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.


Steve Brown, Certified Automation Professional Vice President and Operations Director, Energy & Automation Teams, Environmental Systems Design. Courtesy: ESDDaniel P. Christman, PE, LEED AP Vice President/Entertainment Market Sector Leader exp. Courtesy: expKeith Esarey, PE, LEED AP, Principal, McClure Engineering. Courtesy: McClure EngineeringTony Hans, PE, RCDD, LEED AP, Vice President, CMTA. Courtesy: CMTAMike Hart, PE, LEED AP, Principal, CEO, ME Engineers. Courtesy: ME EngineersDoug Lancashire, PE, LEED AP, CEM, CGBE, Vice President, Director of Energy/Facility Systems, Osborn Engineering. Courtesy: Osborn EngineeringChris Skoug, PE, CEM, Principal Engineer, Southland Engineering. Courtesy: Southland Engineering


  • 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.

A team from Southland Engineering facilitated a contractor-and-engineering alignment to ensure collaboration on an NFL stadium in the southeastern United States. Staff 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 (CFD) modeling; equipment selection; target value design options for mechanical and plumbing systems; specification alignment; and building automation controls design. Shown are bowl duct CFD analyses. Courtesy: Southland EngineeringSkoug: 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.

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