City Within A City
With its sophisticated architecture and slick urban feel, CityCenter, the newest, biggest addition to the Vegas Strip, isn’t exactly your dad’s Las Vegas. The same goes for CityCenter’s cutting-edge fire protection systems. NFPA Journal’s Scott Sutherland takes you inside.
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2010
By Scott Sutherland
When I first began researching CityCenter, the sparkling new MGM Mirage mega-development that opened in December in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, I had a bit of difficulty getting my head around some of the notable facts of the place.
There was the price tag, for starters. With its official total cost of $8.5 billion — unofficial estimates put the final tab closer to $11 billion — CityCenter is the largest privately financed development in the country. There was the sheer size: 18 million square feet (1.6 million square meters) of lodging, gaming, residential, and retail space, all designed by a cadre of celebrity architects. There was the optimistic vision of CityCenter as an “urban resort destination,” one that would use cutting-edge architecture, fine art, and ultra-luxe shopping to lure visitors, a sharp contrast to proven Vegas come-ons like gaudy themed hotels, clothing-optional entertainment, and daiquiris to go. There was the ambitious five-year build-out plan, the round-the-clock construction, the much-publicized on-the-job deaths of six workers. There were the 160,000 people who showed up to apply for 12,000 CityCenter jobs as the unemployment rate in recession-ravaged southern Nevada pushed 14 percent. There were the soaring promises that CityCenter would fuel a turnaround of the economically moribund Strip, and there were the dire warnings that the arrival of CityCenter meant little more than thousands of unwanted new hotel rooms in town. And there was CityCenter’s tag line: “The Capital of the New World.” Even by Vegas standards, it all seemed too big, too expensive, too ambitious, too much.
Even the story of CityCenter’s fire- and life-safety systems took on larger-than-life dimensions. Shoehorned into a 67-acre (27-hectare) site between the Bellagio and the Monte Carlo, CityCenter includes four hotels — the flagship, the 61-story Aria, includes a casino and an 1,800-seat theater — numbering nearly 7,000 guest rooms and condominiums, along with a pair of 37-story residential towers, a high-end shopping emporium, and dozens of bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and galleries. With the exception of one hotel — the Vdara, located across Harmon Avenue from the CityCenter massif — the development’s various towers and arcades are all interconnected, which is why the local jurisdiction, Clark County, classifies it as a single unified occupancy. I wanted to know how such a sprawling pleasure dome is protected against fire, and I wanted to know what it was like for the owners, designers, builders, and local authorities to devise, and execute, such a nonconforming colossus. Finally, there was the city-within-a-city aspect of CityCenter. At its peak occupancy — every condo and hotel room filled, every craps table taken, all of the theater seats for Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” extravaganza claimed — the development can accommodate upwards of 200,000 visitors. How do you alert people in its labyrinthine nooks and crannies in an emergency, and how do you make sure they can get out safely — or if they should even get out at all? Clearly, to understand all of this I needed to see the place for myself, and it was also clear that I would need the help of a native guide who could explain the finer points of protecting a city within a city.
I’ve always suspected that the most compelling elements of the Strip were those that were just out of sight and had everything to do with engineering and technological know-how. My guide might not be able to help me grasp the hubris responsible for a tag like “The Capital of the New World,” but I wanted at least a glimpse of CityCenter’s inner workings, a chance to comprehend the vast mechanical nervous system designed to keep its legions of revelers safe.
There’s no such thing as too much on-the-ground intelligence in Las Vegas, which is why I’m at CityCenter on an overcast day in March to meet not one, but two native guides. My contacts are Jeff Grove and Virginia Charter, engineers at Rolf Jensen & Associates, which was hired to provide fire protection consulting services for the entire CityCenter project. Grove, operations manager at RJA’s Las Vegas office, has worked on projects up and down the Strip. CityCenter was Charter’s first big project after being hired by RJA in 2005, fresh out of the Fire Protection and Safety Technology program at Oklahoma State University.
We meet beneath the sweeping glass canopy at the entrance to the Aria Resort & Casino, the centerpiece of the CityCenter site. We wind our way through the bustling reception and casino areas, then through a maze of beige, fluorescent-lit service hallways filled with an array of Aria workers. “A lot of the challenges with this project were administrative rather than technical,” Charter tells me, by way of setup. “There were three architects of record, each responsible for designing a particular part of CityCenter. It could be really hard to coordinate those areas where one architect’s design interfaced with another. It would take getting the architects and the design engineers together so we could design smoke-control systems based on the idea that this is one continuous space. Sometimes it took a lot of meetings to make that happen.”
We follow a beige hallway to a suite of windowless offices deep in the Aria complex. As it turns out, I’m about to meet my third native guide: Roy Mares, Aria’s assistant director of sitewide operations. Mares has been immersed in CityCenter’s systems since coming to the project in 2006, after working in fire- and life-safety systems for MGM up the street at the Mirage. I ask Mares if he ever needs a break from living and breathing safety at CityCenter, especially after the frenetic pace of the past several years. “Some days it seems like a chore,” he says. “But most days I can look around and know that I can guarantee these people will be safe, and that keeps me going.”
My trio of guides leading the way, the first stop on our fire-protection tour of CityCenter is the fire command center, located in the central plant building near Frank Sinatra Drive. Apart from the racks of thousands of CityCenter floor-plan drawings in the center of the room, the principal feature of the space is seven large touch screens arrayed along the back wall. The screens are part of a new integrated fire alarm system designed by Siemens (which received a $100 million contract to install fire, security, and environmental conservation systems at CityCenter) that replaces the traditional fire alarm control panels. With a touch, the Siemens system can show detailed layouts of every floor of every CityCenter building, along with the precise positions of alarms, smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, standpipe connections, smoke control fans, and more. Provisions for information displays and systems controls are found in the 2010 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®.
“Once we knew how Clark County would classify the building—as a single structure — that’s when Siemens began working on this unified fire alarm system,” Mares says, as a handful of Clark County Fire Department (CCFD) workers huddles around one of the screens. “The administrative side of this was challenging, since the base code doesn’t technically allow for this kind of system. But what we ended up with offers maybe a thousand times more information than your ordinary fire alarm control graphics panel or annunciator board.”
Grove says one of the accomplishments of the new system is its ability to unify the alarm and suppression systems while also recognizing CityCenter’s structural components as discrete spaces. “If there’s an alarm in one of the condominium towers, we don’t necessarily want to evacuate the casino in the Aria, even though from a building code perspective it’s one overall building,” he says. “In that way it’s very flexible.”
Grove adds that the system’s operators can make changes to CAAD (computer-aided architectural design) information to keep up with physical changes to the property. “You can make changes without having to order a brand-new [fire alarm control] panel just because a nightclub got bigger, or because three tenant spaces were combined into one,” he says. Grove says the system — along with a duplicate, located at a second fire command center elsewhere on the CityCenter site—will be staffed by MGM employees with oversight by the CCFD.
Redundancy is also a feature of our next stop, the main fire pump room, located next to the fire command center in the central plant. The room is a concrete cube, filled with massive red and black pipes and an industrial humming sound that I find pleasantly reassuring. Like the fire alarm system, it was CityCenter’s everything-under-one-roof design that dictated a unified approach to water supply and sprinkler systems. “It’s all one system with a centralized feed that covers everything except Vdara, which has its own system,” Mares says. “There’s also a backup pump room that covers everything [except Vdara]. There’s never a time when the entire facility isn’t covered. For a facility of this size to be covered by primary and redundant fire pumps at various levels, that’s a landmark.” The system’s primary water supply is Clark County; a pair of supplemental on-site tanks contain another 120,000 gallons (454,249 liters). NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, and NFPA 14, Installation of Standpipes and Hose Systems, were among the important codes used in the water supply and sprinkler system designs.
One of the prolonged discussions RJA engineers had with MGM centered around the fire pumps that would be used atop the hotel towers. Auxiliary pumps — subject to the provisions of NFPA 20, Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection — were necessary to maintain water pressure to the tops of the towers, and RJA advocated for electric pumps. MGM, however, balked at the cost of building busways, the routes for emergency electrical power from ground level to rooftop that would have to be protected with two-hour construction, for each tower. Grove acknowledges that the busway construction would’ve been “extraordinarily expensive.”
MGM opted for diesel-powered pumps, which eliminated the need for costly busways but prompted a lot of hand-wringing among the architects and designers. “They were always aware that fire pumps would be required at roof level, but it became a very different discussion when we started talking about diesel pumps instead of the electric pumps we typically try to use,” Charter says. For starters, she says, diesel fuel on the roof — enough to run the pumps for eight hours, as required by code — created a hazardous group occupancy, and had to be protected accordingly. There were noise and fume issues to address, too, especially considering that some of the properties’ toniest real estate — residential condominiums priced well into the millions — was located closest to the roof. “We made it work,” Charter says, a little wearily, “but it was a pretty involved process.”
I ask Mares what his biggest concern is from a sprinkler system standpoint: What kind of event keeps him awake at night? “Realistically, I don’t have any,” he replies. “With all the redundancy, with the hundreds of different systems designed for all these different occupancies, we’re talking about one of the safest buildings ever put together.” He allows himself a small grin and adds, “With all the water we have in here, I think it’s possible someone would drown before we had an actual fire issue.”
Mares estimates he’s seen the “Viva Elvis” show at Aria “maybe 50 times.” He oversees any mechanical process at the hotel/casino, so if there’s a tweak to the fog machines or the stage curtain used for “Viva Elvis,” for example, Mares is up in the theater’s tech booth, keeping an eye on the hardware as the performers celebrate the life of the King through song, acrobatics, and multi-colored jumpsuits. “They’ve made a lot of changes since it opened,” he adds. “It’s become a pretty good show.”
We stand at the foot of the enormous stage as workers prepare sets for the evening’s show, my guides discussing alarms, smoke control, and egress. “There aren’t too many places around the country where you have an 1,800-seat theater directly attached to a high-rise building [in the form of the Aria hotel towers],” Grove says. “Each of those is a special provision of the building code, but here they’re part of the same building.”
In the event of a fire backstage, Grove says, the proscenium curtain — one of the largest ever built, and reinforced with steel—can drop, and the backstage area can be exhausted for smoke control and sprinklered by a 2,500-gallons-per-minute (9,464-liters-per-minute) deluge system as the theater is evacuated. If the fire is in the seating area, both the stage and the seating side will be exhausted for optimal smoke control, Grove says. Smoke control for CityCenter was designed in accordance with NFPA 92B, Smoke Management Systems in Malls, Atria, and Large Spaces.
Egress for the theater, as it is for much of CityCenter, is based on the “horizontal exit” concept, where exit is usually made on the same floor level from one section of the building to another, and where those boundaries are protected by two-hour fire barriers. “As you leave the theater, you pass through a two-hour barrier to the next space, and inside the theater you exit into pressurized stairs, then to two-hour stairs that take you outside the building,” Mares says. “There’s no egress component at CityCenter that isn’t protected by two-hour barriers or corridors. If they need to get out, people will be able to get out.”
FOR OUR FINAL stop, Charter and I make our way to the tram station at Crystals, CityCenter’s upscale shopping mall. An elevated tram, or “automated people mover,” runs between CityCenter and the neighboring Monte Carlo and Bellagio resorts and can carry more than 5,000 guests an hour. (The Strip and its resorts are designed with the automobile in mind, and walking from one property to another can be a navigational nightmare. Two additional trams exist on the Strip, but, like CityCenter’s, they include a limited number of stops, and none of the tram lines connect with each other.) We board a gleaming new car that whisks us silently toward Bellagio.
Charter tells me RJA used NFPA 130, Fixed Guideway Transit and Passenger Rail Systems, as part of its fire protection plan for the tram. As with almost every component of CityCenter, though, multiple-occupancy considerations came into play. “Where the tram enters the station at Crystals, it becomes part of a high-rise building, so we needed to address smoke control in that tram station,” she says, as we glide past CityCenter’s towers. “We didn’t have to address smoke control in the other two stations because they’re open-air.”
That didn’t mean those stations were free of fire-protection issues, however. The Monte Carlo and Bellagio stations are designed with canopy roofs made of fabric, with materials similar to those used in the tent-like design of Denver International Airport. Clark County ruled that the fabric roofs did not qualify as two-hour protection, which meant RJA had to devise an alternate method of protecting those open-air stations. Charter and her colleagues offered a deluge sprinkler system as an alternative, which Clark County accepted.
A big part of Charter’s job, in fact, was creating requests for alternate methods of all sorts — more than 250, she says. “With alternate means and methods, we have this situation where we may not meet the letter of the code requirement, but we’re going to get to the same end using a different means,” she says of the process. We stand beneath the fabric canopy at the Bellagio station, a chilly desert breeze sliding across the platform. The roof, despite its massive supports, has a pleasing airiness to it, a small design gem among CityCenter’s architectural jewels. “Probably two-thirds of those alternates had to do with unique firestop applications. We’d work with the owner and designers to address an issue, like the tram station roof, then present an alternate means to the authority having jurisdiction, which could be the building department, the fire department, or a combination of the two, depending on the situation. None of them was easy — every one of them was a very, very intense process.”
Our tour complete, I ask Charter and Grove if they miss working on CityCenter, now that it’s largely complete; it opened in stages, with much fanfare, throughout the month of December. “It was a little strange after the first of the year,” Grove says. “For so many years, I’d been accustomed to getting phone calls and emails at all hours of the day and night. It was so intense for so long, and for that to stop so suddenly was a little strange.”
“Crackberry withdrawal,” Charter says.
“Definitely. But in some ways it hasn’t ended,” Grove says. “There are still issues popping up every couple of days that we’re still being asked to address by ownership. Small stuff.”
As much as Grove might miss it once it’s gone, no one plays an active role in such a project without sustaining their share of bruises. Later, when I talk with Doug Evans, a fire protection engineer with Clark County Department of Development Services, Building Division, who worked with CityCenter’s designers and builders for three years, he describes some of the encounters as bare-knuckle affairs. “I was leaving one meeting, and this engineer who was working [on safety systems] for the project turns to me and goes, ‘You ruined my life!’,” Evans says. “I had concerns early on that this whole project was too big and was moving too fast, and I expressed those concerns, but I never really got a response — not that I was expecting one. But I can look at it now and say that this is one of the safest buildings in the world, and I don’t say that just because I worked on it.”
“Clark County is a very, very regimented jurisdiction,” Grove says. “The code requirements are the code requirements, and if you don’t meet them then you need to have a life-safety document justifying the configuration. As the project’s fire protection engineers, we got involved in many, many, many of those discussions. They tend to be kind of a blur at this point.”
One large sticking point remains for CityCenter in the form of The Harmon Hotel, though the problems have nothing to do with fire protection. Construction was halted following the discovery of faulty rebar in floors that had already been built, raising serious structural concerns. MGM downscaled the building — located conspicuously on Las Vegas Boulevard, along CityCenter’s front range — from 49 stories to 25, eliminating all of the planned residential units. Originally slated to open late last year, it now has a scheduled opening of late 2010.
CityCenter had a lot to do with Grove’s office being named RJA’s 2009 office of the year. It also had a lot to do with Charter, who is 26, being promoted to associate manager for the office’s fire protection engineering and code consulting services.
If fire was an impossibility at CityCenter, there’d be no need for Mario Romo to be at work today.
I stop in to see Romo, a captain in the Clark County Fire Department, after my tour. He’s based at the new Station 32, tucked into a plot of CityCenter property near the Vdara. MGM’s original plan for CityCenter did not include an on-site fire station, but jurisdiction concerns eventually led to its inclusion, along with the backup fire command center, located next door to the fire station. Station 32, which MGM built and outfitted for $28 million, is the first fire station to be built on a Strip resort’s property. The station includes one engine and one rescue, and handles calls at CityCenter and elsewhere.
“Most of our calls are probably to Aria,” Romo says, sitting in his office, a no-frills affair of beige cinderblock. Out in the kitchen area, a half-dozen firefighters are chopping vegetables, prepping for a meal. “When we first opened, just getting to the calls was hard, since Aria is such a maze and it’s really easy to get lost. Now we have a much better idea where we’re going, and security is a lot better about helping us find the calls.”
Romo describes CityCenter as “very safe” when it comes to fire protection, citing the state-of-the-art systems, the round-the-clock monitoring of those systems, the backup water supplies, and more. I ask him what he considers the biggest fire threat. “You’ve got all these service areas beneath CityCenter where supplies are stored, and you need to make sure the sprinklers aren’t covered,” he says. “You could have a fire on a floor of a hotel that could cut off people on floors above, and where using the stairwells could be tricky.”
He pauses a moment, then tells me he was out at a training session the day of the Monte Carlo hotel fire in 2008. He and the other firefighters could see smoke rising from the hotel’s façade, the result of unauthorized welding on the roof. “That fire wasn’t supposed to happen, either, but it did,” he says. “Anything’s possible.”
Scott Sutherland is executive editor of NFPA Journal.
CityCenter has received six Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council.