Designing a winning sports venue: Codes and standards

Sports and entertainment arenas are more than just seats and a playing field; they are highly complex structures bringing in thousands of fans—and millions of dollars—every year. Engineers must keep up with relevant building codes and standards.


Jerry Atienza, EIT Douglas H. Evans, PE, FSFPETodd Mack, PEJeff Sawarynski, PE, LEED AP

  • Jerry Atienza, EIT, Senior plumbing designer, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.
  • Douglas H. Evans, PE, FSFPE, Fire protection engineer, Clark County Dept. of, Development Services, Building Division, Las Vegas
  • Todd Mack, PE, Principal, DLR Group, Omaha, Neb.
  • Jeff Sawarynski, PE, LEED AP, Principal, M-E Engineers Inc., Denver, Colo.

CSE: What codes, standards, or guidelines do you use as a guide as you work on these facilities?

Atienza: Those codes include NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems; NFPA 14: Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems; NFPA 20: Stationary Fire Pumps Handbook; NFPA 24: Standard for the Installation of Private Fire Service Mains and Their Appurtenances; NFPA 30: Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code; and NFPA 102: Standard for Grandstands, Folding and Telescopic Seating, Tents, and Membrane Structures.

Evans: The jurisdictions in southern Nevada adopt many of the International Codes (building and fire) along with the Uniform Plumbing and Mechanical Codes, as well as the National Electrical Code. These codes adopt by reference numerous standards. We also use other codes and standards as needed for guidance when the adopted codes and standards do not cover the area(s) affecting the specific application.

CSE: Have Energy Star, ASHRAE, U.S. Green Building Council, etc. affected your work on sports/entertainment arenas? What are some positive/negative aspects of these guides?

Sawarynski: Related to energy consumption, they certainly have affected our work. These codes have not necessarily changed the way we, as MEP engineers, design our systems as we’ve always been concerned with designing efficient systems for owners. However, they have shed light on the challenges we always deal with. Entire project teams are beginning to understand how building architecture, proper budgeting for quality lighting design/installation, and efficient HVAC systems really should be part of the discussion, not just lowest first-cost.

CSE: Which code/standard proves to be most challenging in such facilities?

Sawarynski: Years ago I would have said ASHRAE Standard 90.1 and U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program because neither was easy to adapt to sporting/event venues. However, we’ve seen that change, and having designed most of the LEED certified venues in the country, I think we’re past that now. Nowadays I would say the most challenging are the life safety codes. Usually, when you are designing a new, major facility in a given city, it’s the first of its kind for that city’s building officials. Each building department has its own approach to enforcing life safety codes and local amendments. Rarely, if ever, are these cods and amendments written to apply to this building type.

CSE: Do you find codes affecting sports/entertainment structures to be more or less taxing than those impacting work on other building types?

Evans: These venues are definitely more challenging than many other structures. This is primarily due to the substantial occupant loads, but is also affected by the large volume and high-bay spaces that are designed to accommodate multiple uses. These types of uses and structures are quite common in southern Nevada.

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