Trading Up for Flexibility

Slowdown? What slowdown? Five years after the 9/11 disaster caused a decline in the hospitality industry, the convention center sector has bounced back.

By Maggie Koerth, Contributing Writer May 1, 2006

Slowdown? What slowdown? Five years after the 9/11 disaster caused a decline in the hospitality industry, the convention center sector has bounced back.

According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, net square footage and revenue have been on the rise since at least 2003, and industry analysts say that the sector is running on all four cylinders once again. But this good news doesn’t mean that engineers are pouring themselves a martini, sitting back and reflecting on a job well done. It’s a busy world out there, with owners’ and exhibitors’ needs changing constantly. In this environment, convention centers have to be designed for the future, not just the present, and the sector’s largest trends—flexibility, sustainability, new markets and new partnerships—reflect that goal.

Flexing some muscle

In today’s changing world, probably the most important convention center innovations focus on creating environments that are fully flexible, both in terms of how spaces function and the technologies available for use. In our last look at this market two years ago (“Convening with Authority,” 1/04, p. 36), we reported that most big centers are being designed so that large spaces like ballrooms and exhibit halls can be reconfigured for multiple uses and physically altered to create numerous smaller rooms. Of course, these adaptations present new challenges on the engineering side, particularly in terms of wiring and controls for lighting and electrical systems. Every engineering team has to answer the question, How can we make controls as flexible as the spaces they operate?

At the St. Charles (Mo.) Convention Center, designed by Ross and Baruzzini, that answer came in the form of preprogrammed control panels that can be easily reprogrammed by the user. Each section of the subdividable exhibit hall is wired for lighting and sound as an isolated system with its own control point. But multiple sections can be made to work together and preprogrammed so that they are all still controlled by any of multiple points in the larger combined spaces. The new addition to San Francisco’s Moscone Center is another example of innovative lighting. The scheme, devised by The Engineering Enterprise, Alameda, Calif., and its vendor, Lighting Control and Design, employs special software and hand-held controls that allow center staff to pull up a room layout on a touch screen and create pre-sets for each individual fixture, as well as audio controls. Those pre-sets are saved to hand-held devices and given to exhibitors, who can then easily control custom lighting and audio during a presentation from anywhere in the room, without needing extra staff around to help.

Flexibility also means providing an elegant way to deliver multiple kinds of hookups at strategic locations. “These centers could be hosting anything from art shows to appliances to computer shows,” says John Palmieri, Ross and Baruzzini’s lead engineer on the St. Charles project. “There’s a whole gamut of various kinds of shows and events that need different kinds of power and services in different places.”

Floor boxes—flush, watertight, non-slip and corrosion-proof—provide a practical delivery system, offering various voltages and phases of electrical power along with telephone and network cabling, microphone outlets, TV outlets and fiber optics all in one handy place. Similar boxes have been used in Chicago’s McCormick Center expansion, the Moscone Center expansion, the Phoenix Convention Center, the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Minneapolis Convention Center. Besides the relatively basic electrical/audio/visual accoutrements, some of these floor box systems offer more exotic options, such as pressurized air and easily accessible water service. “You might have an aquarium convention with tanks to fill up and drain,” Palmieri explains.

“Multi-function” is also the buzzword in lighting design. In the past, convention centers required three different types of fixtures—high-intensity discharge lights, which provided bright exhibit lighting; incandescents for dimming; and, finally, separate emergency lighting fixtures that provided instant-on capabilities. No longer. At the Phoenix Convention Center, New York-based Syska Hennessy Group has reduced three fixtures to two, using high-bay complex fluorescents that cover bright light with eight 40-watt bulbs that can also power-on instantly, removing the need for separate emergency fixtures. And, because the fixtures are individually controlled, dimming needs can be met by turning on only a few fixtures at a time.

The Engineering Enterprise designed a similar system for the Moscone Center expansion, but there the high-bay CFLs serve all lighting functions. At Moscone, the lamps are stepped so that the fixture can go from eight lamps, to six, to four, to two—with the final two bulbs operating on a dimmer. Kristina Martin, principal at The Engineering Enterprise, says that these stepped fluorescents have a longer life than traditional bulbs and also save money on energy costs.

On-site dining

A couple of other new trends are increasing convention centers’ flexibility by providing services and spaces not previously available. “One of the big trends we’re seeing is operating a food court, like in a mall,” says Bill Larwood, senior vice president of Syska Hennessy Group. “That way they can have multiple vendors offering different types of food, and it reduces the need for guests to have to go outside the building and forage.” The great outdoors are also getting a makeover as several centers have begun running power and other services outside their main walls. At the St. Charles Center, clients will be able to plug into electrical, data and telephone systems at strategic spots around the grounds and parking lot.

Of course, the most important component of making a fully flexible, up-to-date convention center is making sure it stays that way. When The Engineering Enterprise first began designing the Moscone Center expansion in 1996, engineers included huge telephone banks in the designs. But by the time construction began in 1999, cell phones had all but replaced the pay phone, and those banks were deleted from the plans. “These days, wiring systems change every few years,” says Mehdi Jalayerian, senior vice president and head of the convention and hospitality division of Environmental Systems Design, Inc. (ESD), Chicago. “We need to be able to accommodate that process in our design.” At the McCormick Center expansion, Jalayerian’s team used a distributed technology room approach to design the low-voltage system. Here, a network of fiber and copper cabling runs from each of the tech rooms back to the telephone/data room, creating a raceway system that accommodates emerging technologies and minimizes upgrade costs.

Finally, regarding new trends, it used to be that green design wasn’t something you did to be practical, and most engineers saw “environmentally friendly” as a polite way to say “more expensive.” But that attitude is changing. Every firm interviewed was including some sort of sustainable, energy-saving systems in their designs, and several of them were going for LEED status.

Design for a green world

In fact, just three years after Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center became the first LEED-certified convention center in North America, other centers have earned this certification as well, and more green centers are in the works. And, while most sustainable systems have a higher up-front cost, they save clients money in long-term operational and maintenance costs—a feature that engineers say makes this trend extremely popular. “If the clients can reduce the costs of operating, they can transfer those reduced costs to exhibitors and make themselves a lot more attractive,” says Jalayerian.

Among the many energy- (and cost-) saving measures being added to new convention centers, the chilled-water-and-air system designed by ESD for the McCormick Center expansion is one of the most innovative. By reducing the average temperatures of the air and water supply, ESD was able to reduce energy use by large amounts. The supply air temperature, for example, was lowered 10°F from the conventional 55°F. Doing so meant that the system used 33% less air to accommodate the required space-cooling load. Reducing the quantity of air also reduced fan capacity, duct sizes and electrical power supply—resulting in an equivalent 33% reduction in energy consumption. Most engineers are initially skeptical of this method because they worry the lower temperature will make people uncomfortable, Jalayerian says. “But with exhibit halls as large as 800,000 sq. ft. and with ceiling heights of more than 30 ft., you have an opportunity to supply air at colder temperatures and have it mix into the room. People don’t notice the difference,” he says.

Several centers, including the Phoenix Center, the St. Charles Center and the Salem (Ore.) Convention Center, have taken a common-sense approach to energy efficiency, implementing a basic but underused technology. “A lot of times, the HVAC and lighting systems aren’t set to be automatic, based on occupancy,” says Andy Frichtl, principal of Interface Engineering, Portland, which designed the Salem project. “You can do that simply with sensors and digital control systems so that the HVAC can throttle down to a minimum and close the ventilation when there isn’t an event going on.”

Frichtl’s firm also designed a radiant heating and cooling system for the Salem Center’s large pre-function area. Besides saving energy, Frichtl sees the system as simply the economically practical choice for a room that features a two-story, heat-sucking wall of glass.

Branching—and reaching—out

Although “super-size” is still the buzzword in convention centers, there is increasingly room to think in terms of simply “large” or even “medium.” Suburbs are building their own— smaller—venues, many associated with hotels. These venues provide a place where medium-sized shows that can get lost in big facilities can shine in their own class-A space. These venues can be found in places like Schaumburg, Ill. and Overland Park, Kan. Markets with vast metro areas and a huge convention industry, like Orlando and Las Vegas, have dozens of them. To Rick Schmidt of Conventional Wisdom, Ocoee, Fla., a consulting company that works with convention center owners, these mid-size facilities represent a maturing of the convention center industry. “Initially, it was everybody’s philosophy that it was all about the big dogs,” he said. “But there are 70 to 80 thousand meetings out there that also need a home.”

Besides new markets, the convention center industry has also fostered some new partnerships. Architects and engineers are working together more closely, as cities, owners and exhibitors demand facilities that go beyond the big, hulking boxes of decades past. Architectural elements, such as the large, glass-enclosed atriums that bring convention centers much-needed daylighting, also create special engineering concerns, particularly in the realm of HVAC. When architects and engineers work closely from the beginning of the design process, both sides can more easily foresee and solve these problems—sometimes even by using architectural elements. The Salem Convention Center’s glass atrium and light-colored concrete walls initially gave the building’s main lobby two sun’s worth of heat load, but Interface Engineering drastically reduced that by convincing their architectural partners, LMN Architects, Seattle, to install an overhang and an advertising banner on the building’s west side, blocking the late-day sun.

Other architectural features also create engineering challenges. Clean rooflines are a major trend in convention center design, so firms have to figure out how to hide equipment that they used to just plant on top of the building. And a demand on architects to make all available space usable translates into engineers having to find creative places to fit in mechanical rooms. At the Phoenix Center, LSW Engineers and the Syska Hennessy Group solved this problem with catwalk-accessible spaces in the ceiling and a network of underground tunnels.

More convention centers now also have a budget for public art, and engineers are involved here as well. At the Moscone Center, The Engineering Enterprise designed a system of flexible, pivoting conduits to provide power for a 12-ft. by 18-ft. video screen that moves on a curving track along the building’s exterior, displaying images of the San Francisco skyline and events inside the center itself. Inside Moscone, a fallen giant California Redwood forms the center of a winding stairwell. Of course, a three-story tree trunk needs different lighting solutions from your average set of steps. Here, slots in the stair treads hide incandescent lamps that are adjustable and can be aimed at the trunk to produce different lighting effects. Besides the addition of art, convention facilities across the country are adding other touches that make their spaces more comfortable and natural. Chief among these is daylighting. It’s telling of the trend that, while the first two phases of the Moscone Center were built underground, this new addition not only rises above the street but is also studded with windows.

Ultimately, the current trends in the convention center sector are simply adaptations to the way people live and work in general. We expect to be able to take the convenience of the office and the comfort of our own homes with us everywhere we go. We expect everything—from cars to convention spaces—to be as flexible and changeable as our computer desktops. As recycling becomes as commonplace as taking out the garbage, we expect businesses to reflect the public concern for sustainability. And, as in any business, what the customer wants, the customer gets.

Oh, for LEED’s Sake!

Engineers say that, besides monetary savings, public opinion also makes green design attractive. By this theory, companies and organizations know they can improve public image by taking steps to protect and conserve resources. Holding their conventions in green and LEED-certified facilities shows the public that these groups really care about the environment, even outside their own office doors. “The centers that get booked and stay full now are the ones that are sustainable,” said Andy Frichtl, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.

Engineers also say that sustainable design can be a factor in the ongoing competition for big-name conventions. When planning began on the two-million-sq.-ft. Phoenix Convention Center renovation and addition, LEED certification was discussed but not pursued because of scheduling and economic conflicts. But then, with about 90% of the phase-one construction documents finished, the game plan changed. Lance Jones, executive vice president of LSW Engineers, Phoenix, the firm of record for the project’s phase one, says that a LEED Silver rating became a goal because it would allow the center to better compete for conventions.

However, not everyone believes that sustainable design is a business necessity. “It’s a design trend, not a meeting planners trend,” says Rick Schmidt of Conventional Wisdom, Ocoee, Fla., a convention center consulting company. Schmidt applauds the goals of green design, but questions whether it could make a difference in keeping centers’ calendars full. “There are maybe five meeting planners in the country that will pick a venue based on that,” he said. “It’s not in the top 10 for making a decision on a venue.”

Good Neighbor Policy

Convention centers are also making a move toward being real, active parts of their communities, rather than just a bunker within them. This trend brings another group of partners to work with, namely city planners and local utility companies.

Rick Schmidt of Conventional Wisdom pointed to the trend of urban-based convention centers providing retail spaces that animate the street around the center, even on days when there are no conventions.

Meanwhile, both the Moscone Center and the Phoenix Center are working with public utility companies to make use of their buildings’ large, flat roofs. Both centers feature photovoltaic arrays that are owned by the public utilities and generate energy that provides power to the grid, not just the centers themselves.

In fact, the array at the Moscone Center is capable of producing enough power for 550 homes annually. How’s that for being neighborly?