The art of designing sports, entertainment, and specialty structures

Entertainment venues are big businesses—and big on complexity, with a host of complex systems and requirements for engineers to tackle.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 25, 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’s the No. 1 trend you see today in the design of such specialty structures?

Daniel P. Christman: In entertainment design (theme parks, zoos, aquariums, water parks, etc.) the No. 1 trend in facility design remains designing a facility that supports the story. Designing amazing buildings or using the latest technology is hollow in this industry if it doesn’t support the story and guest experience.

Keith Esarey: For specialty structures, we often see a demand for a structure to have multiple uses. These buildings represent significant investments, and clients are looking for multiple ways to use the facilities. For example, university performing arts venues may only be scheduled for six or seven major events, but there are opportunities to partner with the local community to use these spaces. These additional uses create new challenges in terms of engineering and design.

Tony Hans: In theater design, we see a trend for LED theatrical-lighting instruments that reduce electrical and heat loads for the performing spaces. In addition, sound systems including innovative line array speaker technology combined with the latest in digital audio control and processing, for true lifelike sound reinforcement throughout the audience seating area. Also, today’s collegiate sports arenas have an ever-increasing list of complex audio/video (A/V) and telecommunications systems.

The progression of "super" Wi-Fi networks by National Football League (NFL) stadiums that incorporate radical speeds and support tens of thousands of simultaneous users has led to numerous Division I college football stadiums incorporating similar systems. These systems have huge advantages over vendor-installed distributed antenna systems (DAS) that use the cellular network but have large initial first costs when compared with potentially very inexpensive vendor-installed DAS. Also, complex sound and video systems must be programmed and budgeted from the initial steps. These A/V systems must incorporate new 4K recording trends while providing for both internal and external stadium broadcasts.

Doug Lancashire: The No. 1 trend we’re seeing in sports facilities is a focus on the "fan experience." As engineers and architects, we are being challenged with creating an environment whereby the typical fan is able to immerse themselves in a virtual experience that makes them feel more a part of the action and not just a spectator.

Today, we live in a world centered on connectivity through our smartphones. This connectivity enables the user to customize their daily experience and develop interaction with their environment through immersive technology. Take, for example, a current Osborn project at a Division 1 university. While the base project is the replacement of the scoreboard and the replacement/upgrade of the sound system in the main basketball arena, the goal of the project is to enhance the fan experience.

Scoreboard technology has in it the ability for apps running on your phone to interact with the activities of the scoreboard, allowing pregame music activity to play and light up your cell phone while doing the same on the scoreboards and the ribbons. Or, pregame or halftime activity could include shooting virtual free-throws with your favorite players. No more is it sufficient to provide a venue for a fan to sit and watch an event. The goal today is to get that fan into the game itself.

Chris Skoug: The No. 1 trend I see in the design of specialty structures is a focus on flexibility to adapt the structure to maximize the use of the facility. A stadium is not just a stadium anymore—a building owner is looking to maximize the use of the facility to use it for other events, too, such as concerts, speaking events, and conventions. This multiuse approach drives programming and support systems.

CSE: What other trends should engineers be on the lookout regarding these projects in the near future (1 to 3 years)?

Lancashire: Near future trends will spin off from the ongoing developments in the inclusion of big data collection and analytics and the growing field of smart buildings and infrastructure. Simple lighting systems with occupancy sensors will extend functionality into anticipating other adjustments in creature comforts and even user interactions. The artificial intelligence (AI) that is being embedded more often in the world around you will become part of a ubiquitous system that will adapt to you and your behaviors without even requiring your interacting. It will learn how you live and adapt automatically.

Christman: There is clearly a trend toward using technology to support the guest experience. Technology in the form of projection mapping, virtual reality, and augmented reality can help create a more immersive and unique experience for guests, one that can be different every time a guest experiences an attraction. This is attractive to owners as it reduces costs associated with building and operating physical environments.

Skoug: As flexibility of sports and entertainment facilities drives the vision for fan experience, we’re seeing technology integration and the internet of things begin to mature. This is helping to enhance the flexibility of these specialty structures, meet building owners’ evolving demands, and increase revenue streams from the structure.

Hans: The incorporation of systems using digital analytics in large gathering areas will continue to grow in the near future. The use of security systems in sports stadiums and theaters allow the heavy lifting to be done automatically, using digital analytics so staff get immediate notification of potential issues and can better maintain the goal of a safe environment. Not only do they provide real-time information, but they are critical reconstructing events as well.

Today’s video capabilities provide a looking glass to authorities for real-time confirmation of live events and help with crowd control and directing of people movement. In the event of a real threat, these systems allow an overall view of the entire facility so fast and efficient decisions can be made and deployed by responding units.

CSE: Please describe a recent project you’ve worked on-share details about the project including location, systems engineered, team involved, etc.

Mike Hart: Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park is a new Major League Baseball (MLB) facility for the team. We designed all the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems including LED sports lighting as well as the data, Wi-Fi, DAS, and other low-voltage systems. The outdoor baseball-only venue features multiple "name brand" local eatery concessions bringing local flavors to the fans. The ballpark has one of the most extensive DAS in the league, providing users with cell phone connectivity even under full-house conditions.

The ballpark anchors the new Battery multiuse development beyond the facility walls. The Battery Atlanta features residential, retail, office space, and outdoor commons areas as well as theater and performance spaces.

Skoug: A sports arena I worked on recently was an NFL stadium in the southeastern United States. I helped to facilitate a contractor-and-engineering alignment to ensure collaboration from the earliest project stages, and our team offered mechanical and plumbing system engineering support related to HVAC central plant design; peer-reviewed mechanical system concepts and load calculations; HVAC air distribution and optimization and computational fluid dynamics modeling; equipment selection; target value design options for mechanical and plumbing systems; specification alignment; and building automation controls design.

Christman: exp’s entertainment and sports group designs MEP/fire protection (MEP/FP), extra-low-voltage (ELV) systems, lighting, and structural systems for theme parks, zoos, aquariums, water parks, sporting venues, and highly themed retail and restaurants all over the world. Our clients include Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal, SeaWorld, Six Flags, Georgia Aquarium, United States Tennis Association (USTA), and many others.

Lancashire: Over the past couple of seasons, Osborn Engineering/OSports has been responsible for a number of upgrades at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians. Projects have included new concessions/restaurants, renovations of suites, new LED field lighting, a new scoreboard, and replacement of the ballpark’s chilled-water plant along with major air handling systems. Some project details:

  • Using MLB’s lighting standards, the new LED lighting designed by Osborn allows for the Indians to recognize a significant cost savings in energy consumption. The lights eliminate the need to replace lamps and ballasts frequently, as the new system can be expected to perform for well over 15 years with little or no maintenance. The new lights will have internet protocol (IP)-addressable controls for preset lighting schemes and theatrical lighting for use in concerts and other non-baseball events. The LED fixtures will be used to illuminate the stadium to current MLB requirements for the recommended footcandle levels. Broadcast-camera footcandle levels shall be maintained on the infield and outfield as well as glare control. The new LED field lighting was designed to keep the current architecture of the stadium. The intent of the design was to keep the iconic "toothbrush" look.
  • Osborn/OSports was responsible for the design and installation of the new scoreboard for Progressive Field as well. The equipment, technology, and physical space to manage and deliver in-game entertainment at Progressive Field were in need of significant modernization. The most prominent element of this project was the replacement of the main scoreboard. However, there are many more supporting elements that were required for the main scoreboard implementation and the delivery of an experience that meets the Indians’ commitment to "making the fans the focus of their actions."
  • On the new main and auxiliary scoreboards and displays, our team replaced the main scoreboard, all fascia boards, the out-of-town scoreboard on the left-field wall, the home run porch sign, and the East Ninth Street marquee. The main videoboard is supported by six additional unique boards—four ribbon boards (covering the lower, middle, and upper levels plus the family deck), a new out-of-town scoreboard, and a marquee located on the corner of East Ninth Street and Carnegie Avenue. The new main scoreboard covers 147% more square feet than the previous display; however, there is a 32% reduction in total wattage used for the new display. The original scoreboard also was ventilated with several large fans. As part of this project, the fans were eliminated and several louvers were added to ventilate the structure using gravity flow. This feature is a benefit to the Indians not only for electrical energy savings, but also because it eliminates the very noisy fans and maintenance upkeep on them.
  • As part of this project, the development of an isolated, climate-controlled clean room was required. The room houses all of the noise- and heat-generating equipment that is used in the day-to-day operations of the scoreboard(s), sound system, and entire TV/radio frequency (RF) infrastructure. In addition to clearing valuable space for the reconfiguration of the production control room, the new rack room also resolves current issues with moisture, dust, and dirt that negatively impact existing equipment. We were able to locate a storage room within close proximity to the new scoreboard/production control room, which could be renovated for the needs of a modern rack room.
  • Also part of the project was a new state-of-the-art scoreboard control room that overlooks home plate. The room has enough video screens to make sure every possible camera angle is covered. It also is large enough to divide the space into two—with video and audio operators not stumbling over each other. The scoreboard/production control room renovation creates a better use of space for in-game production/direction. On game day, there are 15 video operators, two audio operators, and a public-address announcer in the modernized control room. The Indians are able to take full advantage of the new space, from enhanced in-game replays, scripted videos, and introductions that move at a "SportsCenter"-like pace to better statistical displays and more advertising opportunities.
  • Beginning with a condition study of the central cooling plant, air handlers, fan-coil units, and associated controls serving Progressive Field, Osborn Engineering has been responsible for the design of upgrades to the ballpark’s central mechanical systems. Although the central cooling plant equipment and controls had been well maintained, all were original (1994) and nearing the end of their expected useful service life of 23 years (2016), therefore options for replacement/upgrade were recommended. The overall project cost was $5 million for the central chilled-water plant replacement and $15 million for overall HVAC upgrades. Maintenance and energy savings are estimated to be approximately $150,000/year for the new central plant. The scope for the central chilled-water plant replacement included:
    • Install two 720-ton water-cooled, variable-speed, magnetic-bearing, centrifugal chillers.
    • Install two 3,000-gpm variable-speed primary chilled-water pumps.
    • Install two 3,000-gpm variable-speed secondary chilled-water pumps.
    • Install two 900-ton counterflow cooling towers with all stainless steel/nonferrous construction, variable-speed fans, zero-maintenance spray nozzles, service ladder, and platform.
    • Install two 2,250-gpm variable-speed condenser-water pumps.
    • Inspect and either replace or repair existing chilled-water mains and risers showing signs of severe corrosion. Coat new/repaired piping with epoxy paint and cover with new nonpermeable insulation to reduce the rate of corrosion.
    • Uncover direct-buried condenser-water piping and inspect for damage from surrounding rock and brick abrasion. Repair or replace piping as required and replace surrounding backfill material to minimize future abrasion.
    • Upgrade/replace control devices associated with the central cooling plant with new BACnet compatible systems and tie them into the existing building automation system (BAS).
    • Extend the existing architectural screen wall around the new larger cooling towers.

Osborn completed the design for the installation of 900-ton counterflow cooling towers with all stainless steel/nonferrous construction, variable-speed fans, zero-maintenance spray nozzles, service ladder, and platform as well as two 2,250-gpm variable-speed condenser-water pumps in 2 months. We provided a prepurchase package to ensure the new equipment was shipped and operational in time for the 2016 baseball season. Design for the chiller plant continued during the 2016 season, and the chillers were prepurchased and installed in time for the 2017 baseball season. Osborn also provided commissioning services for the chilled-water plant.

Hans: We have designed security systems for the University of Kentucky Commonwealth Football Stadium renovation and the new baseball stadium. Also, the University of Kentucky athletic complex including softball and soccer stadiums. The security system design incorporated coordination with the university police and tied the student-information database to the campus digital-surveillance network and the campus access-control network via digital analytics.

In a recent study of an ice arena in Ohio, we provided a study of the energy performance of the building with recommendations to provide an expansion while reducing the energy-use index (EUI) and utility bills. The study has to affect the "why" of the building so, as with all arenas, must improve the fan experience. The use of LED sports lighting, next-generation A/V telecommunications systems, radiant heat under the stands, and snow melt at the entries are all strategies recommended.

As with all sports arenas and theaters, the occupancy of the facility fluctuates dramatically with practices and rehearsals versus games and events. At this facility, the occupancy peak often created a peak in energy consumption at the same time as an energy peak at the overall campus. A recommendation of an ice-storage system provided for significant energy saving and peak-demand reduction. This could be provided via a small night-air-cooled chiller that handles the unoccupied night conditioning while the existing air-cooled chiller produces ice to be used for the HVAC system the next day, creating a dramatic peak load-shedding opportunity and significant energy savings. The building envelope was also investigated to minimize air infiltration with recommendations to upgrade door seals, create vestibules for adjacent spaces, and eliminate a poorly insulated wall from being an external wall, creating an overall high-performance envelope.

CSE: Have you designed any such projects using the integrated project delivery (IPD) method?

Christman: exp has worked on a number of IPD projects with major entertainment partners. Some of our project managers believe this is the best way to deliver projects because the entire team’s (owner, design team, and construction team) goals are aligned-deliver a project that meets expectations and stays within budget and everyone wins. The system is not without risk; an owner who struggles to make decisions or a major contractor who misses an estimate can severely impact available profits.

Skoug: I have not yet seen an IPD model on specialty structure projects-this is a unique contract structure that creates a shared-risk/shared-reward scenario. What I have seen for specialty structures is a focus on early integration and design-assist contracts.

CSE: How have you worked with the building owner or facility manager to implement the Internet of Things (IoT) into their facility management? Have you helped catalog every device in these buildings, such as lights, fire alarms, electrical outlets, room thermostats, and other products?

Steve Brown: Every building is unique, presenting its own exciting opportunities and sometimes equally daunting set of design challenges. Specialty structures, such as sports arenas, stadiums, and theaters, have their own unique opportunities and challenges. As the building owner’s advocate, it is our responsibility to inform facility stakeholders of current IoT technologies and the systems-integration landscape, helping them see what is possible and how these technologies can help them achieve their business goals. Through iterative collaborative discussions with the business stakeholders, the universe of the possible becomes refined to what will be practically applied to their facility.

Skoug: We are more frequently challenged with the application of emerging technology for these specialty facilities and work with users to vet viability of integration and mock-up testing to validate new applications. It’s a very customized effort. There is generally an increased level of integration for these projects. Some examples: suites are designed to have single-room controllers to adjust lighting, HVAC, and A/V. There is system integration for HVAC, lighting, electrical load metering, water/sewer utility metering, and gas metering (submetering at kitchens). HVAC controls can be modulated based upon building occupancy from feedback from the electronic ticketing system.

Lancashire: The best example of this would be a hotel that we are designing as part of a larger sports campus. Every guest room in the hotel has computerized controls that adapt your environment automatically, either by means of a multitude of sensors or by means of user interaction using a graphic touchscreen in each room. All systems are networked together and facilitate centralized maintenance and management electrically, mechanically, and technologically.

Christman: Building automation systems (BAS) have allowed us to connect many devices together to share data for some time. Standardized protocols have allowed us to connect even more devices to these systems. We have included links to drawings, operation and maintenance manuals, and training videos in the graphic screens for BAS. We have also included basic maintenance data that would be needed frequently, such as belt and filter sizes. We are now seeing devices that aren’t being connected directly to the BAS but directly to the internet. The use of LED lighting, digital thermostats, and programmable fire alarm devices provides the owner with the ability to control each device individually and remotely over the internet from any of their facilities around the world.

CSE: What are the challenges that you face when designing specialty facilities that you don’t normally face for other building projects?

Esarey: Specialty climate control tends to be the biggest difference. More specifically, controlling the temperature and humidity in a space. For example, climate conditions for instrument storage and use are critical in a performing arts venue; similarly, the hardwood floors of athletic facilities require minimum humidity levels to protect the structure. The nature of specialty structures creates a challenge. These spaces spend most of the week partially or lightly loaded and very seldom meet their full occupant capacity. These diverse load characteristics need to be considered when designing an HVAC system that must be able to perform efficiently while running at less than design capacity.

Skoug: I have encountered a number of unique challenges when designing specialty facilities, including high occupancy and ventilation rates, right-sizing MEP systems for usage diversity, coordination of MEP utilities within unique structures, and unique building envelope HVAC loads for stadiums due to increased vertical and horizontal glazing to create a sense of connection to the outside of the structure.

Christman: In addition to designing world-class entertainment, gaming, and hospitality projects, exp also designs a multitude of other project types including health care, science, municipal works, etc. In many respects, the challenges are the same: coordination, deadlines, communication, etc.

The biggest difference between venues that are focused on the guest experience and more traditional venues is the level of coordination and detail required. This enhanced coordination means more communication (we frequently use the term hypercommunication), coordination, and creative change. When you’re designing a fully immersive guest experience, one that temporarily transports a guest to a different place or time, the necessary essentials in a building, such as HVAC ductwork or electrical disconnects, must be cared for with the same level of detail as the show set or projection system or they will diminish the experience.

There are also several stakeholders that are not typically involved in traditional buildings. Creative directors, show producers, storytellers, theming contractors, and ride and show teams are just some of the additional groups the engineering team needs to engage for coordination.

Hans: Many times, these types of facilities have unique structures and require some deliberate thought and planning as to how the MEP systems are designed with respect to maintenance. We try to have some crucial conversations early with the stakeholders and rely on our experience to ensure the facility will not only function as planned, but will enable cost-effective maintenance throughout the lifecycle of the building. Examples would be designing for access to fixtures and devices via catwalks, light-lowering systems, etc. Often, the incorporation of lower first-cost systems create higher maintenance costs, and the balance with tight budgets needs to be a coordinated decision between athletics and the facilities management departments.

CSE: What are some unique elements/considerations to designing/retrofitting such facilities?

Christman: What makes entertainment design unique is the unparalleled attention to the guest experience, or in the case of sporting venue design, the fan experience. In many cases, guests are visiting something they are already familiar with through movies or television, such as Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Disney’s Pandora-the World of Avatar. These guests come with very high expectations of what they are about to experience, so these spaces must not only look like the space the guest expects to see, they need to feel like it as well. When done well, the engineered systems can greatly enhance this experience.

Hans: One of the fastest-growing elements of performance-venue design is facilitating active audience engagement through technology. Designing a robust communications infrastructure that can not only handle the abundance of digital displays and signage, but also the growing potential of mobile apps will be key to attracting millennials and beyond. Typical wireless-antenna and wireless-management head-ends cannot manage systems for such large, dense crowds. Next-generation wireless systems for large, dense crowds must be designed for these environments using the BIM model so that multiple pathways can be hidden from view and coordinated with other systems. Though using a DAS that uses the cellular network is, in comparison, much less expensive, it often will not meet the demands of today’s fan. This may leave fans waiting for 5G cellular networks to meet the demand for increased bandwidth and speeds.

Esarey: It seems that every time we renovate existing specialty facilities, whether they are performing arts or athletic venues, at the top of every facility owner’s wish list is to increase the volume of the space, typically by increasing space height. Whether improving acoustical performance, increasing seating capacity, or incorporating newer technology, venue heights are important.

Lancashire: For a typical office building that is in need of updating, it’s a fairly straightforward process to improve the MEP systems without negatively impacting the appeal of the building itself. Each stadium or ballpark, though, has its own unique architectural feel—it can be challenging to incorporate newer technology into older, sometimes historic, facilities without impacting those aesthetics. As engineers, it’s our responsibility to provide the modern amenities that are expected at a sporting event while keeping the nostalgic feel of a special venue.

CSE: Is your team using BIM in conjunction with the architects, trades, and owners to design a project?

Christman: exp made a substantial investment in BIM-related systems and training a number of years ago. It has become the preferred tool for many of our engineers. BIM reviews, in which models are viewed in lieu of drawing page flips, have become standard for many of our clients, and we believe it will become standard for many others in the next few years. Those on the cutting edge are already taking the next steps by creating virtual reality models of projects. This use of technology allows for greater coordination and may eventually change the way we do business, in that virtual meetings during which multiple participants are in the same virtual space simultaneously will reduce the need for in-person meetings. It is now common on many of our projects for the BIM model to be a deliverable. This model is then further developed by the contractor or owner by, for example, adding maintenance information.

Lancashire: For the past 8 to 10 years, the majority of our sports facility work has used BIM in conjunction with the architects and construction managers. The projects are modeled in 3-D using the clash-detection capabilities of the BIM software for a more cohesive, coordinated design. Typically, the model gets turned over to the construction manager for the individual trades to create their coordination/fabrication drawings.

However, for sports facilities, we have not reached the point to where the model is being used for long-term operations and maintenance by the owners. We are seeing this trend, though, in our health care work. We have one client, a large multicampus health care system, that has spent several years implementing a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), which is dependent on automating via BIM for all new design projects. The system requires that complete and accurate as-built information be incorporated into the model when completed. This presents a challenge in planning and executing, in that what gets modeled during design versus what is added or modified as it gets built isn’t always in alignment.

Skoug: Our team used BIM 360 Glue to streamline the coordination and clash-detection process. This platform works well because it allows for real-time updates as well as its efficiency and simplicity of use.

CSE: For international venues, what unusual or unique requests have clients had? How have you met the owner’s needs?

Christman: exp has worked on one-of-a-kind entertainment projects all over the world. In general, the expectations of the owners are the same: create world-class attractions on budget and on time. Working internationally has unique challenges; perhaps the biggest of which is understanding what is expected at each design stage in a particular region. Enhanced communication is critical, and even with tools such as video conferencing, nothing replaces the relationship-building process of an in-person meeting. Something as simple as the term "design development" (DD) can create significant confusion. In the U.S., we’re used to the DD meaning in American Institute of Architects (AIA) terms, but in many parts of the world where Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) guidelines prevail over AIA, DD means detailed design or nearly equivalent to 100% construction documents. There’s clearly a big difference there, so if one isn’t careful, the wrong expectations can be set very quickly.