The art of designing sports, entertainment, structures: Electrical, power, and lighting

Entertainment venues are big businesses—and big on complexity, with a host of complex systems and requirements for engineers to tackle. Electrical engineers and lighting designers have many things to consider.

Share This Article


  • 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: Describe a recent electrical/power system challenge you encountered when working on such a project.

Hans: During the design of a recent $60 million high school football stadium, we had a challenge on how to serve utility company power throughout the stadium campus. The campus consisted of four separate buildings dedicated for the football stadium (press box/grandstand on either side, alumni center on south end zone, locker rooms on north end zone) and future plans for three separate structures (transportation center, natatorium, auditorium). The owner wanted to limit the amount of utility meters used to avoid having to pay multiple meter fees, demand charges, and utility bills.

We originally looked at the owner installing and owning their own primary distribution, but the owner didn't feel comfortable having to maintain this distribution. We then looked at a single primary meter and the utility company routing distribution throughout the campus, but the owner would have to give up too many easements for this scenario. We ended up scheduling a meeting with the utility company and helped the owner negotiate a contract with the utility to provide four meters to serve the entire campus, but only pay one meter charge and have all meters grouped together on a single bill with adjusted demand charges. One meter served all football-related facilities with secondary distribution routed to each facility, and separate meters served the transportation, auditorium, and natatorium facilities.

Christman: One challenge we consistently run into on entertainment and aquarium/zoo projects is the highly corrosive nature of the water used in rides and exhibits, and the effect this corrosion can have on neighboring equipment. This not only affects the engineering team, but also the material selected by architects and theming designers. A best practice we've implemented is to meet with the design team to establish corrosion zones where we can expect corrosive material, such as treated freshwater or saltwater, to be splashed or carried by guests. We coordinate with the design team to ensure all devices in these areas are specified with the appropriate materials, gasketing, etc. The corrosive zones are clearly identified in the documents so the contractors understand where corrosion-resistant materials are required.

Lancashire: With sports venues constantly competing with each other for the biggest and best of everything, we have designed the installation of several large scoreboards including the largest in MLB. The electrical/power challenge with this project was that the new scoreboard demanded its own server room that we had to integrate into the existing space.

CSE: How do you work with the architect, owner, and other project team members to make the electrical/power system both flexible and sustainable at the same time?

Christman: We recognize guests do not visit our client's venues for our engineered systems. We provide a necessity that, when done well, is not seen or heard. As such, we work hard to balance first costs and operating costs to ensure our clients are getting the best bang for their buck in our system selection. In this way, we help ensure the owner's money is being spent where it best enhances the guest experience. We provide in-house cost estimating for some of our projects. These estimates happen "live" as design progresses; they are part of progress deliverables. This process helps ensure projects are tracking on budget and minimizes costly redesign that occurs when contractor bids are out of line with the budget.

Hans: When selecting light fixtures for a facility, we start by discussing with the architect/interior designer the "why" of the building and the intended feel of the space. Their vision for each area of the building is discussed along with concepts for ceiling types and specialty or high-ceiling areas. Then we present options for fixtures in each area that are, first, energy-efficient and meet these goals. We typically start at 100 lumens/W and higher. This just helps to steer the design in the right direction, but there is always some give and take to meet the desire for "signature" areas to have more decorative fixtures, which are typically not very energy-efficient. In areas with a signature feature, the wattage per square foot may creep up, but in other areas, we place more focus on performing lighting calculations to drive down energy and also selecting the most efficient fixtures.

Often, combining efficiency and distribution performance specific to an area can lead to reduced fixture counts, a lower first cost, and higher energy efficiency. This triple bottom line of producing a better lighting design that meets the intended feel of the space yet reduces energy consumption and lowers first cost is often achieved.

Lancashire: Whenever we design a specialty structure, we work with the architect and owner to get an understanding of the different uses and events anticipated for the facility as well as what support infrastructure they'll need. We try to incorporate plug-and-play applications that provide the flexibility to move different components around depending on the event. Most new sports facilities are designed with different areas that create multipurpose rooms that can be used for functions other than just the main event. It's important that the MEP infrastructure is designed accordingly.

CSE: What types of smart grid or microgrid capabilities are owners demanding, and how have you served these needs? Are there any issues unique to these specialty projects?

Esarey: We are being tasked with implementing infrastructure for roof solar systems on specialty projects. The infrastructure must be put in place so that a solar system is able to connect to the power system of the structure.

CSE: Describe a recent standby, emergency, or backup power system you designed, and its challenges and solutions.

Lancashire: Sometimes, facility owners want more than just emergency exit lighting on the generator. They are hoping that they would be able to continue an event even if there is a power outage. The challenge has been to work with these owners to balance cost versus want, in terms of how feasible it is to keep a venue operating under any conditions.

Christman: In addition to typical life safety systems, such as egress lighting or smoke control, entertainment projects often have the need for other systems to be on emergency power. These include ride systems and show systems, or in the case of aquariums, the life support systems (LSS) required for animal habitats. It's important to maximize the flexibility of the standby emergency distribution system using an interface with the LSS-automation system or ride-control system. These controls can select from several different redundant devices (pumps, filters, etc.) to ensure a process is not interrupted, or in the case of a ride, to safely evacuate guests in the event of a power failure.

Esarey: A major trend in the industry is what we like to call the "superdome" emergency structure. This has been going on for roughly 5 years. Large facilities are being tasked with providing emergency shelter during times of crisis, and schools are looking to provide enduring structures to withstand storms. When designing these structures, this is something that needs to be taken into account. Improved ventilation and power must be able to accommodate capacity.

CSE: How have the needs of lights been integrated with other systems in specialty structures, such as the HVAC system?

Lancashire: In addition to the benefits of lower energy usage and longer life, we're now seeing LED lighting used as part of the fan experience. LED lighting is programmed to be used as part of the performance—to dim, strobe, and "dance." Although not typically part of the main venue, in back-of-house areas we have integrated the occupancy control of lighting into the HVAC system to control ventilation and variable air volume box activation.

CSE: Describe a lighting control or addressable lighting project you've completed in one of your specialty buildings.

Lancashire: We recently designed new lighting and controls for a Division 1 college football stadium. The challenge was that the university wanted to be able to hold concerts and other productions in the stadium and use the new lighting system as part of the productions. The new LED sports lighting fixtures were provided with a stand-alone dimming system for special events. Incorporating digital multiplex (DMX) theatrical-control dimming, the system is capable of controlling a minimum of 25 scenes and theatrical effects, such as blackout, chase, wave, and fade. Each driver is capable of being individually dimmed between 10% to 100% with instantaneous luminaire response.

Esarey: LED lighting has completely changed the way that we light specialty spaces.


View the original article and related content on Consulting Specifying Engineer