It’s time to make MLB stadiums safer

Late this summer, an Atlanta Braves fan fell 40 feet to his death at Turner Field, after falling over the upper deck railing above home plate. This is not the first incident of someone being killed or seriously hurt at a major league ballpark in recent years – or even this season. But it needs to be the last.

As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, a father to four kids who also love baseball, and someone who has worked in the sports construction and design industry for more than 25 years, it is becoming more and more apparent that we simply cannot wait until more fans die to change the stadium guidelines. Currently, there are no official stadium design guidelines adopted by Major League Baseball. Design standards have historically evolved over time within the league, typically with the latest and greatest stadium setting the new standards. The time is now to implement new, official policies that will both preserve the integrity of the game and make the experience safer for everyone. Here are three first steps that I think can be taken to achieve this:

Rethink railing codes

The International Building Code regulation for front-row railing height in front of fixed seating is only 26 inches, a standard that was put into place in 1929 (though some stadiums install railings above the minimum height). While 26 inches may seem safe while sitting, once a fan stands up and walks in front of other fans on the way to the aisle, he or she has to be very careful as the rail is lower than one’s center of gravity – even the slightest bump could lead to going over the rail. As the Atlanta incident showed, a railing of that height makes it all too possible to fall over. On the other hand, all railings in front of aisle steps require a 42-inch railing. If a person is walking down the stadium steps and trips or loses his or her balance, the railing is above the average person’s center of gravity, and thus the railing can safely break the fall.

To further make my case, when Skanska is building a stadium, we use 42-inch railings where there is a fall hazard during construction in any seating deck overhang to protect our crews. These safer construction railings are eventually replaced by the shorter 26-inch front row railings, which meet IBC standards and preferred sight lines. Shouldn’t the millions of fans receive the same level of protection as our construction crews?

Some people fear increasing the railing height will impact game views if traditional pipe rails are used. However, structural glass railings can be installed and still preserve the game-watching experience and prevent falls. Glass railing technology has improved greatly in recent years and is often used in premium seating areas, so why not use them in general seating areas as well? Isn’t the added expense worth the cost to ensure fan safety? The evidence is clear: Major League Baseball should require the front rows of cantilevered seating decks to have a 42-inch railing.

Regulate minimum backstop netting height

Baseball Backstop Net

Surprisingly, there is no prescribed height for backstop netting. The only rule is that it must be installed. Without a determined height, nearby fans are not necessarily protected from balls in action. The nets used to extend to the press box at an angle, so foul balls would roll back down to the field. However, when the 1994-1995 MLB strike occurred, ending the season early over players’ salaries, stadiums removed this netting the following season to draw fans back into the stands with the hopes that they could catch foul ball pop-ups. Catching a foul ball is part of the game experience, but when line drives go into the stands, it’s a different, dangerous story. The height of the net is generally determined by the height of the home plate camera, but fan safety should prevail over television broadcasts.

At the very least, MLB needs to come forward and determine a minimum netting height, somewhere in the 25- to 30-foot high range to protect spectators and employees who are navigating the aisles and tending to fans.

Increase the backstop netting distance down each foul ball line

The rules of baseball do not specify how long backstop netting should extend. Over time, this length has varied with each new stadium. Eventually, a general guideline was accepted: the edges of the backstop netting should align with the foul ball lines, meaning that currently there is only netting behind the home plate in most stadiums. To protect fans, it should be extended down the first and third base lines.

For example, some recent stadium designs have located premium seating between the edge of the netting and the home plate end of the dugouts, meaning these fans are both close to the field and not protected by netting. Dugout configurations vary in each stadium, but they are always located between home plate and first and third bases, beyond where most backstops end. These seats are great for watching the game, but it’s important to ensure these fans are out of harm’s way from foul balls, since the protective netting often does not extend to this point.

Another group of fans that are at risk are those in the front rows. The first row of seats in some ballparks is between 52 and 60 feet from home plate. This is even closer than the pitcher, who is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. In 2013, the average MLB pitch reached 92 mph, which gives people not even half a second to react. And with a baseball often reaching over 120 mph when leaving the bat, this gives spectators less time to move out of the way. Add to this fact that fans are often distracted as they socialize or eat, and aren’t always paying as close attention as they should be to the pop-ups and foul balls that fly over the backstop net. It is quite telling when most MLB players won’t even allow their families to sit outside of the netting for fear of a ball hitting them.

It is time to establish a new requirement for backstop nettings, one that is consistent in all ballparks. Backstop netting should be extended down each foul line until they align with first and third base. Limited backstop netting, wicked line drive foul balls and an occasional flying broken bat and distracted fans add up to a recipe for disaster.

As the great American pastime, baseball is among the last affordable family entertainment, especially as ticket prices in other sports rapidly increase. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to protect the fans – they want to get close to the action, and hear the players and the crack of the bat. But families won’t take their kids to a game if they feel their families are not safe. It took the 2002 death of 13-year-old girl from a puck that flew over safety glass for the National Hockey League to update its netting regulations. Today, this netting has become accepted as just another part of the game. We cannot wait for a similar incident to happen in a MLB stadium. Action must be taken before another innocent life is taken for the love of the game.

Tom Tingle

Tom Tingle

Skanska USA senior vice president and national director, Sports and Entertainment Center of Excellence

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4 ways convention centers are revamping for the 21st century

In today’s hyper-connected digital world, workers spend their days communicating with their peers via email, text and instant messaging, phone and video chat. And yet, as productive as many of these digital connections are, the need for personal face-to-face interactions remains incredibly strong. There are a staggering 1.8 million conventions, conferences, congresses, trade shows and exhibitions, incentive events and corporate meetings a year in the U.S., totaling more than 225 million participants, according to the Convention Industry Council. Conventions are even essential in the tech industry, with Google and Microsoft holding some of the biggest events – both Google I/O and Microsoft Ignite just finished up in May.

To accommodate this demand for meetings in today’s revived economy and a growing need for venues with widely accessible technology, convention centers across the U.S. are expanding and renovating in order to attract more events and be better hosts. The amount of work projected is higher than it has been in five years. Todays’ convention centers require more flexible spaces, the ability to blend virtual and in-person events, and meaningful sustainability. Here is why:

Flexibility: No event is the same, and convention centers are renovating to ensure they can adapt to different types and sizes of meetings. Gardens, outdoor spaces and small theaters are all in demand, along with spaces that can accommodate anything from an intimate group session to a thousand-strong keynote. Consider an event such as Austin’s SXSW, one of the biggest conventions in the world, which hosts everything from panels, to concerts, to movie screenings and huge parties – no cookie cutter presentation spaces there. What’s more, as events look to bridge the gap between the physical and digital world, spaces need to be flexible enough to accommodate new technology, and there’s increasing demand for spaces that can be used as production studios for video. There is also more demand for highly flexible, unadorned hospitality spaces that can be customized to fit the needs of each event. The Austin Convention Center is looking toward a major expansion of their facility and this type of space is one that they will include. Event producers indicate they want high levels of flexibility and multi-function capability.

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Here’s an example of flexible space in a convention center – combining presentations with company displays at Greenbuild.

Building these kinds of spaces – along with long-span ballrooms – requires specialized construction expertise. For example, at our new Raleigh Convention Center project, the exhibit hall, loading dock and services expanded below three adjacent city streets. The building required the construction of three bridges, the excavation of more than 365,000 cubic yards of dirt and the installation of three types of foundation wall systems.

Technology: As with stadium expansions and renovations, convention centers are seamlessly integrating technology. To be ready for everything from live-streaming videos, social media-enhanced presentations, the need for faultless wireless internet and even making sure there are enough charging stations for computers and phones, convention centers are upgrading quickly for today’s increased mobility. This means building advanced infrastructure for Wi-Fi and upgrading distributed antenna systems (DAS) – not easy tasks. Today’s convention goer expects connectivity everywhere. Once thought of as a revenue stream for convention centers, free internet connectivity is an expectation of meeting planners. And while once you could just focus on making sure your exhibition halls were enabled with wireless connectivity, today connectivity is also required for restaurants, outdoor spaces and other social gathering spaces and public plazas. Technology is the most important new growth area for convention centers according to 42 percent of event producers, based on a report from Red 7 Media Research and Consulting.

Here’s an example of the importance of being ready for technology: the Raleigh Convention Center recently hosted 2,500 members of the North Carolina Technology in Education Society at a recent conference. As people today tend to carry more than one wireless device with them, they brought with them more than 3,200 wireless devices – and a tremendous demand for bandwidth! During an event in the ballroom, a speaker asked all 500 attendees to test a certain web platform simultaneously. Their demand crashed the platform’s web server on the other end, but the convention center’s wireless infrastructure was able to support the load. These kinds of experiences are increasingly the norm, so convention centers must be built and refurbished with connectivity front of mind.

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The Raleigh Convention Center was designed and built with wireless infrastructure to support tech-heavy events.

Activity hubs: Much as airports have sought to bring in upscale and local vendors to upgrade the travel experience in the terminal, convention centers are looking to make their facilities stand apart by offering superior and unique amenities. Today’s convention centers are all looking to do more peripheral development – including retail, hotels and supportive infrastructure – within their footprint to capture more revenue.  Red 7 also notes that 54 percent of convention centers have added new revenue streams in 2013. Facilities such as the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center have established concessionaire agreements with such vendors as Starbucks, UPS and even spas and other amenities. With Convention Planners booking shorter events, facilities are seeking to maximize the time attendees stay in the building by increasing services. And 60 percent of event producers are supporting that effort by saying they want everything under one roof.

Sustainability:  Convention centers are increasingly looking to increase their level of sustainability, for the environmental benefits as well as for reducing operating costs. A few centers are leading the way. For example, the Vancouver Convention Centre boasts a six-acre living roof with thousands of indigenous plants and rainwater recovery for irrigation; seawater heating and cooling; and a fish habitat built into the building foundations. The Pittsburgh Convention Center has achieved LEED Platinum certification.

But increasingly, sustainability stretches well beyond construction. Green operations of these facilities are becoming the norm through the use of environmentally friendly cleaning products and practices. Recycling has expanded to include compostable containers and dinnerware, as well as concession food donations to the needy at the end of every day. Look for more and more convention centers choosing to adapt green features – from living roofs and food composting to LED lighting and highly efficient HVAC systems – over the next few years.

In a world where we increasingly rely on mobile and internet connections, face-to-face meetings are therefore even more significant. Convention centers need to adapt to the technological needs of their audience, while also creating environments that enhance the real-life experiences that cannot be captured online.

Tom Tingle

Tom Tingle

Skanska USA senior vice president and national director, Sports and Entertainment Center of Excellence

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WELL Building: The next step in green sports construction

The WELL Building Standard is a new protocol that focuses on human wellness within the built environment. Administered by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), it identifies specific conditions that when holistically integrated into building architecture and design, enhance the health and well-being of the occupants.  This first of its kind, protocol was developed by Delos in partnership with scientists, architects and thought leaders, and prescribes a series of technology enhancements and performance-based measures that are systemized across seven categories relevant to occupant health in the built environment – Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort and Mind.

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WELL Building has been designed to complement green building standards and sit on top of existing platforms. Currently in pilot, the IWBI has partnered with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), to ensure that WELL Certification compliments and works seamlessly with LEED Certification. For example, air quality and lighting intersect both green and wellness, about 10 to 20 percent of WELL and LEED standards overlap as a result of this natural connection.

While we believe the WELL Building Standard should be considered for every building, we see a unique opportunity for them to be integrated into sports and recreation facilities, inspiring an operator to think holistically about how their facility interacts not only with the natural environment, but also with the athletes, sports fans and staff who will call their building home. In sports terms: it’s a win-win.

For owners the WELL Building Standard offers a twofold opportunity to deliver a competitive venue for their athletes — a facility that is optimized for their performance while also offering event attendees a healthier environment and a connection to well-being and athleticism.

For example, the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas implemented the Stay Well program for hospitality, an overlay program informed by the same evidence-based research as the WELL Building Standard. The MGM Grand saw such a strong return on their initial investment in implementing Stay Well rooms on their fourteenth floor- including high occupancy rates and a 25 percent increase in profitability – that they have quadrupled the number of Stay Well rooms and plan to expand to additional spaces.

Sports play an important role in American culture. We celebrate athleticism as a testament to the power of the human body. Stadiums, arenas and recreation centers are important gathering points for our communities, places where we come together to celebrate physical achievement. As such, these venues represent more than just spaces for sport. The buildings themselves speak loudly about who we are and what we believe in.

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At NRG Stadium in Houston, mechanical and electrical systems are managed via smartphone, increasing energy efficiency.

As an industry, we’ve taken major strides implementing green building techniques in sports and entertainment construction. At first, the industry focused on greening the building enclosure, by reducing energy consumption and implementing resource management. Then, sustainability spread to mechanical, and electrical building systems that use Computer Maintenance Management  Systems to increase efficiency, improve occupant comfort, and can be managed remotely via smart phone technology similar to NRG Stadium in Houston. Another great example of this approach to green building can be seen at the LEED Gold certified Portland State University Academic & Student Recreation Center, where students help power the rec center’s electrical system, through a voltage converter attached to exercise machines  that delivers electricity back to the building.

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Portland State University Academic & Student Recreation Center earned LEED Gold certification through the use of natural lighting and ventilation in key areas as well as quality materials, proven systems, and other cutting edge environmental construction techniques.

Today, sports facilities are increasingly working to green the daily operations of their venues: from implementing more efficient waste management processes – like Gillette Stadium’s waste water treatment plant, to recycling and food service composting and using earth-friendly cleaning products. At MetLife Stadium, all waste kitchen oil is converted to biodiesel fuel; all kitchen scraps are composted, and all cardboard, plastic, glass, aluminum and paper is recycled. The push to green sports facilities has extended to event operations themselves – this year’s Super Bowl at MetLife was the greenest on record, diverting more waste, conserving more water and saving more energy than any previous event.

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MetLife Stadium, home to 2014’s Super Bowl, is one of the greenest sports venues in the U.S.

So, while we continue to push ourselves to find the best ways to build venues that reduce our impact on the earth and its resources, what can we do to make sure these buildings are contributing to the physical well-being of the people within them?

WELL Building is the future of green sports construction – an opportunity for building owners and operators to consider not only the environmental impacts of their facilities but the ways they impact athletes and fans alike.

To learn more about the WELL Building Standard and their impact on occupant health, visit the International Well Building Institute.

This post was written by Tom Tingle, Skanska USA senior vice president and national director, Sports Center of Excellence and Beth Heider, Skanska USA chief sustainability officer.

Tom Tingle

Tom Tingle

Skanska USA senior vice president and national director, Sports and Entertainment Center of Excellence

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