The art of designing sports, entertainment, and specialty structures: Codes and standards

Entertainment venues are big businesses—and big on complexity, with a host of complex systems and requirements for engineers to tackle. Building codes and standards are top-of-mind.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 28, 2017


  • Steve Brown, Certified Automation Professional Vice President and Operations Director, Energy & Automation Teams Environmental Systems Design Chicago
  • Daniel P. Christman, PE, LEED AP Vice President/Entertainment Market Sector Leader exp Orlando, Fla.
  • Keith Esarey, PE, LEED AP Principal McClure Engineering St. Louis
  • Tony Hans, PE, RCDD, LEED AP Vice President CMTA Louisville, Ky.
  • Mike Hart, PE, LEED AP Principal, CEO ME Engineers Golden, Colo.
  • Doug Lancashire, PE, LEED AP, CEM, CGBE Vice President, Director of Energy/Facility Systems Osborn Engineering Cleveland
  • Chris Skoug, PE, CEM Principal Engineer Southland Engineering Dulles, Va.  

CSE: Please explain some of the codes, standards, and guidelines you use during the design process. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of in their design of engineered systems in such projects?

Hans: AIA Section International Building Code (IBC) 1006 – Means of Egress Illumination. This section requires that all egress paths including corridors and aisles shall have a minimum of 1.0 fc at all times with the following exception: For performance areas in assembly occupancies, the light level at egress walking paths shall be permitted to be reduced to 0.2 fc as long as provisions are made to automatically increase the lighting levels at these locations back to 1.0 fc in the event of fire alarm activation.

Lancashire: It isn’t always necessarily that you’re applying a different code to a specialty project, it’s just that the code may need to be applied differently. For example, the ventilation requirements for a venue that seats 20,000 people are significantly different than that of an office building, although you’re applying the same code. That being said, there are different standards that apply depending on the type of facility that you’re designing.

Take lighting, for example. Just about every league or association, whether it’s MLB or the NCAA for football, has developed standards or "best practices" that we need to ensure are being met through our design. We are designing an arena that will be used for the National Basketball Association’s Developmental League, now known as the G League. Even the G League has standard features and amenities that need to be included and followed.

Christman: Many of the codes and standards are the same for specialty structures as they are for more typical building types. However, at times the design team is called to more thoroughly understand the intent of a code. As an example, some of what an engineer may encounter in designing a theme park or live-performance theater may not fit into the tidy parameters of a certain code. In such a case, the engineer must work closely with the owner and the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to ensure everyone clearly understands the condition and the risks and agrees with the solution. In the case of zoos and aquariums, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) publishes and maintains standards for exhibit design. These standards can exceed building code requirements for the benefit of the animals and staff.

Skoug: I haven’t run across any unique codes for stadiums; however, it is important to understand the unique operations and functions for these types of facilities, because they inform what codes must be met for the structure. Sometimes, because of the nature of these types of structures, the codes must be met in out-of-the-box ways.

CSE: What are the most challenging codes and standards to follow for such structures? What makes them so challenging?

Lancashire: One interesting challenge we’re facing in the renovation of sports venues that are only 10 to 20 years old is that sports facilities, especially professional stadiums and arenas, are now offering higher-end food-service options with full kitchens and wet bars everywhere throughout the building. Gone are the days of providing fans with just hot dogs and beer. This means that we have to provide power, ventilation, and plumbing services to parts of a ballpark that weren’t originally intended for that use. In some cases, this can require extremely invasive construction to provide these amenities.

Christman: The most challenging standards to follow for atypical buildings is sustainable-design certification programs, such as U.S. Green Building Council LEED. Those programs are designed around more typical facility types (e.g., individual office buildings) and can be very difficult to comply with for unique buildings with heavy plug loads on a campus, such as a theme park.

Skoug: Energy codes are challenging due to high internal loads, unique building envelope materials, and the physical size of buildings that require increased utility distribution.

Hans: From IBC Section 1006, lighting calculations in large assembly spaces can be difficult and time intensive due to the complex structure of the space. Standard general rules for calculations fall short when designing lighting levels in large, complex spaces. Additionally, large assembly spaces typically have multiple uses and multiple arrangements of seating and entertainment equipment that will impact egress paths and lighting systems and locations. Often, egress paths may change based on different arrangements of the space. All paths must be accounted for in terms of general lighting, emergency backup, and control during emergency. Egress lighting mounted to bleachers, seating, or aisle floors are very prone to damage by occupants. Fixtures and connections are installed at locations vulnerable to being stepped on, kicked, or becoming exposed to liquids. Extensive care must be taken to design a lighting system capable of standing up to the environment in which it is installed.

CSE: What are some solutions/best practices to ensure that specialty buildings are in compliance with codes and standards?

Christman: Communication. We believe clearly communicating an atypical issue, along with observations and a recommendation, with all relevant parties is the best way to ensure specialty buildings are in compliance with code, or with the intent of codes where a specific situation falls outside the boundary of typical code. This is where enhanced design tools, such as BIM models and virtual reality space walk-throughs, can greatly assist a team and the AHJ to understand the issue and feel comfortable agreeing to a solution.

Skoug: CFD modeling has helped us to optimize and right-size mechanical systems, resulting in less distribution and lower system pressure drops.Hart: On complex or unique project types, it is often best to involve the code authorities early in the process. Oftentimes, the city or specific review officials have never before, and may never again, be involved in this type of facility. They should be made aware of the design team’s experience, as well as common practices used elsewhere, to deal with unusual elements of high-occupancy facilities. All this can help assuage their fears and allow their concerns to be incorporated in the design.

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

Christman: Many zoos and aquariums have enthusiastically adopted green standards for their facilities. While it is widely acknowledged there is a baseline load in the form of maintaining water quality for and heating and cooling animal habitats, zoos and aquariums are constantly looking for ways to use energy-efficient products and deliver a clear message to their guests that they are engaged in environmentally friendly design and operation practices.

Skoug: Higher-efficiency MEP equipment is generally larger, so increased MEP programming may be required. Lancashire: A generation ago, sports facilities were designed with little regard for energy efficiency. It was important that buildings were designed to have ample capacity when called upon for a major event. The challenge today is to provide the reliability that’s required while also designing responsibly, minimizing energy consumption and the facility’s impact on the environment.

CSE: What new code or standard do you feel will most affect specialty facilities? This may be a code that your AHJ has not yet adopted, but you feel will directly impact your work.

Lancashire: As ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings increases the demand for more efficient buildings, it will become more difficult for specialty buildings, especially facilities that have a high EUI (like arenas) to meet the energy code, not to mention the ability to achieve a lot of LEED points for energy efficiency.

Skoug: We have seen a precedent by some jurisdictions to allow NFPA 96: Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations code variance, which results in the use of environmental ductwork downstream of pollution-control units. This can greatly simplify coordination of long runs of kitchen grease exhaust through a large facility.