Immersive design is reshaping stadium construction in the Middle East

When it comes to constructing sports stadiums, the goal is to create a world-class immersive experience for spectators, experts tell Nick Ames

ISG is responsible for refurbishing the Zayed Sports City Stadium in the UAE.
ISG is responsible for refurbishing the Zayed Sports City Stadium in the UAE.

Spectators at sporting events want to be more than simply passive onlookers; they want to be immersed in the excitement of the occasion.

As a result, designing and constructing an arena for football, cycling, cricket, baseball, or athletics is one of the most complex, competitive, and lucrative challenges within the design-and-build industry. And the stakes are high: successful developments are showcased when major events are broadcast on screens around the world.

In order to deliver a world-class audience experience, the facilities delivered as part of a sporting arena are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Sustainability, environmental-friendliness, state-of-the-art technology, and cutting-edge sound and lighting equipment, are all among the prerequisites for this type of project today.

“Apart from general structural considerations, today’s reliance on technology is a key consideration in providing the in-game experience,” says Avinash Kumar, a partner at Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ), which has designed sports projects including the International Cricket Conference Academy in Dubai’s Sports City.

“Sports stadiums are no longer spaces where you simply sit and watch the game; they now need to provide a completely immersive experience, with mobile integrations and online streaming as standard, so the IT backbone has to be modern and robust.”

Modern stadiums have to be able to compete with television in terms of the experience they deliver, and this fact is driving developments in stadium construction, according to the senior design engineer for facilities at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Aurecon’s Kourosh Kayvani. In order to do this successfully, stadiums need to allow fans to share their experiences of events online. After all, he says, “What’s the point of bagging a world cup final ticket, if no one knows you’re there?”

He explains that some of the latest developments in stadium construction include high-tech information and communication technology infrastructures that can support strong and reliable WiFi coverage for fans, so that they can share live updates on social media: “There are also apps that require high-density WiFi, [such as those that] cater to spectators who want to watch the match simultaneously on their devices for commentary or different vantage points.

“In the future, [spectators may also] even use an app to order food and beverages to be delivered by GPS drones. These add to the terabytes needed during the few hours of the event. Outside of the stadium, the need to live-stream the event presents an opportunity for the [event] operator to create an enticing virtual experience for fans who are unable to attend in person.”

Aiming to cover all eventualities, Kayvani says that Aurecon begins its design process with stakeholders by envisioning all the details of the desired experience, considering the requirements of the fans, the operator, the athletes or performers, and how these can be supported by the business model.

“Designing and constructing a facility that can accommodate the ever-increasing hunger for WiFi is a must. Because of the size and complexity, it is more cost-effective to design flexibility into the stadium than to retrofit,” he says.

Construction services company ISG carried out the renovation of the stadium at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City. As the facility dates back almost 40 years, a number of its mechanical, electrical, and plumbing services were outdated and were no longer compliant with international or local standards, according to project manager, Aidan Berry. He outlines the challenges his team faced.

“For this particular project, the key challenge was keeping the stadium live throughout the duration of the refurbishment – approximately 30 weeks – as the stadium hosted live events during this period,” Berry says.

“Ensuring the existing tenants in the office spaces within the stadium remained operational, with no interruption to their business operations, [also] posed several challenges, from logistics and operational perspectives, especially with the upgrade of the electrical substations and air-handling units. This meant planning and scheduling shutdowns, while keeping the building fully operational.”

The traditional model of a sports stadium that is used once a week, at most – as is the case with many football grounds around the world – is an outdated concept. Multi-use facilities are now the order of the day, as they offer improved financial viability and can also benefit local communities in the surrounding area.

Aurecon’s Kayavani, who was the lead designer on the roof and trademark arch of London’s Wembley Stadium, one of the most famous arenas in the world, explains that maximising usage is a key consideration.

“Stadiums can be expensive facilities to build and operate,” he says. “They can be the subject of much controversy, as they are sometimes viewed as ‘white elephants’ and can be perceived as being only useful to a very limited section of the community, and […] as not being in step with the demands of a sophisticated and digitally savvy public.”

In recent years, Aurecon has worked with designers, governments, and operators to ensure stadiums are able to offer value and are future-proof. Kayavani says: “Flexibility and adaptability are as important as multi-usage. Stadiums take years to design and construct, and that is not even counting the time [needed] to secure funding. Flexibility must be designed into the stadium.”

He continues: “Aurecon’s [approach is to create] a transformable stadium, one that can change quickly to accommodate different needs. Just imagine a stadium that can accommodate 45,000 for a football match today and 3,000 for a rock concert next week, without compromising on the experience in terms of audio, lighting, or comfort.

“Or [imagine] a stadium that can play a community role during low seasons and perhaps even become a destination in itself for non-sporting activities. There is no limit to engineering ingenuity, but the project must start with a sound business model.”

Countries preparing for major sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics, must design assets that are economically sustainable even after the big event. Kayavani emphasises the importance of legacy planning.

“Fortunately, today we can utilise virtual reality and augmented reality tools to help all the stakeholders – the owner, operator, architects, engineers, regulatory authorities, and contractors – to visualise the asset and walk through the various design options for the stadium’s entire lifecycle. This saves time and money,” he says.

Dubai-based P&T Architects and Engineers counts among its projects  the Hong Kong Velodrome, which can accommodate international cycling events but is also open to the local community. The company’s urban designer, Mahmoud Shahin, says: “A community sports facility that also houses international sport can only be achieved if the design targets world-class events and, during the off periods, can be used to support communities’ sport needs.”

GAJ’s Kumar points out that top-class and amateur athletes can be accommodated within one carefully thought-out space. “Community sports facilities and world-class sporting arenas should, and do, co-exist perfectly, sharing common areas and services seamlessly. Where once large-scale sporting facilities were used only for the purpose for which they were designed, today they are regularly repurposed for large events such as concerts or shows. Not only does this provide multiple revenue streams, it also opens up more possibilities to host events of all sizes,” he says.

“Some football clubs use retractable turf, which allows for both football and American football to be played within the same venue, while the back-of-house and guest experiences are designed in such a way as to allow spectators to enjoy the space before and after the games. Modern stadiums have to be designed to improve the customer experience, not only for sporting purposes, but overall.”

Spectators are becoming increasingly demanding when it comes to the experience they expect when attending an event, adds Kayvani. “From the moment a patron walks in to a stadium, they expect to see and hear all the action and to enjoy it in a comfortable environment. Engineering that experience is a multi-faceted challenge and one that expands with […] the influence of new technologies.”

He adds: “Not getting lighting and audio design right is a very expensive problem to fix post-construction.”

Synchronising audio and visual in a large arena requires careful design, modelling, and testing, as Kayvani explains. “With up to 75% of the cost of a stadium attributed to the structure, the cost of it is strongly affected by roof geometry. Failing to integrate roof height with lighting and audio design could require the design and construction of a lighting support system separate from the roof structure, which is not only costly, but also detracts from the structural aesthetic.”

Kayvani uses his experience of designing Wembley Stadium to further emphasise his point: “Aurecon designed the roof of Wembley Stadium [so] that it partially retracts over the seats, to allow daylight to reach all points of the pitch, assisting the longevity of the natural grass and providing a shadow-free playing field.

“The retractable roof is formed by seven separate panels that move in a parallel motion to the south. They open and stack on top of one another when in a fully open position. With the retracting roof panels all moving to the south, the roof design [offered] the opportunity to have a tall, efficient structure on the north side to support the north and south roofs without interfering with the moving panels.”

He adds: “Having an arch that spans the entire width of the stadium’s seating bowl has proven to be both elegant, from an architectural point of view, as well as efficient as a structural solution.”

In stadium design and construction, lighting is an important factor, as the spectacle of a floodlit match is, for many fans, far more dramatic that one under natural light.

As GAJ’s Kumar explains, while in the past metal halides were used to illuminate the field, now LEDs are replacing these in a bid to improve energy efficiency and sustainability: “As with any construction project today, we have to consider sustainability and the energy-efficiency of the building.

“Many more new-build stadiums are incorporating solar power systems and wind turbines to offset power usage from the main grid,” he explains.

“Retractable roofs are also helping to reduce the demand for indoor lighting and air-conditioning, folding back to provide access to both fresh air and natural light whenever possible. And, since stadiums generally have a large roof and façade area available, the integration of photovoltaic (PV) cell technology is fast becoming a feasible option,” he adds.

According to Aurecon’s Kayvani, the increasing demand for sustainability presents a design opportunity for construction professionals. “Stadiums are used sporadically, experiencing peak demand for a few hours on an event day and then no usage for a number of days. Because they have very large roofs, the opportunity exists to load them with roof-mounted PV cells to generate power throughout the week.

“With average sunlight in the Middle East being about 3,600 hours per year, there are excellent opportunities to offset carbon emissions.”

He concludes: “Stadiums are […] long-term assets. Finding sustainable and cost-conscious ways to optimise their utilisation during peak and low use periods is vital to realising their economic benefits.”

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