increasing the availability of technology, data, and a level of connectivity to provide a unique, personalized, and memorable guest experience during their stay. This is especially important in catering to millennial travelers and to transcend growing competition among hotel chains. These conveniences enrich arrival, guest room, and amenity experiences by using smartphones, wireless connectivity, and the Internet of Things (IoT) in general.

Gregory K. Shino: Hotels and resorts are trying to use technology to their advantage as much as possible by making the guest experience with the resort as immersive and easy as possible. Technology is so ingrained in daily life that resort operators want their guests to have similar seamless integration with personal electronics and the guest experience.

Toby White: While themed casinos have been around for a while, we’re continuing to see more “family” features or offerings well beyond gaming. Wynn Palace in Macau has a gondola ride into the building, and MGM Cotai has integrated a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art theater attraction to go along with the typical retail, dining, and spa/pool facilities that have been part of fully integrated resorts for some time.

CSE: What trends and technologies do you think are on the horizon for such projects?

Regan: We believe, based on need and economics, offshore leads the way in the storage sector: system storage from thermal hot water, chilled-water/ice storage, and energy storage via solar/wind charging or utility charging for continuance of power to guests. This is necessitating more development of prepackaged battery energy storage systems (BESS) for local plug-and-play connections.

Dillon: There has been an increase in using prefabrication for hotels, from prefabricated bathrooms all the way to a fully prefabricated hotel room. Prefabrication allows for a faster construction schedule, which results in earlier occupancy of the hotel. This can be disruptive to the design process because the prefabricated items need to have their design completed earlier in the design schedule to allow the construction team to use prefabrication to meet the construction schedule.

Richter: Just like many other industry sectors, the hospitality industry must continue to evolve its services and products to retain current customers and attract new ones. I believe that the goal of providing an escape from the guests’ everyday problems is a growing trend for hotels and resorts, one that will continue to develop as a key focus. State-of-the-art technology is a key driver that many travelers are looking for to create a memorable experience. For instance, investment in guest room technology has been important for many years—allowing guests easy access to customize their preferences in wireless technology with smart controls for HVAC, lighting, window drape/curtain controls, motion, and access control.

Shino: Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) will be developed much more in the future for even more immersive guest experiences. Imagine seeing the view from your room through a 360-deg AR screen before checking in. Hosts and hostesses can then try to upsell by offering better views or room amenities played through the AR screen.

Dolan: We’re noticing more frequent use of active air-cleaning systems for air handling units (AHUs) and other HVAC systems. These include ionization systems to treat the air within the AHU and within the space, or active filtration to capture contaminants as they pass through the AHU. These are used frequently in smoking spaces in Macau casinos, and they are becoming more widely adopted in the United States for gaming spaces that allow smoking. When these systems are used correctly, they allow the use of reduced outside-air quantities and recirculation of more return air by reclassifying the return air from the space and decreasing cooling/heating energy necessary to recondition the air within the AHU. This reduces the central plant requirements and overall energy consumption of the building while maintaining acceptable indoor air quality and code compliance.

CSE: What are engineers doing to ensure such structures—both new and in existing structures—meet the challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Shino: In new structures, engineers must plan for future building materials and technology. In existing buildings, there are different challenges depending on budget, the age of the building, and the level of technology that was originally implemented. However, at the end of the day, every building owner wants the most value at the least cost and balancing that is the responsibility of the entire design team.

Dolan: The air-cleaning devices are typically installed within the AHU or within the associated unit’s supply ductwork depending upon the technology used. A 30- to 36-in. blank AHU section installed downstream of the supply fan can be used as a placeholder for a future ionization system installation to allow the systems to be accessed and maintained easily, rather than having to modify the ductwork or other installed systems later. Installing these systems downstream of all rotating devices (fans) is recommended to allow them to operate optimally.

White: As a fire engineer, we are constantly using performance-based approaches as solutions to justify “equivalency” to the building code’s intent. The building code provisions are typically broad-brush and don’t necessarily provide clear guidance where the building design should push the envelope architecturally and programmatically.

Regan: To design efficiently and effectively, very detailed energy studies are being executed first to design systems for maximum design efficiency, since kilowatt-hour storage is still very expensive. A fine line of efficiency standards requires dispatching local generation for small periods to meet small annual seasonal peaks. Building automation systems (BAS) are being designed to go beyond redundant controls to include sensitive algorithmic controls that are regenerated constantly by real-time weather information.

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 obstacles, etc.

Dolan: Wynn Palace opened in August 2016 and MGM Cotai opened in February 2018. Both projects were located in Macau (officially called Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China). These projects used large quantities of total enthalpy heat-recovery wheels to precondition fresh air prior to being delivered into the respective spaces. They also encountered significant challenges integrating the mechanical equipment and diffusers/grilles with the interior and architectural designs.  Custom diffusers were included throughout both properties to meet owner requirements. Additional complex spaces included a multitude of restaurants with extended grease ductwork systems and pollution-control units as well as indoor spa/pool areas where dehumidification and condensation control were of great concern given the high humidity of the Macau climate. In regard to the smoke control system designs, the Wynn Palace tower employed a pressurization-method exhaust system within the ceiling plenum of the corridor to remove all visible grilles typically located on walls, with all exhaust drawn through architectural return slots. These projects integrated international codes (i.e., IBC, International Mechanical Code (IMC), International Plumbing Code (IPC)) with local codes of practice and regional materials and equipment to provide Las Vegas-style casinos in Macau.

Regan: An offshore Caribbean Island was put on alert 12 months ago by the local utility of impending power shortages in 2018, 2019, and 2020 by the planned retirement of obsolete, inefficient generators. Based on utility/governmental decisions, newer generation would not be online until 2020 to 2022. Moreover, the government position was that the high-end tourist hotels had the technical capacity and financial capability to reduce their loading to accommodate the utility shortfall while leaving power for nontourist businesses and residents. A task force was established with our in-country engineers and home-office solar and CHP specialists. A team visited and installed monitoring systems to validate or correct client-furnished information. Meetings were held with compressed natural gas supply vendors and negotiations began on long-term supply contracts. Three major, competitive hotels were joined in an energy group to share costs of gas delivery and standardization of facilities to share incidental costs. A localized multihotel microgrid was discussed, but rejected, based on existing utility-government franchise agreements. Later negotiations allowed an “emergency intrahotel grid” for outages until such time that the utility can provide backup power. The solar/BESS component will be maximized as much as practical based on available but expensive land.

Grove: CityCenter Las Vegas is located in the heart of the city’s infamous strip corridor. The majority of the urban mixed-use development opened in late 2009 and was the largest privately funded development in U.S. history. Construction costs are estimated at more than $8.5 billion. The 17 million-sq-ft project consists of six high-rise towers that house more than 7,200 hotel and residential units. These tall buildings range in height from 25 to 61 stories. In addition, the property has a 2,000-seat theater, a 150,000-sq-ft casino, an ultra-high-end retail and entertainment district, a subterranean parking garage, and a convention center.

The entire 76-acre property is accessible through an automated people mover. Several components of the master-planned development obtained LEED Gold certification including Aria Resort & Casino, Vdara, the Mandarin Oriental, the Veer Towers, and Crystals. Our firm provided fire protection consulting services during the various design and construction periods. Our services included submittal packages for Clark County review of the master egress (central plant/garage, hotel/casino podium, and hotel/casino tower) and fire protection reports for the central plant/garage and the hotel/casino. Additionally, our team used Fire Dynamic Simulators (FDS) to evaluate and determine smoke control requirements within the podium. The overall project was designed and constructed under the 2000 edition of the IBC, as amended by the Clark County building and fire departments. Additionally, we provided services to the client in the capacity of an owner’s representative as it related to the field verification of installation status, independent reporting of progress (including deficiencies), and field verification of corrections of deficiencies for life safety systems including sprinkler, fire alarm, and smoke control systems, means-of-egress elements, fire-resistive construction, and opening protection.

White: MGM Cotai is a roughly 3.1 million-sq-ft, $3.3 billion, fully integrated casino project that opened in February 2018 after 7 years of design and construction. One of the more impressive features is a large, multiuse theater venue using Gala dynamic seating. One of the fire protection challenges was deciding what to do with the space below the floor/seating, which when in the floor configuration, stored the theater seats below the floor. This space became a combustible concealed space and required automatic sprinkler protection. The solution was to install fixed heads underneath the dynamic platforms, which connected to the fire protection supply main at the floor via high-pressure, steel braided hoses attached to the supporting scissor-lift mechanisms. This allowed a water-supply connection through the full range of motion of the Gala seating, ensuring full automatic sprinkler protection beneath the floor/seating during all configurations. The theater also had an unconventional proscenium configuration, with no well-defined fly loft. The fly loft was atmospherically connected to the theater ceiling, allowing products of combustion to migrate throughout the theater during a staged fire scenario.

To address this, computational fluid dynamics studies were performed with FDS to optimize the smoke control system and associated fire and smoke detection, to ensure the environment for exiting occupants remained tenable for a certain amount of time to evacuate the theater. The theater design consultant was ScenoPlus from Canada, and the fire protection systems were designed by JBA Consulting Engineers. Our company provided fire and life safety code consulting and developed the life safety strategy for the property, including the theater. On the same property, elaborate ceiling décor in the main lobby presented a compliance issue for the sprinkler installation in accordance with NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. We developed a full-scale sprinkler mock-up of the condition and pass-fail criteria with JENSEN HUGHES, the third-party checker on behalf of the Macau authorities. The mock-up proved that the sprinkler system continued to meet the required performance criteria of the sprinkler coverage, particularly in coverage and sprinkler design density. The design was ultimately approved for the main lobby.

Shino: Within the Las Vegas market, casino resorts are continually trying to reinvent, reimagine, or refine their image to make sure that guests return on their next trip. Rebranding hotels, either after purchase or through a change in operators, is one way a large property may reinvent itself. In such cases, there may be a complete change of restaurants, stores, and venues so that the property is entirely made over. Where a hot nightclub used to exist a couple of years ago, a new nightclub with a different theme may have taken its place. Similarly, restaurants are redone based on celebrity chefs. In both cases, properties intend to attract new and repeat customers by demonstrating that they are keeping up with current trends in the hospitality market.

Dillon: We are currently working on the Gaylord Rockies project, which is a 1,500-room hotel with a large convention space attached, located in Denver. The project also contains several kitchen areas, an indoor pool, and a spa. From the design perspective, one of the largest challenges was understanding the flow of people from their hotel rooms to the attached amenity/convention spaces. The design needed to match the size of the central utility plant with the movement of people from the hotel to the convention space.

CSE: Each type of project presents unique challenges—what types of challenges do you encounter on projects for these facilities that you might not face on other types of structures?

Regan: Offshore projects always include the selection of components based on cost vs. durability. Local content/inventory and manufacturing sometimes focus on lower cost versus quality. There is the eventual dance with customs on import tariffs versus local content. In many countries, energy components (as previously discussed) are exempt. However, in some instances, subcomponents are brought in tariff-free as local labor would finish the product. If the owner wishes only to buy low-cost regardless of durability, we normally would decide not to participate. In many instances, 2 to 5 years down the line, the “new owner” will engage us to retrofit and upgrade the facility to U.S. standards.

Richter: There are many design challenges for hospitality-based projects. In particular, hotels and resorts normally incorporate multiple functions including guest rooms, fitness centers, restaurants and bars, conference facilities, ballrooms, casinos, lounges, theaters, retail, etc. These mixed-use programs increase complexities of zoning related to mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) services, plant configurations, and life safety, to name a few. It is important to firm up the development of the overall building and/or site early in the planning and concept phases to formulate a solid design approach and an approved budget. Otherwise, changes that occur down the line can create havoc in terms of architectural configuration, construction costs, and schedule implications.

Dillon: In recent years, many hotel brands and building codes have mandated that internal delivery of the required outside air be directly ducted to the hotel rooms. This has forced designers to come up with new, budget-conscious solutions to meet this requirement. OSA routing is further challenged due to the tight floor-to-floor heights and minimization of the floor plan. Finding a spot for these risers is a balancing act between usable space for guests and functionality of the building.

Shino: Feature attractions are common in Las Vegas. Since most properties have similar features—steakhouse, Italian and Chinese dining, and at least one nightclub—it is often a feature attraction that initially draws crowds. Some restaurants and nightclubs started featuring elements with fire or water, or both. The local jurisdiction, Clark County Department of Building and Fire Prevention, would ultimately determine that flame effects before a proximate audience had to comply with the applicable NFPA standards and NFPA 1: Fire Code. In some cases, projects opt to eliminate flame effects. In most cases, the flame effects go through rigorous design and third-party testing to confirm that adequate safety procedures are in place to protect the public.

White: These projects push the envelope in terms of what the building code is intended to cover. State-of-the-art facilities often fall outside the boundaries of the broad-brush coverage of the building code and require special analysis to demonstrate that the level of quality, life safety, and reliability intended by the code has been achieved. These analyses often require scrutiny of qualified third-party reviewers prior to obtaining official approval by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), so the issues must be identified early in the project as the overall process takes some time to complete.

Grove: One of the most challenging issues that we have for these types of projects, as code consultants and fire protection engineers, is to provide code-compliant means of egress. These casinos and resorts with their related large assembly spaces (e.g., gaming areas, pool decks, restaurants, theaters, convention centers, etc.) require a tremendous amount of coordination with the design team such that compliant travel distance, common path of travel, number of exits, egress width, etc. are provided. Especially when these large assembly uses are not located on the level of exit discharge, significant impacts on vertical circulation (e.g., stairways) must be addressed. These issues must be addressed early in the design phase to not have schedule and cost impacts as the project progresses.

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 to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance (O&M) or measurement and verification (M&V).

Dillon: From a general contractor’s perspective, we are constantly exploring ways of streamlining the 3-D coordination to fully maximize the engineer’s Revit models. One solution that we have started to work on is to partner with the engineers and trade contractors to allow using trade contractors’ BIM personnel to be the draftsmen for the engineers. This partnership produces a fully coordinated design set that can be immediately used for fabrication and installation.

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

Richter: Engineering these facilities presents a complicated challenge in terms of balancing initial upfront costs while complying with building codes and owner requirements. In particular, MEP infrastructure requirements are intertwined with many decisions made by other project consultants and team members. The engineer must have a keen ability to understand the ramifications of each of these decisions and the impacts not only on initial costs, but also on O&M costs, additional infrastructure, and their effect on the architectural design. We always try to agree on a program upfront and then present options to the client and the other team members with benefits and costs attached to each option to help them make an informed decision.

Shino: Each project is different, and even different parts of the same project have significant differences. Almost every project will go through some sort of value engineering to determine where and how to reduce costs. Designers mostly start with a budget in mind, but as the project develops, the focus of the project may change, either from the owner’s direction or from the artistic license of the architect, interior designer, or both. The value-engineering process allows the design team to understand and focus on what is most important to the owner and the designers without compromising compliance with applicable codes. Often, items that initially seemed important to the concept of the project are value-engineered out in favor of a new feature.

White: From a fire-engineering perspective, there are opportunities to use FDS to optimize smoke control systems to reduce excessive smoke control equipment quantities and expand architectural flexibility. Traditional first-order calculation techniques don’t often capture unique spaces and volumes, and FDS or other computational fluid dynamics platforms allow the designer to analyze the specific volume and shapes effectively. Early intervention by an experienced code consultant can benefit the project in terms of optimizing means of egress solutions and developing full fire and life safety strategies for the building, which other engineers and designers can use as a design guideline to ensure code compliance throughout the design process.

Regan: The key to cost-effective hotel/casinos is detailed upfront design. Cost overruns normally can be traced back to poor planning in the design process. In the United States and the Caribbean, labor costs attributed to last-minute changes add large penalties and costs. We try to prefabricate or containerize systems as much as possible to minimize field labor to circumvent weather issues. Electrical substations, CHP, and chiller plants are factory-assembled and tested for fast, cost-effective installation. Local code officials are engaged to discuss these “hot-button issues and their personal preferences to make sure the design captures these items upfront.

Dillon: We have seen new products, such as variable refrigerant flow-type units, being used to provide a cost-competitive solution that at the same time meets the hotel’s brand standard. In addition, we have seen the large hotel brands modifying their brand standards to allow more HVAC options in many of their hotels.

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 to hotels, resorts, and casinos to make the buildings perform at a higher level?

Shino: From a fire protection engineering standpoint, the Clark County Department of Building and Fire Prevention—the largest local AHJ in southern Nevada—along with the Southern Nevada Building Officials have interpreted codes and standards stringently and have introduced many new requirements into the IBC. Building and fire code requirements that were previously more stringent in southern Nevada are now the standard.

Regan: In the United States and the Caribbean, hotels have been victims of the weather and local utility issues. Large resorts are establishing their own microgrids using renewables, CHP, and dispatched generation facilities for demand management. 

CSE: How do hotel, resort, and casino requirements vary around the world? Discuss an international project and how it differed from another project you’ve worked on in the United States.

Dolan: International codes (IBC, IMC, IPC) have been successfully applied to large-scale projects in various countries. These are typically combined with local codes of practice for specific system types to integrate with the local construction, systems, and equipment available within that region. Often, the code with the strictest requirements is used for specific portions of the building, such as exterior construction for typhoons, kitchen designs for specific health department or fire concerns, and stairs/exit passageways for increased fire ratings and compartmentation. The largest differences between a hotel tower in Macau as compared with one in Las Vegas are the quantities of exit stairs and the requirements for refuge levels.

Macau code has limitations for the area and volume of rated compartments for all levels. When a tower floor exceeds these limits, it must be broken into several fire compartments that are separated by 2-hour fire-rated construction. This requires that the corridor be rated 2 hours on all sides as well as the wall that separates each compartment (which may occur at guest rooms, elevators, stairs, or other spaces). To keep the corridor open between compartments, a set of rated doors on magnetic hold-opens or a rated accordion/roll-down door is installed to close upon corridor smoke-detector activation. The smoke control systems are designed to exhaust each individual compartment individually to maintain the required pressure differentials between guest rooms, back-of-house spaces, stairs, and adjacent compartments. Refuge levels are located at set heights between tower levels. These serve as safe areas for exiting the tower outside of the pressurized stairs. These are unconditioned spaces with 3-hour fire-rated separations between all other services passing through adjacent spaces and are provided with louvers or openings that account for a set percentage of the exterior wall’s surface area. These levels are provided with standard overhead sprinklers and deluge systems at the exterior openings.

Regan: The majority of our experience with hotels, casinos, and large resorts has been in the Caribbean, with U.S.-based hotel brands, in-country brands, and boutique resort operations. Energy costs for hotels in Florida versus most Caribbean Islands are nearly 65%/kWh less. So, achieving energy efficiency while still maintaining guest comfort and convenience is a major concern, as is the daily operating-cost factor of a Caribbean hotel. Therefore, offshore has always been keen to minimize kWh usage and maximize energy efficiency and renewables. We try to educate both the utility and local electrical inspectors on photovoltaics (PV) and BESS so they can accept the safety and need of such equipment to enable the hotels/resorts and their local economy to thrive. We offer in-country training to local utility operators, inspectors, and installing contractors to have them “own the new technology.”

White: Macau allows the IBC to be applied to building podiums, but mandates compliance with the Macau Code for hotel towers. There are challenges associated with the areas where the towers meet the podium and also special considerations to be made as to how the fire protection and fire alarm systems integrate, to meet both building codes but still maintain reliable and integrated fire safety systems. Furthermore, various authorities governing fuel gas, food and beverage, and fire safety will mandate additional provisions throughout the building—including the podium areas designed under the IBC. Anything associated with fire brigade or fire safety personnel intervention is typically maintained in accordance with the local codes. This includes fire-service access around and into the building, vertical transportation (fire-service elevators), and fire department connections, hydrants, and hose-valve locations.

Shino: Some colleagues used to say that physics is going to be the same around the world—as long as we apply sound engineering principals to our designs, they should work. What we ultimately learned is that people around the world are not the same, so our designs, while still following sound engineering principals, need to follow the constraints of the region in which they are built by taking into account labor, culture, and technology available. There are projects around the world where a laborer may be digging holes one day, laying concrete masonry unit walls the next, and pulling wire through conduit the next. Throughout most of the U.S., we take for granted the availability of clean, potable water through pipes. In many parts of the world, “potable” water delivered to buildings through an underground network is not considered reliable and must have onsite provisions for both potable and fire/water applications for a minimum duration. It is best to design understanding the region, the people, and the conditions.