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Rethink: how stadium design is evolving for post-Covid events

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Pamela Buxton

When spectators are finally able to attend live sports events again, they’ll encounter a rather different experience – and maybe, in some ways, a better one. Pamela Buxton introduces four sports venue specialists to outline the short and long term effects on design

When football matches resumed at the end of last season without spectators, remote viewers had the choice of canned crowd effects, which never get close to matching the spirit of the action, or an eerie quiet punctuated by the swearing of players and coaches. Neither option, it was abundantly clear, was any kind of substitute for the real thing, either for watchers or participants.

As the new season gets under way, the question of how to get spectators safely back into football grounds – and those of other sports – is a pertinent one. It had been hoped this could happen at some elite sports venues in October, but that aspiration has now been kicked into the long grass amid attempts to tackle the second wave of the pandemic.

In preparation, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) had last month issued new guidance, SG02 Planning for Social Distancing at Sports Grounds, a supplement to the Guide to Safety at Sport Grounds (known as the ‘Green Guide’).  Along with the SGSA’s new policy guidance Sport with spectators: COVID-19 Regulatory Controls, these documents are aimed at helping venues achieve the government’s Stage Five guidance on getting spectators back into live sports events while conforming to social distancing requirements. This draft guidance will be finalised in the light of lessons learned from test events for football, snooker, racing and cricket.

Requirements for venue operators include everything from getting spectators to the ground safely to ensuring socially distanced circulation and seating within the venue, as well as appropriate hygiene measures. This presents a considerable task for operators, who will have to accept vastly reduced capacities.

‘Yes, it will be painful. But it’s better than having no one in. It’s a very important first step,’ says Ken Scott, head of the SGSA inspectorate, adding that the role of stadium design consultants will be very important in order to ‘give good strong knowledge’ to operators.

Spectator capacity will be limited not only by the numbers that can be safely seated with social distancing, but by capacity in the concourse and the flows at entry and exit. The guidance sets out two methods of social distancing calculation, one based on the distance from the centre of the head to the next centre of the head, and another more generous one from shoulder to shoulder.

In the short term, Scott expects some operators to consider clearing their concourses to assist capacity by relocating food and beverage facilities outside the venue, and to increase the number of toilet facilities to cut down queuing. He expects the pandemic to leave a lasting mark on stadium design, with a move towards smaller venues with more luxurious, better connected spectator facilities ‘so that the Millennial generation will have what they need to get out from behind their computers and to a live event’.

Below, sports design experts discuss the implications of getting spectators back into stadia at reduced capacities. Both Populous and Pattern Design have been developing ways of calculating socially distanced stadium capacity as their clients come to terms with the ‘new normal’ of reduced crowds. Longer term, AFL Architects’ John Roberts anticipates a move towards a more premium stadium experience with generous circulation spaces and greater use of contactless technology.

Stadia are only part of the story. The other challenge is venues for participatory sport such as leisure centres. After all as FaulknerBrown’s Mike Hall points out, we need to be fit to fight Covid-19, yet many older sports buildings are struggling to reopen.

For both stadia and sports centres, the Covid-19 legacy may result in more generous space and an improved customer experience. Although they’re off the table for now, limited capacity sports events are likely in the future. But it will take the magic bullet of a vaccine before venues can operate at anything like their previous capacity – real crowd atmosphere and all.

Here is what our four experts have to say.

Christopher Lee, managing director of Populous (EMEA)

Covid-19 will have both a short and a long term impact on the design of sports venues.

Very early on in the pandemic, we realised we had unique expertise that could help clients navigate the turmoil. We set up a global taskforce of 35 architects and designers to develop strategic approaches, bringing in experts in sanitation, crowd movement and other specialisms. Clients and non-clients have been participating and we’ve had a dozen or so meetings to share best practice and help venue owners prepare for crowds returning to venues.

The post-Covid-19 operational overlay starts outside. Venues first need to plan how they can get crowds into a stadium safely through the use of timed ticketing. Health screening, hand washing and PPE will also need to be addressed before entry.  Some venues in Asia are opting for disinfecting arches. A lot of clients around the world are insisting that customers wear masks and I think that will be the case in the UK too, at least in indoor areas and concourses.

Inside, the challenge is to make as much of the circulation process as safe and contactless as possible. Venue operators, understandably, will want to get as many people as they can inside while respecting social distancing rules (2m in the UK). We’ve written a script to enable venues to quickly work through iterations of seating in response to bubbles of spectators and any changes to distancing rules.

Circulation will have to be reconfigured: very few vomitories are wide enough to allow safe two-way traffic to the seating so operators will need to set up a one-way system. Managing the concourse space to safely serve food and drink and get to the rest rooms is probably even more complex. Luckily a lot of venues already have touchless technology – taps are one example.

An enormous amount of work is being done to repurpose existing technology – including robot cleaners and bartenders – and we’re helping clients assess what could be relevant and useful to them when they reopen. There’s also the potential for wearable tech that could help people maintain social distancing at sporting events.

We’ve already trialled live-event arrangements at two rugby venues – in Sydney and New Zealand. I anticipate that when spectators are allowed to return, we’ll see Premier League clubs at about 20-30% capacity. Venues will need additional guidance on how to open up safely; an addendum to the Green Guide on this is being drafted.

I think the pandemic will have a longer-term impact on the design of sports venues. We’ll see a couple of trends that were already happening accelerate. The first is the integration of remote and live audiences through some sort of VR. There’s huge scope for this. At Old Trafford, for example, Manchester United may have a million people or so coming through the stadium each year but they have 650m fans around the world.

The bigger legacy may well be a focus on health and wellness and, by default, sustainability. Lots of clients are becoming more interested in things like natural ventilation and sanitisation, which is very positive. As consumers we will need to feel safe and secure when we go to events following the pandemic, so these things will be more closely considered. In the US, we’re involved in developing a new hygiene standard for venues. The amount of space around a sports building may have to be more generous to get people inside safely. I think venues will need to be more generous inside too.

We’ll be in for an interesting time when football grounds reopen – they’ll need to get the operational planning right. Full stadia just can’t happen with social distancing in place and that’s set to be very much part of our lives until a vaccine is tested and working. Until then, the new normal will be less dense crowds.

John Roberts, director, AFL Architects

AFL has been advising a number of sports venues and a major governing sports body on how to handle the short-term design issues caused by Covid-19.

Whether it be cricket, football, rugby or any other sport, the big problem is that quite apart from the lack of atmosphere during events, clients are facing drastic cuts in income. There is still the cost of operating the stadium even without spectators, and the cost of the additional safety precautions, which is particularly difficult for those in the lower divisions. You could argue that for those in the Premier League the loss of income from spectator attendance may be less important, but this does still affect earnings from advertising and sponsorship.

As a result, we have found that some of our longer-term projects are being put on hold.

It is unknown how many fans will come back when spectators are eventually allowed. Will they want to come back in their droves? How they will feel about returning will probably vary according to the demographics for the different sports.

We are advising some Premier League clubs regarding Stage 5 of the government’s post-Covid-19 plan – the return of spectators. This means thinking of everything from the transport infrastructure for supporters coming to the ground, to how they get to their seats once they have arrived. Most vomitory gangways are too narrow, so the challenge is how you manage these spectator flows, whether using one-way circulation or a traffic light system.

There is also the management challenge of how you allocate spectators their seats. The degree of capacity that will be safely possible will vary in different venues, according to the two factors of seat widths and terrace depth. Depending on these measurements, the result will typically range between 20% and 40% capacity. Another factor is how the spectators are grouped (as individuals, small or large groups – for example in the family stands there are more likely to be groups rather than single spectators.

Venues will also need to manage the circulation of spectators to and throughout the concourse during the match. This is much more difficult to resolve in an all-seater stadium with enclosed concourses than in most cricket grounds, where facilities are often more widely dispersed and are in the open rather than inside.

An additional pressure on managing enclosed concourses safely is that since you cannot allow queues to form inside the toilets, these will have to be outside in the concourse. Previously, concourses could pack people in at around 0.25m2 per person, but for safe social distancing, you would need about 0.8m2. This will further drive the need for more circulation space in stadium designs. 

I do not have the answers for what the long-term consequence of all this will be for sport. Even if there is a vaccine, I suspect that people would become more concerned about what else could happen: ‘we’ve had SARS, we’ve had Covid – what’s next?’.

There will definitely be a knock-on effect for design. Projects are more likely to be for the refurbishment of existing facilities rather than to expand capacity.

Venues will want to provide more space for circulation – there was already a trend for this anyway to give a more premium experience. Perhaps Covid-19 will encourage that. There will be more reliance on contactless technology in terms of entry process and restrooms, again accelerating an already growing trend. Previously, this might have been considered as ‘nice to have’; now it will become more essential.

Simple, small things will change. I suspect that regular rather than trough-style washbasins will become more important now that we have all been trained to wash our hands more. Perhaps there will be a change in the regulations that set out the ratio of what should be provided.

It is very difficult to see how this will all play out. I would love venues to be able to open up to spectators later this year. But looking at the trends of reoccurrence across Europe, I am not sure if it will be possible without a vaccine.

Some clients are taking more interest in esports. But like any other sport, fans miss going to the live event. There is just something special about being there as part of the crowd.

Lindsay Johnston, director, Pattern Design

We’ve been looking at the new SGSA supplementary Green Guide guidance for venues to help them get the licences they need to be able to open for Stage 5 spectator events when that becomes possible.

We’re confident we have the tools and analysis to make this Covid overlay work. The challenge is to ensure stadia take enough steps to provide a safe environment so that supporters feel confident to come back, but not with so many restrictions that they might decide to stay at home and live-stream it instead.

We’re building parametric tools to assess our clients’ stadia and calculate their social distancing capacity. These tools will create optimum combinations of different sized ‘bubbles’ of spectators within the seating, as well as safe, one-way circulation routes to and from their seats. Following the Green Guide advice for socially distanced seating will result in capacity of 17% to 33%, which obviously has big financial implications for venues, although at Premier League level, ticket sales are a small proportion of revenue. We will be developing ways to maximise this percentage for our clients, while still staying safe.

Creating the environment for a Covid-safe event is quite a complex process, but then arena design is pretty sophisticated already. In some ways, the seating is the more straightforward aspect, although there is the issue of whether you get people to stay in their seats and bring refreshments to them, or whether, and how, you allow them to circulate to buy food and beverages in the concourse. Venues also have everything else to plan for in order to get their licence for Stage 5 events – from how spectators get to the venue in the first place to security, bag and temperature checks and circulation in stairs, concourse and seating bowl.

Stadia are quite high-risk buildings from a Covid point of view because of the potential for big crowds in a condensed time period. The SGSA guidance leaves it up to the venues whether they want to make masks compulsory. If so, they will have to stipulate this at the point of ticket purchase as part of a code of conduct linked to the ticket. People might well decide they’d rather take responsibility for themselves and voluntarily wear PPE, rather than rely on the behaviour of others.

Future designs could provide more variety, particularly if Covid means there is a demand for more personal, socially distanced spaces. We’d like to see more personalised (and Covid-aware) experiences available. Examples include offers for families and different demographics that aren’t limited to high priced hospitality. Perhaps there could be more loge (theatre style) boxes. Also, there is now a new group to think about – people who are more at risk from Covid, ie the older population and people with underlying health conditions.

It’s probably easier to clean a stadium than many other building types because the materials are already pretty robust – mostly steel, concrete and plastic seats. I can’t see a general use of bacteria-resistant materials within the venues as these are so much more expensive.

We have recently been designing new stadia with the provision to swap some areas to safe standing in the future, but this may be put on hold as we deal with the pandemic because it’s harder to stop people moving around when they’re standing.

We haven’t been changing our ongoing stadium designs, which are in the middle or later on in the design process. As an industry we’re still optimistic – there’s a feeling that we’ll battle Covid-19 and it will go away again when a vaccine becomes available. Even if it doesn’t, it will become normalised and we’ll learn how to deal with it. It’s human nature that people will still love going to these mass events so we’ll have to find workarounds.

Mike Hall, partner and sports lead, FaulknerBrowns Architects

We need to be fit, and we need to lose weight, if we’re to be better placed to withstand Covid-19. Yet the leisure industry is struggling to get sports facilities open.

When indoor facilities were finally allowed to reopen in July, only about one in three actually did, which is pretty shocking. There are massive operational issues for local authorities in being able to reopen facilities safely, along with the financial implications of the reduced occupancy, which can be sometimes down to just one third. We have to face the fact that some buildings, such as old swimming pools, may never be able to reopen, because of design issues such as ventilation and changing room layouts that can’t be resolved.

We’re still working through the design implications but the pandemic will certainly lead to changes, not just operationally in the short term but in the longer term.  We’ve been working with operators and also doing a Covid-19 overlay on all the facilities that we have at the design stage, looking at things like pinch points, corridor spaces, and how an operator would facilitate a one-way system. 

The overarching issue is that of perception – the sense that a space looks safe, and that the destination is always clear, so that people can see where they’re going and that they know that they can get to their locker without bumping into someone. We have our own system of 2.5m wide Covid-safe corridors so people can walk past each other. Where this isn’t possible, we’re looking at 1.8m wide corridors where you may be able to have set-backs so that people can pass safely. These are the sorts of spatial things that we need to look at as well as building services issues such as ventilation.

The design of sports buildings will definitely change when we come out of the pandemic. There are a number of things for us to reflect on such as generosity of reception areas, staircases, changing spaces. I think there will be a positive outcome in how sports facilities are designed in the future. Technology can help, but the main priority will be the quality of the spaces and how we engage with them.

Staircases have come up as a hotspot of concern. Is there a way that we can design out compartmentalised stair cores so that movement up through the building becomes part of the experience and activity? As we’ve been looking at the way that people engage with the changing process safely post-Covid-19, this has coincided with a piece of research we were doing separately on universal changing rooms, and we are introducing a Covid-19 overlay into this.

In our work on velodromes, we haven’t addressed changes to the spectator bowl yet but have looked at how a Covid-19-overlay would have a bearing on how people move through and engage with support spaces such as the concourse and circulation. I think this is more likely to evolve rather than the seating bowl itself.

As well as the design of the buildings, there’s a bigger issue concerning the future of leisure that Covid-19 is bringing into sharper focus. There’s a need to bring sports activities into areas of denser population in cities in a way that connects with other uses in a safe way. Let’s get away from people having to drive out to suburban sites to take exercise. As retail moves online and out of town centres, perhaps leisure uses can move in – we’re already working on projects where we’re stacking swimming pools on top of retail space. 

As we look at ways of encouraging people to engage in sports activities post-Covid-19, it’s important for sports buildings to step up and reinvent themselves as having a place at the city table.

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Illustration by Jason Lyon


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