Sports, entertainment venues need engineering athleticism

Sports arenas and entertainment facilities involve complex engineering solutions. Five consulting engineers offer advice to get results worth cheering about.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 24, 2013

Participants (left to right):

Keith Cooper, PE, President, McClure Engineering, St. Louis

Douglas H. Evans, PE, FSFPE, Fire Protection Engineer, Clark County, Nevada

Bill Larwood, PE, LEED AP, Senior Vice President/Project Principal, Syska Hennessey Group, Los Angeles

Kevin Lewis, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice President, Henderson Engineers, Lenexa, Kansas

Bruce McKinlay, Principal, Arup, Los Angeles  

CSE: Describe a sports or entertainment venue you’ve worked on.

Keith Cooper: We work on numerous college and university campuses with a focus on sports, recreation, and performance facilities. We have designed approximately 50 of these facilities in the last 15 years.

Douglas H. Evans: The Las Vegas Valley contains a number of sports facilities. All NASCAR fans are aware of the Las Vegas Speedway, which is located within the jurisdictional boundaries of Clark County, Nevada. This venue contains more than 140,000 seats. The grandstands, skyboxes, and infield areas all included their own unique fire protection challenges. Several of the resorts also include sporting venues. Boxing and mixed martial arts fans are likely familiar with MGM Grand Gardens, Caesars, and Mandalay Bay Arena. There are several additional sporting complexes that showcase rodeos and other equestrian events, as well as basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and virtually all popular sporting events. These venues can seat upwards of 12,000 to 30,000 patrons. Without exception, resorts in the Las Vegas Valley include multiple entertainment venues. Some of these venues may be as common as small platforms for a band, comedian, or other entertainers. Some include the multi-use facilities described above. Most of the resorts contain at least one stage with a proscenium (a fire and smoke separation between the stage and the audience).

Bill Larwood: One of Syska’s recent sports projects is the UCLA Pauley Pavilion expansion and renovation. It was a major gut and required new systems—everything from new air handlers to new sumps were added. The Pauley Pavilion arena is unique in that it is steeped in history/lore that needed to show through in the new design, but it also required present-day must-haves including technology, signage, revenue streams, and attention to the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems’ high performance. Two of the system features we were excited to see included were a mix-mode cooling system, which provides natural ventilation, and significant amounts of natural daylighting. We also helped engineer the architecture with highly tuned fenestration coordinated with the building use and location.

Kevin Lewis: We recently completed an arena renovation for the University of South Florida in Tampa. The $32 million renovation included a complete redo of the existing MEP and fire protection systems that were original to the 32-year-old facility. The project was a fast-track, design assist project that is also seeking USGBC LEED Silver certification. HEI provided engineering for the MEP and fire protection systems and construction administration. While the project was challenging due to space limitations and low structure height, the architect and other consultants pulled together to provide a team approach to solving each design challenge.

Bruce McKinlay: Miller Park, a 42,500-seat Major League Baseball (MLB) stadium designed for the Milwaukee Brewers, was completed in 2001. The stadium was innovative at the time as it included a unique fan-shaped retractable roof and heating in the bowl to keep the fans warm late into the season. This may have been the first stadium designed in the United Sates with a retractable roof and climate conditioning in the bowl, which now seems to be the trend in most National Football League (NFL) stadiums. Arup has also been involved in the design of the Singapore Sports Hub, which features a 55,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof to provide crowd and playing field protection during inclement weather. The Hub also includes an aquatics center, as well as retail and a multi-purpose arena. The stadium roof features an integrated LED lighting system that transforms the roof surface into the largest programmable LED screen in the world. The Hub is currently under construction and is expected to be completed by 2014.

CSE: How have the characteristics of sports and entertainment venues changed in recent years, and what should engineers expect to see in the near future?

Cooper: Community/campus partnerships have expanded the possibilities and the required flexibility of these spaces. Combining what would have been multiple specific-use buildings into a single facility that is used more days and more hours of the year, but for more purposes, should be a better use of capital resources, and we don’t see that trend changing in the future.

Lewis: Sports and entertainment venues seem to be in a perpetual arms race. To that end, each venue is looking for the big “wow” factor that can excite a fan base. The architects lead the charge through unique designs, which always raise the bar for unique engineering solutions that don’t hinder the architecture. The biggest trend we see right now is opening up various buildings to the exterior and bringing the outside elements in. This is done through large club and lounge levels with both inside and outside elements. While creating great spectator spaces, this creates issues for maintaining HVAC performance and meeting demanding energy codes.

McKinlay: I believe the current trends today are designing sports venues that are more flexible in use to host multiple events, not only the sports games of the home teams. These events can include concerts, NFL and Major League Soccer (MLS), conventions, monster trucks—you name it. In addition, there is a trend to locate stadiums in urban cores where there is greater access to mass transit as well as urban renewal opportunities by increasing demand for new hotels, retail, and restaurants. Thinking of a sports venue as an integral part of a city’s fabric encourages developers and designers to consider the venue itself in more flexible terms—what happens in 30 years when the sports team moves or what happens on the other 200 or 300 days a year when there are no sports events? I also think there is a welcome trend to make sports venues more environmentally responsible, not only in terms of energy efficiency, but also in the high-demand operations during event days. This is a huge opportunity when you think about how much water is used in a sports venue, but also the waste from food concessions or the impact of getting people to and from the stadium. We recently developed a plan for a sports venue to be carbon neutral in emissions generated by visitor car trips on game day. This was interesting because it’s difficult to implement solutions, like renewable energy generation technologies, in a stadium, so it forced us to identify opportunities that could provide a larger benefit to the community at scales from the neighborhood up to the state level.

Larwood: Sports venues are continuing to evolve to be more entertainment-oriented, and entertainment venues are broader in their entertainment-ability. We are seeing sports venues built to be highly flexible, taking on everything from concerts to rodeos to exhibits. Both sports and entertainment venues often will have a broadcast component built in. TV broadcast for sports, and also radio, was incorporated into the LA Live facilities. We are even seeing this in college performing arts theaters as well.

Evans: These venues are increasing in size to accommodate larger occupant loads. Smoke management systems are being incorporated into the facilities to allow these larger occupant loads and limit aisle width increases (smoke protected assembly seating). Over the past 10 to 15 years, theaters on the Las Vegas Strip have been constructed to allow the performance to surround the audience. Although this provides a more intimate experience, it makes it difficult to incorporate the level of protection provided by a proscenium. This inevitably requires using the alternate methods and materials provisions of the International Building Code to develop a performance-based fire protection approach to provide equivalency.

CSE: How does a sports or entertainment venue differ from any other large building?

McKinlay: The main difference is that in a sports venue there is typically one large volume of space holding a huge amount of people that need to be comfortable at the same time. In addition, the buildings are quite complex from a technology standpoint, and the acoustics need to be perfect to maximize the experience of the spectators and the TV viewing audience at home. This puts a significant demand on the building systems, which need to be designed to be robust to handle the large fluctuation of loads and at the same time be flexible for multiple uses of the facility. And, of course, the sheer size of the occupancy of these facilities—typically between 30,000 and 80,000 at a time—means so many design decisions are influenced by how they move through the site and building, the length of time they will spend there, and how they arrive and depart. It quickly becomes a question of urban planning.

Larwood: The biggest difference is in their occupancy—high-density and shorter duration. Other large buildings—whether a commercial office building, school, or convention center—tend to retain their occupants for longer periods. For the guests of sports and entertainment venues, their visit is a very special occasion, one that allows them to feel good about spending more money. Based on that special use, the excitement and entertainment is expected the minute the guests walk through the front doors; the path to their seat is charged with visual stimulation—the art, the lighting, the video screens, the signage, and the views—that’s how it becomes so special, and few other large buildings provide that experience in the same way.

Evans: These venues accommodate large occupant loads that require designers to ensure a safe environment. Since large open areas do not provide fire-resistive separations, other means of protection are necessary. Automatic sprinklers are invariably installed, but in high-bay spaces there is little assurance they will perform as intended. Mechanical smoke management systems are common but have their own design constraints and limitations that must be well understood. A well-designed egress system is a must.

Lewis: Sports and entertainment venues are unique to other projects because of the number of different project types you have under one roof. You can have a bowl with 15,000 people, to a private suite with 20 people. You have full-blown restaurants, multiple bars, retail areas, offices, ticketing areas, small and large restrooms, and hydrotherapy areas with lap pools, saunas, and hot tubs, or a doctor’s office with X-ray machines. Having this many different spaces under a single roof really reiterates how important initial planning is when developing your systems and taking into account how each space will be used by the end user.

Cooper: The usage schedule for these buildings can differ significantly from other large buildings, and the usage may also vary from day to day. Because of the large numbers, density, and/or activity level of people in a space, people-generated latent load can be a major design factor. Spaces also tend to have multiple uses that must be accommodated by the buildings’ systems.

CSE: Owners often like to make their venues multi-use facilities. What unique engineering issues do you encounter with these facilities, and how do you overcome them?

McKinlay: For multi-use facilities the building systems need to flexible in capacity and adaptable to serve many different demands depending on the event. One of the key issues is acoustics in terms of intelligibility of public address systems, but also the sense of “liveliness” that audiences expect at any public event. For example, a venue may need to sound quiet for a small concert but then need to have a festive roar during a basketball game. You need the space to be tune-able, but that means every system needs to support that tune-ability. Often, systems for acoustics and sound, fire management, lighting, and climate control need to be considered holistically from an integrated approach in order to accommodate several different potential configurations for a venue. Arup has always worked with an integrated approach, so we overcome a lot of what might be considered obstacles for some design teams just through the nature of how we work, getting everyone at the table throughout the process.

Lewis: The most important factor for design is understanding the owner’s requirements. If for some reason we’re working with an owner who is new to these types of facilities, we really strive to educate the team on what is typically provided in these facilities to allow them to truly be multi-purpose buildings. The biggest issue is really the simplest, and that is to keep in mind that flexibility in all systems is paramount. At HEI we like to keep up to date on the latest trends and emerging technology to verify our designs are not short-sighted and that we have capacity in all systems for growth.

Larwood: The MEP systems are a huge contributor to delivering flexibility. Whether it’s exhaust systems for pyrotechnic shows or creating the optimal air conditions for premium ice quality for hockey, significant planning goes into the systems design. Of course, reliability of the systems is paramount, and oftentimes the electrical service will be provided from two separate sources to minimize the possibility of a power outage. Every building is unique, and the solutions, though often drawn from similar past projects, are also always unique.

Cooper: System requirements can become really interesting when a space will be used for a basketball game one day, a concert the next, and a presidential debate the following week. In order to provide the necessary solutions, we have to understand the current needs of today’s typical touring band, the requirements for a national TV broadcast, etc. You can’t just request these requirements, as the information you will get is often extremely conservative and will result in grossly oversized systems. You really need to understand the equipment and the operations of the multiple “tenants” that may use the facility. There has to be a balancing act between permanent and portable infrastructure. One use that we see being considered on many projects is the potential for the building becoming an emergency shelter for the surrounding community. The facility may be looked to for beds, heat, showers, food service, emergency operations headquarters, etc. The emergency power arrangement of the facility can be drastically affected by these requirements, and one requirement may have a domino effect that requires far more system modifications than first imagined. Again, a balance must be struck between significant system modifications, the likelihood of certain scenarios, and the viability of relying on portable or temporary accommodations to provide the desired services.

Evans: Most of the facilities I mentioned previously have multiple uses. Not only do they accommodate a number of different sporting and entertainment venues, they also are frequently used for trade shows that can include multi-level booths, as well as motor home and boat shows. These uses substantially change the fuel load within the facility and must be taken into account during the initial design phase. The infield of the Speedway is used for concerts and has accommodated upwards of 300,000 attendees, which substantially revises the egress requirements.