Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on July 1, 2014.

Paul Villotti has been with FP&C Consultants, a fire protection consulting engineering firm, for 28 years, and has been involved with hundreds of large assembly projects, many of them high-profile professional sports facilities. One of the firm’s latest projects is the $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, located in Santa Clara, California, the new home of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Along with his FP&C colleagues, Villotti, a vice president of the firm, served as the fire protection and building code consultants on the project. The stadium is scheduled to open in August.

Twenty-eight years is a long time.
I’m just stuck in a dead-end job. [Laughs.] Most days, I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

The stadium specialty must be fun.
We’ve done most of the NHL and NBA arenas over the last 20 years. We did AT&T Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys play, and Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Indianapolis Colts play. We’re working on a new arena for the Edmonton Oilers hockey team. We also have a project at Arthur Ashe Stadium, part of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. They’re putting a removable fabric roof on it, so we’re involved with that. We do a lot of college facilities. That’s kind of where the market is today, and we do a lot of college stadium renovations.

How did you get involved in the Levi’s Stadium project?
The architectural team, which was actually a joint venture between the contractor and the architect, invited us to be on the team. I happen to have a 25-year professional relationship with the project manager. I am the engineer of record for all of the equivalencies.

Where do you start with a project like this?
We looked at the design and did the basic building code review, and identified areas and design features that weren’t in compliance with the code, and began a series of meetings with the building’s architects and with officials from the City of Santa Clara to work through those things. Those meetings were a combination of technical and philosophical discussions on fire and life safety, and compliance with the California building code. It took about a year and a half to get to a position where everybody agreed that all of the outstanding items could be properly addressed. At that point we made a formal submission of the equivalency requests to the city for approval.

What was at the top of the list?
Certainly the high-rise aspect. A lot of the suites and clubs and premium amenities are located in a high-rise structure that’s part of the stadium. From a life safety standpoint, there are 11,000 people sitting in a high-rise tower watching a game, and that really isn’t the same thing as what the building codes, or even NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, envisions as a “stadium.” When the codes were written, they were thinking of people sitting in an outdoor bowl with an outdoor concourse. With the addition of a tower, though, why wouldn’t the entire structure be characterized as a high-rise, and subject to those provisions? A lot of our work on Levi’s Stadium was spent addressing this hiccup in the code.

The stadium experience is a lot different than it used to be.
Twenty-five years ago, stadiums were places where you went, sat down, watched a game, and left. Then an architect came up with this great idea about suites that would offer all these other amenities—and if you’re the stadium owner, you could charge a lot of money for them. Pretty soon anybody who had a stadium or an arena was rebuilding them so they could install suites. Now it’s become an all-afternoon, or all-day, event. You go to the stadium and there are all kinds of experiences that enhance the viewing of the sporting event. Levi’s Stadium has taken the amenities to the next level. The codes are still trying to catch up to this kind of use.

How did you address the hiccup in the code?
We worked with the city and came up with an approach where the tower is in fact addressed as a high-rise and designed that way according to the building code, while the stadium portion is a bit of a hybrid. For example, we have pressurized stairs and smoke-proof enclosures in the high-rise tower. In the stadium, even though it’s technically a high-rise, we don’t have smoke-proof towers. We don’t need them, because there isn’t the potential for smoke to communicate from floor to floor because every floor is open to the atmosphere on the stadium side.

How large is the high rise you’re describing?
The suite tower is 145 feet tall and includes nine levels. The 100 level is field level, 200 is plaza level for circulation, 300 is the main concourse level that has some clubs and other amenities, and 400 is another club. The 500, 600, and 700 levels are suites, 800 is press, and 900 is the roof of the building, which includes some assembly spaces—there are places to watch the game, and there’s a green roof up there where you can just go and enjoy the vegetation and nature 145 feet above the game.

I thought you were going to say the top floor was Google office space.
Actually, we did the Texas Rangers’ ballpark a while back, and they constructed an office building that was integrated into the stadium. People had offices that overlooked the outfield.

Is this integration of a high-rise component into stadium design becoming more common?
Oh, yes—it’s just a matter of practicality and square footage. Speaking of college programs, a lot of them are following this model in their renovations. The college programs used to be fairly modest, but now, with the goal of being able to compete and win, you have to have these amenities because you want the program to be supported. It’s big money.

What’s the seating capacity of Levi’s Stadium?
About 68,500, expandable for special events. It’ll be about 75,000 when the stadium hosts Super Bowl 50 in 2016.

What was another challenge with this project?
The site is tight, and the team already had some offices located adjacent to the stadium site. From the building codes standpoint, the offices are a different type of construction, so therefore they can’t be part of the stadium. The requirement was a minimum of 20 feet of separation between the offices and the stadium, but we only had 10 feet, so there’s an exposure hazard to the stadium and vice versa. The team didn’t want to tear down its offices, and we couldn’t move the stadium because we didn’t have anyplace else to go with it.

What did you do?
We looked at the associated hazards and the fire exposure potential from the offices and the stadium and came up with the exposure temperatures, looked at the structural integrity and potential damage to the stadium and vice versa. We also looked at the potential exposure to fans, which would primarily be on the concourses adjacent to the offices. We ran an analysis and were able to demonstrate that, with some additional in-place fire protection and additional sprinkler protection in those areas of the stadium, the 10-foot separation could remain.

What was innovative on the fire protection side?
In the high-rise suite tower, seven of the nine stories are actually connected. Not like a typical atrium, where you look up and it’s a big open square, but more of a series of openings that don’t align. This is the kind of design that’s made possible by better analytical techniques. Designs used to use the prescriptive requirements of the codes, but now, almost exclusively, we use computational fluid dynamics models, which are much more sophisticated—they help the fire protection community do a better job of analyzing the hazards with our fire and smoke modeling abilities, and they allow architects to be more creative with their designs. These abilities are certainly reflected in Levi’s Stadium.

The evolution of these analytical tools is impressive.
When I started in 1980, I think most people would characterize fire protection as a combination of art and science. It was probably more art and experience than science, at least from my perspective. Now, it is a lot more science than it was back then. The tools that are available are just incredible.

Aside from the technical challenges, what’s tricky about performance-based designs?
Making sure that those performance-based aspects are communicated clearly to everybody on the project. Like most of these projects, Levi’s Stadium was on an extremely accelerated design and construction schedule. The design team is under a lot of pressure, which makes it that much more important that we provide them with the information quickly and clearly. They hire fire protection and life safety experts like us because we know how to do the math, but if you can’t convey what the math is supposed to represent, then you can’t be as effective as you need to be.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about life safety evaluations of large facilities like this.
The life safety evaluation, or LSE, found in NFPA 101 is very important in terms of the overall safety of the facility. It’s a 10-part evaluation that looks at a range of possible incidents—inclement weather, haz mat incidents, civil disturbances, medical issues—and assesses the performance of the building. You sit down with the operators of the facility and discuss the building layout, how the building occupants circulate, how you’d address these kinds of scenarios. It requires the operators to take the next step and determine how they can ensure the safety of their patrons for all these other non-fire hazards, which are not typically addressed by traditional building and fire codes.

Do those include seismic?
That’s one of the specific items in the LSE. What’s interesting is that Candlestick Park, where the 49ers previously played, had experience with that—the Loma Prieta earthquake, which struck just before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

What are you watching as a coming trend?
At soccer matches in Europe, fans stand the entire event—there are no seats in many of these facilities. We’ve seen this attempted in the U.S. and it hasn’t caught on yet, but architects are a creative bunch and they’re still trying to get that concept introduced. The festival seating requirements of NFPA 101, coupled with the life safety evaluation, provide a foundation for this approach, but we would have to go to the European codes for guidance on additional prescriptive requirements on things like spacing and crush rails. I see that coming at some point, with a lot of caution.

Scott Sutherland is the executive editor of NFPA Journal.