The art of designing sports, entertainment, and specialty structures: Controls and automation

Entertainment venues are big businesses—and big on complexity, with a host of complex systems and requirements for engineers to tackle. Building automation systems must be carefully considered.

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: What are some of the challenges incorporating the IoT into facility design for existing specialty buildings?

Lancashire: The biggest challenge we face is in selecting products that all properly communicate and have the necessary drives and application program interfaces (API) to work together seamlessly.

Christman: In older, existing buildings that are heavily themed, the ability to install new infrastructure that supports IoT devices can be very difficult. For example, facilities currently using pneumatic controls require complete rewiring for direct digital controls (DDC). This can be extremely difficult if the infrastructure has to pass through a space that is otherwise unaffected.

Brown: The biggest challenges seen are budget constraints, security concerns, deviating from the typical design process (status quo), and confusing and conflicting marketing information from IoT and systems-integration providers. 

  • Budget constraints: The perception the technology and integration of IoT devices and systems will cost more lead to these items being removed from the design—either during the design process, due to fear of exceeding the budget, or after bids are received and the project is overbudget.
  • Security concerns: A large amount of IoT devices and advancements in technology are based in various wireless technologies. This has raised significant concerns within client organizations. These concerns need to be addressed to maximize the promise of the IoT technologies.
  • Deviating from the status quo: In typical building design efforts, the individual disciplines design their specific portion of the project separate from the other disciplines-what we call "silos." They may include some smart, IoT-enabled devices in the individual system design; however, the silo approach typically does not enable the ability to leverage the data from these systems across the enterprise with other smart, IoT-enabled systems. The real impact of IoT is capturing more and better building data—from multiple systems and sources—as the foundation for the intelligent building platform, converting the collected information into building intelligence that is applied to foster more efficient and smarter use of the built environment.
  • Confusing market information: Enter "IoT" into your favorite search engine and you will see a wide array of responses, from the largest network-solution provider down to the smallest electronic widget maker, all claiming to have IoT solutions. I have experienced several motivated building owners and their agents spend significant time researching and collecting IoT information, only to end up being flustered and confused. This confusion has led to indecision and, ultimately, inaction. These owners experienced "paralysis by analysis" and never acted on implementing their IoT dreams.

CSE: When working on monitoring and control systems in such buildings, what factors do you consider?

Hart: Building system monitoring and controls is a potentially broad spectrum of systems, from room thermostats to security cameras and energy-use meters, etc. Consideration needs to be made as to user need, cost, and the ability of operations staff to use the systems and information gathered. Energy-use reduction is often the driver of control elements like metering and lighting/air conditioning schedules. Ease of use and user friendliness are key to ensure the systems are put to use. Security systems can range from bare-bones key sets of old to complex card readers and retina scans for access control linked with video surveillance. All are designed to monitor user activity and ensure a safe environment for employees and patrons.

Brown: We consider the design stage—i.e., where in the project design is. The success rate of implementing IoT and other intelligent applications increases significantly the earlier they are introduced into the design process. We also consider budget, building type, building size, if it’s an existing or new building (in existing buildings we consider type, age, and condition of existing automation systems), BAS, lighting controls, fire alarm, access control, etc. Other things include facility maintenance crew size and level of technical expertise, types of IoT devices and systems that can (and should) be applied, and condition of the building’s network infrastructure.

Esarey: The biggest factor is local support. The parts and pieces associated with the various vendors are pretty much the same, and it is the individual that shows up to start-up your system or fix a problem that makes the difference. The real issue going forward is to make the BAS a better tool for the building operator. Operations staffs are under-manned and building owners are having a tough time finding competent techs. The most important question to ask is, "How can we present the data so the operator can easily operate the building?" We are automating the calculations and making the decisions, but the operator needs to be involved-this way, he or she will have a better opportunity to react. We are also seeing an evolution of more intuitive dashboards.

Christman: The biggest factor is how far to take the number of control points: weighing the value of a control point against the cost to monitor it, the size of the system needed against what the owner can afford, and what infrastructure is already in place. Many of our clients have campuses with hundreds of buildings, which can result in hundreds of thousands of control points that need to be monitored and controlled. There is a temptation to create an alarm for any point that is not within expected values. However, this can create an unbelievable number of alarms on a large campus. The operator can be overwhelmed by a huge number of relatively insignificant transient alarms, like a lot of junk mail in your email, and not see the really important alarms. It becomes a challenge to determine which points need to be alarmed so that they get addressed in a timely manner.

Lancashire: Communications protocols and system architecture play a significant role. Each system has its history, and the histories are typically not similar. It depends on what personnel need the interfaces, and what roles do these interfaces need to achieve. The front of house might need to only view some operations while the back-of-house support personnel need to be able to dive deeper into the system remotely to react and make adjustments or corrections. Other factors include understanding what really needs to be monitored and controlled. Some systems may only need to log data. Other systems may need more direct interaction from personnel. As designers, we need to understand where these points of interface, monitoring, and control are required as well as how the individual operator needs to interface with the systems (touchscreen and meaningful graphics or simple annunciators).

Skoug: The physical size of these specialty structures can add significant cost for controls and make accessibility of controls devices challenging. For these projects, I consider wireless-sensor technology, where applicable. Also, building automation sequences of operation frequently need to have multiple modes of operation that take into account the structure’s unique operational hours of use.

CSE: What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome in such facilities, and how did you do so?

Brown: With integration-protocol inconsistencies, we helped align communication protocols where they were unclear, inconsistent, or missing entirely. This task is much more effective during the design phase, before any equipment is ordered and installed. It is still possible to correct in the field, but typically more difficult and expensive. In some cases, it may not be possible to correct, resulting in a missed opportunity to capture data from the affected system. An often overlooked item is developing, and following, a consistent naming convention for a client and their building systems. Though this is important for consistency within a system, it is crucial in an integrated platform when integrating multiple disparate systems and their data points into a higher level. Also, upgrading the communication infrastructure-whether in design for new construction or in place for existing buildings-to enable the increased data traffic speed and capacity on the converged network. In existing buildings, it is necessary to inventory the existing building systems to determine the ability to incorporate them into the integrated platform. These systems have been upgraded to recent versions and/or open-protocol platforms to enable the integration of their valuable data to the higher-level platform.

Lancashire: In general, most integration and/or interoperability issues seem to stem from an overcomplicated system or systems that is therefore misused or misunderstood. Our goal as engineers is to understand the complexity that is required to properly operate a facility and tailor the design to specific needs and skill sets of the staff operating the building. In many cases, simplicity is what is called for to achieve this goal.

Hans: We have designed more than 1 million sq ft of zero-energy facilities, and students and owners often want live, real-time access to the performance of these facilities. Recently, one owner asked us to incorporate a new system we had created so that students had access to live data and could incorporate this data into learning. To better showcase the sustainability of the actual facility housing the students, we tied an interactive 3-D, virtual reality system to an IoT software package, took fully immersive pictures (by one of our mechanical engineers that just so happens to be a Google-approved 3-D photographer), and then built a system with the project architect, which can be found here.

In our experience, dashboards that assist in the monitoring of facilities for their energy consumption and air quality have been difficult to start up and keep operational. One very large coordination issue always exists in the interoperability of the metering systems, BAS, and the dashboard system. Our system overcomes these issues, and future systems are designed with the "why" of the building in mind from the very beginning. In educational buildings, for instance, they incorporate the teaching curriculum required, the owner’s sustainability goals, and the design team’s knowledge of the sustainable and occupant-wellness items incorporated into the building design and operation.

Christman: In addition to the BAS controlling the MEP systems, we work on facilities that also have other control systems running. These can be ride-control systems and life safety systems for animals (i.e., water-quality management). There is a need to keep these systems separate so that an HVAC technician doesn’t affect the safety on a ride, such as a roller coaster. However, we do run into occasions where we do need these systems to work together. For binary data, we typically use relays or dry contacts. For analog values, we will create an analog output from one system that will be measured as an analog input in the other control system. It simply requires extensive coordination during the design of the project.

CSE: What unique tools are the owners of these facilities including in their automation and controls systems? How do these tools interface with other technologies, such as large-screen displays, automatic roofs, and other high-tech equipment?

Christman: We are adding very large touchscreens that allow individuals that may not have access to the BAS to see and even make changes to the BAS. We also are providing basic feedback to operators. One example is that we have provided simple red and green lights in a restaurant facility that signal when the weather conditions are conducive to opening NanaWalls. While one might think this isn’t needed, most restaurant operators don’t understand how the relative humidity of the outside air affects the latent load and the ability of the system to keep the space comfortable.

Skoug: Each of these additional technologies is typically a stand-alone control system that can be monitored independently. For the NFL stadium, the BAS integration of the building operating systems was generally for monitoring only.

Lancashire: One surprising request from an owner was to have certain manual overrides in place to assure them that they could affectively administer events that might require their intervention. In this large sports venue with ever bigger and more immersive productions, which can provide significant sensory overload, we are including simple keyswitches in the AV system design to provide emergency event instructions to be displayed on center-hung videoboards. The keyswitches also provide immediate overrides of the programming being played over these large sound systems, to mute and allow an override mic and give the first responders quick, easy access to convey real-time information to the fans.

CSE: How has the convergence of automation and controls affected the design of specialty buildings?

Brown: The convergence of smart systems into a larger integrated intelligent building platform has enabled the collection and consumption of richer building data to positively impact the operation, efficiency, safety, and image of these specialty facilities. Increased energy efficiency, reduced carbon footprint, and improved occupant experience are the results of the converged, integrated systems. When done properly and with the complete vision in mind, the design effort is involved at the onset of project conception. The integrated intelligent building concept is "baked into" the design requirements to achieve the stipulated business drivers and goals.