The future of venue design amid COVID-19

Design professionals are working hand-in-hand with sports leagues and owners to develop strategies to control any potential spread of infection to reduce COVID-19 concerns and fears.

By Kevin Lewis July 23, 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sports and entertainment industry has come to a screeching halt as venues around the world grapple with understanding the virus and its transmission paths in order to make their facilities safer. Knowing that fans are anxious to return to the venues they know and love but that they’ll only do so when they feel the risk of infection is low enough, design professionals are working hand-in-hand with leagues and owners to develop strategies to control any potential spread of infection.

As we know, viruses can be spread in a variety of ways. As it relates to most coronaviruses, including COVID-19, there are three primary methods: droplet transmission, surface contact, and airborne infection. At Henderson Engineers, design specialists have outlined infection control strategies to limit surface, droplet, and airborne transmission. Below we go more in-depth on each these strategies to help venue managers make their event settings safer when concerts, sporting events, conferences, and other gatherings return. While no single strategy is perfect, by combining a variety of solutions that address all three transmission vectors, we can effectively lower the risks for fans when they’re back in the stands.

Droplet transmission

While guidance on the likelihood of infection from any single vector continues to change based on additional research, it appears that droplet is likely the most prominent way that people who are exposed become ill with COVID-19. Airborne and surface transmission shouldn’t be ignored, but each are not as likely as droplets due to decreased viral load and time in contact with the virus. This mode of transmission occurs when two people are in close contact, either from small droplets expelled simply when talking or larger droplets resulting from sneezes or coughs.

Social distancing

As we’ve all experienced thus far in 2020, the most common and effective strategy to avoid contracting COVID-19 is to practice social distancing. To be fully effective, individuals should maintain at least six feet of separation from fellow citizens where possible. In addition, the use of a mask shows benefits in keeping the spread of droplets to a minimum. A mask also helps keep nasal and throat passages warm and moist in climates that are cool and dry to inhibit the virus from lodging in your lungs.

Line management and mitigation

To prevent congestion in facilities, there are several ways to help keep individuals safe. This process starts during arrival. In an effort to keep your facility healthy, it’s best to screen guests as far from the building as possible. This can be accomplished by moving the screening perimeter away from the building and using technology like thermal cameras at these entry points to scan the crowd for raised temperatures. In some cases, entry cameras can be used for both temperature readings as well as guest identification and weapons detection. Installing a robust system can have a positive effect on the fan experience and will also help expedite the welcome process.

Once inside the building, lines often form around concessions and restrooms throughout concourses. Most people don’t follow a given path once inside the building and have a tendency to move towards areas closest to their seats, creating a cross flow of traffic.

To alleviate this, app-based technology for concessions and restrooms can make a big difference in keeping lines at bay. Pandemic or not, no one likes waiting in line, so by integrating apps with payment systems or navigation features, venue design can improve the overall fan experience for years to come.

As it relates to concessions, app technology can help guests pre-order food from their seats, pre-pay for those items from their phones, and receive alerts when their food is ready. This allows for a systematic process that does not create overcrowding. Pre-packaging the food for pick-up will also help prevent lines from forming and droplet infection between patrons picking their food up or waiting for it to be prepared. Providing real-time information like this will help fans navigate their options without missing a minute more than necessary of the action.

Restrooms pose similar issues as concession stands in terms of lines. To help keep the number of people down at any restroom, venue operators can consider implementing technology that can show the number of people waiting or the estimated the wait time and even where under-utilized restrooms are located.

Airborne transmission

HVAC systems play a large role in combatting airborne transmission, especially in areas where large groups of people gather, such as in a convention center hall or the arena bowl/concourse. While there are several technologies that can be implemented, we also know that temperature, humidity, air-movement, and direct sunlight all play a role in the longevity and infection potential for all three vectors. In general, our recommendation is to keep spaces between 40 and 60 percent relative humidity, decreasing the time the virus can live on surfaces and keeping the virus from embedding in your lungs which is a greater concern in drier air. We also know that air movement, especially outdoors, limits the exposure to the virus through airborne particles.

Because of the inherent differences between outdoor and indoor venues, we will assume that the following technologies are geared towards inside venues only. There are many retrofit solutions that can play a role in infection mitigation which can be implemented almost immediately.

HEPA filtration

Implementing HEPA filtration at the air handling unit can be very effective in capturing and removing viruses from air streams, as long as they pass through the filter. However, because HEPA filters are typically installed in the ductwork and therefore must rely on the airflow patterns to carry contaminants to the filter, small particles like viruses can circulate in the space for an extended period of time before eventually making their way to the filter for capture. In general, while highly effective and reliable, an in-duct HEPA filter is more appropriate in preventing cross contamination between spaces than it is in guaranteeing removal of contaminants from a given space.

Ultraviolet (UV) sterilization

UVc, with a wavelength between 200–280 nm, is a band of ultraviolet light that has proven to be the most effective for infection control while inflicting minimal damage to people; however direct exposure still is not recommended. There are many novel applications of “in-room” UV sterilizers from stationary lights to portable devices mounted on robots for off hour surface sterilization.

Given the proper contact time and intensity, UV can be an efficient method to inactivate viruses and bacteria — rendering them harmless. Able to be installed within an air handling unit or directly in the space itself, UV is only effective, though, if the pathogen comes in direct contact with the light. Just as we discussed with HEPA filtration, if the UV lamp is installed within the air handling unit, the system relies on the airflow patterns to carry contaminants to it. In-room or upper air configurations can affect particles that have not made it to through the HVAC system, but these systems must be properly designed with either occupancy sensors of other safeguards to avoid exposing fans or employees.

Bipolar ionization air purification

Bipolar ionization generators create positively and negatively charged oxygen ions which bind to contaminants in the indoor air, either causing them to drop out of circulation in the room or to be captured by a mechanical filter within an air handling unit. When properly installed, operated, and maintained, bipolar ionization systems can reduce dust and mold, capture odors, reduce VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and reduce viruses and bacteria in the air.

Ions generated by these devices typically have a relatively short lifespan, so it’s important to regularly pass room air over the ion generator to ensure sufficient contact. Typically, bipolar ionization generators are installed in the ductwork or directly in the air handling unit. As with any ionization product, it is important to investigate the potential to create ozone, which has proven negative effects on human health, as a byproduct of operation.

Displacement ventilation

A solution for new construction, displacement ventilation can be applied to improve air quality within a venue. By providing the air low in the space and exhausting 100% of the air high in the space, the natural movement of air will entrain small particles (aerosols) and remove them from the breathing zone where they will be exhausted from the building. When needed, venue operators also have the ability to provide 100% outside air. However, this extreme operation should only be used in extreme cases, like “pandemic mode,” due to the associated negative energy consequence and potential comfort impact depending on the surrounding climate.

ASHRAE acknowledges displacement ventilation as providing a better air quality and removing particles such as viruses and bacteria in a more effective manner. In addition to better air quality, this air distribution method provides energy savings (when not in 100% outside air mode) and a better user experience in terms of comfort.

Surface transmission

The reason we all know the importance of hand hygiene is greatly tied to the potential for surface transmission. This transmission is typically caused when someone touches a surface that has been contaminated, either by droplets landing on the surface or by an object or person carrying the virus, and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. In a large venue, the number of touchpoints is incredibly high and increase cleaning protocols may not be enough to mitigate the risk of surface transmission.

Contactless fixtures and processes

Designers are working feverishly to make all possible fixtures in venues contactless. This includes door operators, faucets, hand dryers, flush valves, and drinking fountains. Within restrooms, external doors can be removed, and line of sight partitions can be added. Additionally, entry doors can be propped open or modified to accept mechanical opening systems. Elevator controls are another area that can be addressed by touchless options.

Digital ticketing has become mainstream in the last few years and has never been more important than now. In the same realm, all point-of-sale locations can implement pay-in-advance technology via smartphone applications. Venue design, especially with regard to telecom infatuation, will be imperative as facilities continue to embrace a heightened focus on these capabilities.


Evaluate the material of your flooring and seating and provide surfaces that can be readily and efficiently cleaned. Cloth seats or dense pile carpeting creates a tougher cleaning scenario and thus a greater risk of surface transmission. High touch items such as counters, handrails, and seats should be evaluated for longevity and cleanability.

Venue managers must increase surface cleaning of all surfaces to protect the welfare of patrons. With thousands of spectators in a venue touching these surfaces, the risk of transmission is high. This can be achieved through increased cleaning protocols as well as the use of handheld UV systems that may offer a quicker solution.

When the doors re-open to spectator events, ensuring the venue design feels safe for fans and patrons will be critical. While no silver bullet exists, we can utilize technology and science to create the best spaces possible for a safe and enjoyable visit in the interim. Many of the solutions presented can be done at low cost and ultimately provide a better long-term fan experience.

This article originally appeared on Henderson Engineers’ websiteHenderson Engineers is a CFE Media content partner. 

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Kevin Lewis, venue practice director and senior vice president, Henderson Engineers