Focus on specialty structures

Sports arenas, historical buildings, theaters and other specialty buildings require unique engineering design

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 12, 2019


Wayne E. Allred, PE, LEED AP 

Principal/Regional Director 

TLC Engineering Solutions 

Orlando, Florida 

Allred brings 30 years of electrical engineering experience to his position as Principal and Regional Director of the company’s Orlando unit. His career choice was inspired by growing up on Florida’s space coast, watching Saturn V rocket launches and other events.  


Scott Foster, PE, LEED AP 

Managing Principal 

Affiliated Engineers Inc. 


Foster joined AEI in 2007 and now serves as managing principal. He was a 2016 Consulting-Specifying Engineer 40 Under 40 award winner. 


Kevin Lewis, PE, LEED AP BD+C 

Senior Vice President/Venue Practice Director 

Henderson Engineers 

Lenexa, Kansas 

As Senior Vice President/Venue Practice Director, Lewis has managed the design of more than a dozen LEED-certified sports projects. Before joining the company, he received collegiate scholarships for baseball and track. 


Robert V. Hedman, PE, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, Fitwel Amb. 


Kohler Ronan LLC 

Danbury, Connecticut 

As principal, Hedman serves as co-head of the mechanical department, oversees staff and managers numerous large projects. He focuses on coordination between disciplines and systems integration with architectural and structural design components. 

CSE: What’s the biggest trend in specialty structures? 

Scott Foster: Something we’re seeing more often is architects using open exposed ceiling concepts, integrating the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems into the aesthetic of the building. We’ve been involved in a number of projects where ductwork remains exposed and painted, with specific finishes, creating a unique polished architectural look that gives a more wide-open feel for users of the spaces. 

Robert V. Hedman: Our company specializes in systems for historic renovation, restoration and adaptive reuse projects pursuing aggressive efficiency goals. Maximizing energy efficiency, reducing water use and reducing environmental impacts continue to drive the system designs. 

Kevin Lewis: We are finding that unique designs and experiences are winning the day for venues. People are looking for something they can’t find at home or online, which is typically a shared social experience that is meaningful and well-articulated. To make this happen, the design needs to be integrated, seamless and authentic. This has required designs that are focused on patron comfort and play to all an individual’s senses.  

CSE: How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs? 

Wayne E. Allred: The key issue with designing special facilities is to communicate with the client and understand what functions they intend to have in the facility and at times what functions may occur concurrently. This reduces the possibility of overdesign on the electrical service and distribution as well as the installed tonnage for the facility.  

Foster: We feel that having the engineering team included in early programming and user group meetings allows us to provide input on elements of the program that will add cost and at the same time offer solutions that can meet all the project requirements. 

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

Foster: We see use of hydronic radiant based heating and cooling solutions as a growing trend when occupancy and space type allow, rather than traditional all-air ducted heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Trends like radiant floor slabs, chilled beams and chilled sails are more efficient from an energy perspective, while taking up less overall space. Radiant floor slabs are virtually invisible and provide a more comfortable space for occupants. 

Lewis: Technology continues to be a leading trend, especially as 5G wireless is on the horizon allowing further integration of the digital experience. We also see venues looking for a unique experience that can’t be found in other places. We continue to see eSports or similar gaming aspects being integrated into new and existing buildings to provide further outlets for a variety of fans.  

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

Hedman: Working within existing historic structuresthe challenge is finding pathways for modern systems. These buildings were not designed to incorporate modern systems now expected by visitors, such as mechanical cooling, information technology/audiovisual systems and fire protection. Incorporating these systems into the structure while preserving the historic fabric requires a collaborative effort between the engineer and the architect.  

Lewis: These buildings are not programmatic and very custom and we learn something new on each design we complete. The trick is to accumulate this knowledge and continue applying it in each design, although it may be slightly different from what we’ve done before. Challenges for these venues usually involve the large volumes, quantity of people and immersive environments that are required for these projects to meet the needs of their patrons. 

Foster: Mechanical systems: Specialty structures have specific user requirements, temperatures, humidity, airflows and sound concerns that other standard buildings may not require. Sports arenas are large-volume areas, which require carefully sized ventilation systems to ensure adequate velocity to deliver air to occupants at the floor level.  

Electrical systems: Athletic facilities tend to have square footages distributed in a horizontal matter. Distributing infrastructure in a horizontal approach requires significant consideration in spatial consequences to routing, quite often driving the design toward a decentralized approach. This varies from a vertical approach where stacking and shafts allow larger infrastructure to route vertically; distribution branches routed horizontally are smaller. 

CSE: What are engineers doing to ensure such projects (both new and existing structures) meet challenges associated with emerging technologies? 

Lewis: Technology seems to be evolving faster than ever before, so the biggest challenge is staying up to date on the changes. It’s not unusual to redesign portions of the technology systems between the design and completion of construction. To combat this, we are striving to implement the basis of each system and then work with the owner and construction team to fine tune the system at the appropriate time during construction.  

Foster: We are seeing a continued push for design to meet both the user experience as well as operational expectation. One area that is overlapping both requirements is intelligent buildings or internet of things. Deploying sensors and intelligently using data are providing insights into the user experience as well as optimizing the operational requirements. 

Hedman: Whether the building is existing or new, Kohler Ronan addresses future-proofing the building with the client early in design. Providing additional pathways for future growth is important. As technologies change by the day, from WiFi, voice over internet protocol, access cards, etc., we must provide the appropriate pathways to allow future technologies to be incorporated while limiting the impact to the building. 

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy.  

Hedman: Our company designed new MEP and fire protection systems for the Hayes Theater. The theater is in the heart of the Broadway’s Theater District in New York City and is both historic and a listed as a landmark building. Being a landmark building and located in NYC, the challenges including locating exterior equipment (chillers and air handling units) and limiting noise emittance from the equipment. Design a ductwork system to not only meet the noise criteria for a theater but also respect the historic fabric of the structure posed required unique coordination with the architect and structural engineer. The project recently reopened to once again house Broadway performances as a U.S. Green Building Council LEED Gold theater.  

Foster: Northwestern University’s Ryan Walter Athletics Center is 433,000 square feet, and situated on the shore of Lake Michigan in Evanston, Illinois. This project has a large-volume indoor practice field with a soaring glass wall viewing out toward the lake. Conditioning this large volume space and dealing with both high solar cooling loads as well as high heating loads from the punishing winds that roll off Lake Michigan required detailed coordination with the entire design and owner team.  

The solution was to provide radiant based heating concealed within the architectural elements as well as perimeter cooling. Additional motorized shades assisted in reducing the cooling load. Within the locker rooms we provided exhaust from within each locker to reduce the odor. Additionally, we used an air ionization system to further reduce odors throughout the building. Energy recovery wheels, large volume lowvelocity fans and chilled beams were some of the other systems designed. The facility is sited between Northwestern University’s natatorium, tennis complex and Lake MichiganMultiple high-intensity uses, supported by AEI’s integrate systems design, include: 

  • 93,000squarefoot indoor multipurpose fieldhouse. 
  • Support spaces for the school’s Division 1 football team, including locker rooms, a weight room and hydrotherapy suite. 
  • Three noncompetition basketball courts with an overhead running track. 
  • Locker rooms, lounge and weight room for nonfootball intercollegiate teams. 
  • Multiple equipment and laundry rooms. 
  • Support spaces including an auditorium, offices, meeting rooms and a kitchen/dining facility. 

Lewis: The Los Angeles Stadium & Entertainment District at Hollywood Park is a cutting-edge entertainment experience that sets a new standard. In 2021, a palatial NFL stadium will open in Inglewood, California, and will set a new standard for all sports facilities worldwide. The state-of-the-art facility will be home to the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers and will also host a variety of other entertainment events.  

As a multipurpose stadium, our engineering and technology systems are designed to not only create an enjoyable environment for up to 100,000 fans, but also allow for flexibility in the venue. Our company led the building systems design for the stadium’s club spaces, suites and VIP areas, press box, concessions, locker rooms and underground parking. Our systems support a transparent canopy that shelters fans from the elements while also allowing natural sunlight to wash across the field during the game. The canopy is made from durable and sustainable flourine-based plastic to minimize environmental impact. The completed Los Angeles Stadium will serve as the centerpiece of a 298-acre entertainment district that’s part of the redevelopment efforts in Los Angeles. The development will include a 6,000-seat performing arts center, 2,500 residential spaces, 2 million square feet of retail and office space, an open-air plaza and 25 acres of public parks.  

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery or virtual design and construction into a project? 

Hedman: Most projects incorporate IPD into the design, allowing the design team, construction team and owner to work as one team to make informed design decisions. IPD provides a cohesive project and well-coordinated building systems. Our company’s experiences with IPD have resulted in projects that are completed on budget and experience fewer constructability issues during construction. 

CSE: How are these types of buildings being designed to be more energy efficient?  

Lewis: The biggest sustainable element we are pushing for is early collaboration between the primary design roles on a team. By holistically looking at all aspects of the building early in design, it is far easier to come up with the most sustainable solution for all disciplines than if it is done in phases. Early collaboration allows the design team to take advantage of the region, site and knowledge across each discipline to provide a solution that has considered every aspect of the design and then move forward with the concepts.  

Hedman: Our firm designs systems to meet and exceed the most recent adopted energy codes even in historic structures. Many building owners have adopted in-house standards requiring carbon emission reductions and energy savings beyond the code requirements. 

Foster: A close review of outside air and exhaust air requirements and providing energy recovery systems that are separated from the central air handling units provide a cost-effective energy-efficient solution. 

Allred: We model each project with IES VE-Pro to discuss system selections with the mechanical engineer and work with the architect on glazing and insulation. This approach gives us our targets for energy efficiency for the project and confirms our compliance with ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings. Most of the lighting systems within the facilities are LED, which greatly reduces the lighting power density as fluorescent fixtures were not typically used within performance spaces. In addition to designing new facilities to be more energy efficient, we have partnered with clients to conduct energy audits and execute the design to implement energy conservation measures for their inventory. We have recently completed a sports lighting, LED lighting upgrade and retro-commissioning for the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Our efforts are saving 1.42 million kilowatt-hours at the Amway Center and $2.5 million per year across their building inventory. 

CSE: What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing these types of projects?  

Allred: One of the biggest challenges with large special structures such as arenas and theaters is making sure we have a clear understanding of the project goals and how that is translated into the engineering system designs and performance. Understanding from the operations team how they intend to operate the building and how they may set up functions are key to getting the systems designed properly.  

We recently completed an energy project at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Amway Center events include the NBA Basketball’s Orlando Magic, NCAA basketball (such as March Madness), ECHL ice hockey, ice shows, world-class concerts, professional wrestling and local community and faith-based events, each with their own unique lighting levels and duration. To understand the usage inside the building we developed an extensive matrix of “functional programs” detailing how and when specific lighting fixtures (aisle, work, house, sports and catwalk) were used for each of the events. Equally important during the data gathering phase was factoring in the many times the facility was cleaned overnight to facilitate back-to-back events. If the lights were on, the team needed to know the details of use. “Trust but verify” became the team’s mantra.  

Foster: Planning equipment space for access and maintainability is one. And limited project budget to support high-efficiency innovative MEP solutions isn’t uncommon. 

Hedman: When working within existing historic structuresthe challenge is finding space for modern systems. While mechanical equipment has become more efficient, the size and space requirements have not reduced in size. In many climates the energy code requires the use of energy recovery equipment to pre-treat the outdoor air. This equipment requires additional square footage within mechanical rooms or at the roof level.  

CSE: What is the typical project delivery method your firm uses when designing these facilities? 

Foster: Our company works on multiple types of project delivery methods. The Northwestern University Welsh Ryan Arena renovation project delivery was “construction manager at risk.” During the construction document phase, a general contractor was brought early on for construction manager services to develop scope and set guaranteed maximum price for a gut renovation of a major sports arena. Meanwhile, the Northwestern Ryan Walter Athletic Center project delivery was “designbidbuild.” Following the construction document design phase, the project was bid out to multiple general contractors. 

Lewis: Ninety-five percent of the projects we design within this vertical market are construction manager at risk. This process helps inform the owner of the project cost early in design but also allows the design team to focus on what they know best. For many of our construction manager at risk jobs we see the construction manager reach out to trusted subconsultants to help provide pricing and best practices for construction of each discipline. When roles are clearly identified, this delivery method provides a lot of benefits to the design team and owners.  

Allred: Most of our specialty structures projects have a construction manager at risk delivery method. With the construction manager on the team early, we are able to vet changes to the program without much effort by the design team. This allows us to make decisions sooner and with less rework by the design team and provides for the project to stay on budget. On some of work in the entertainment and health care arena IPD, has been tried with mixed results. We were recently working on an expansion to a hotel convention center that started out as IPD. At the design development point in the schedule, the project was converted to a construction manager at risk project. The owner believed they would have more cost control by switching to the construction manager at risk delivery method. 

CSE: The popularity of sprawling entertainment complexes seems to be increasing. What unique challenges and opportunities do such projects present? 

Foster: These new developments provide an opportunity to look at utilities (heating/cooling/electricity) at a campus level versus an individual level. This allows leveraging the diversity of load between the buildings and looking at leveraging alternate technologies such as centralized heat recovery, ground source heat pumps or using the sewer as a heating/cooling source. The challenge with accomplishing a central utility system is the ownership structure of the buildings and land. 

Lewis: A current industry trend is mixed-use facilities anchored by high-profile projects such as a sports stadium, concert venue or other assembly site. These mixed-use facilities make a lot of sense for fan entertainment but also allows us to optimize the design through a central utility plant as the usage of these facilities typically is not overlapping. By sharing utilities, we can decrease the overall size, save money and make the system more efficient. Increasing the density of the district is also inherently more efficient and sustainable.