Buildings are conceived for specific purposes, and designers work to maximize the user experience, facility flexibility and building efficiency to meet each building's purpose.
By Pete Manis, PE, SE
Buildings are conceived for specific purposes — hangars house aircraft, factories manufacture widgets and stadiums host events — and each is tailored to address the needs of its specific purpose. But a result of purpose-centric buildings is their inability to adapt or be adaptable for use changes or future needs. Sometimes this is due to laws of nature (gravity, physical geometry, etc.), while other times it is a result of outdated technology or the lack of implementing new technology. The inability to adapt affects people differently — facility owners may be affected while end users might not.
If a purpose-centric building is used for something other than its intended purpose, some aspect of its function is lost — an aircraft won't fit into a factory, a stadium lacks efficiency/flexibility to produce widgets and large crowds would have a poor experience in a hangar.
Convention centers, which host events ranging from model train exhibits to lavish weddings to mining equipment trade shows, aim to bring together efficiency, flexibility and a unique experience. Because of their flexibility, convention centers might host different events all within the same week or even at the same time, so it must be able to closely mimic any purpose-centric building.
A unique experience begins with the initial impression of a facility. A glass façade (Figure 1) might entice visitors with visible objects through the glass, such as suspended banners or mood lighting within the concourse area, giving visitors a glimpse of what awaits them inside. Another approach is emphasizing, rather than concealing, structural components. Exposed 3-D space trusses, cable-stayed roofs and/or long roof overhangs are common themes that allow maximum use of interior exhibition space. Creative lighting, color schemes, sculptures or other artwork add to the experience and can be updated easily.
Inside, visitors are treated to a host of different sights and sounds — some purely functional, others based in form. Interactive touch displays might direct visitors to a particular area while circular escalators (Figure 2) or glazed elevators help them move within the building. Complementing these features with high-quality finishes, such as stone, wood, leather or glass, provides an upscale appearance that requires minimal maintenance and provides maximum durability.
While visitors' impressions are paramount, a successful convention center must have flexible infrastructure to support an event. Generally speaking, a convention center will have distinct front and back infrastructure to service the visitors and the facility operators, respectively. Other requisite front infrastructure includes sufficient restrooms, ticketing kiosks and concession areas. Separation of the front of house from the back of house areas is necessary for safety and security. As a result, dedicated truck routes, ample docks and large doors directly into the main exhibition halls are necessary to allow exhibitors, staff and other personnel to transport stages, lighting, banners, tables, chairs and equipment efficiently.
Certain events require some amount of intimacy in order to be successful. Segmenting a large exhibition hall using movable partitions provides the right size venue for any occasion and allows the operators to use the facility for multiple events at the same time. Movable partitions that fold vertically, rather than horizontally, take up less precious floor space and can have acoustical ratings to reduce noise transmission.
Once the venue size has been determined, hours of setup (and the eventual tear-down) will be needed, although certain design features help minimize this process. Rather than erecting audio/visual or banner rigging that takes manpower, time and space, an emerging trend is to include an automated mobile rigging grid (MRG) (Figure 3). The MRG is computer-controlled from a command center (or via radio) and includes all infrastructure connections necessary (power and communications) to support decorations or displays. The MRG lowers at the touch of a button so setup can be performed safely on the ground instead of on lifts in the air. With proper interdisciplinary coordination, the MRG can be designed to conceal within the exhibition hall roof structure when not in use.
Another aide in setup and tear down is passive radio frequency identification (RFID) (Figure 4) for tracking equipment. This technology is used in hospitals, warehouses and even sporting events such as marathons, but is constantly being applied in other innovative ways. Equipment is tagged such that a sensor positioned near the room entry can track which rooms contain which pieces of equipment (and the quantity of each). This feature comes in handy for knowing how many chairs are already set up in a conference room and where additional chairs are stored.
What good is a facility if it costs a small fortune to operate? Building efficiency takes on many forms and affects many aspects of design. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is an excellent roadmap for engineers and architects, allowing them to weigh the benefits of different sustainable concepts as they develop designs. Skylights or large glazed areas can both accentuate architectural features and effectively provide light without the need for power consumption during daytime hours. Natural lighting also provides a connection to the outside world and improves the overall appeal of the interior space. LED high-bay fixtures, which require less power than traditional high-bay lighting, are a new trend to supplement
Since convention centers require vast amounts of interior floor space, reflective or "cool" roofing systems reduce the heat island effect. The large roofs also provide plenty of unobstructed area to install photovoltaic systems, which can generate power for the convention center. Excess power can be sent back to the electrical grid (if the grid supports it) or charge batteries within the facility to provide backup power.
From a heating and cooling standpoint, efficiencies can be realized by using stratification to condition the lower portion of the occupied zone, rather than the entire volume of the convention center. To keep the equipment operating at optimal efficiency, UV sterilization lights can keep the coils free of microbial and fungal growth (which reduces fan energy requirements) while providing cleaner air for the facility.
Designing for building efficiency might also include a graywater system to conserve water. Graywater — wastewater collected from dishwashing, laundry activities, condensate and lavatory effluent — can be collected, stored, treated and reused on site as a non-potable water supply (Figure 5). A graywater system can provide multiple LEED credits by reducing wastewater outflows and potable water demand.
The true challenge for comprehensive design is to continue developing emerging trends and implement them. A team of specialists that understands these trends can successfully coordinate and integrate them. Additionally, emerging trends require innovative tools for efficient implementation. Integrated design, as well as building information modeling, will be necessary to successfully implement these trends during design. As more facilities are designed with these concepts in mind, new solutions will come about to redefine the next level of efficiency, flexibility and user-experience for the future.
About the Author
Pete Manis, PE, SE, is a senior structural engineer in the Burns & McDonnell Aviation & Facilities Group. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.