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Round and Round: The Las Vegas Sphere

Sphere is here! Developers of the Las Vegas megaproject call the gigantic, immersive entertainment venue the largest spherical structure in the world. Building it meant choosing the right partners, working with advanced technology, dealing with COVID—and lifting 32,000 tons of steel.
By Grace Calengor
November 29, 2023
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How does the typical contractor approach building something taller than the Statue of Liberty, wider than a football field and with the most square footage of LED lighting in the world? Perhaps it’s enough to say that Sphere Entertainment Company is not your average contractor—and Sphere in Las Vegas is not your average construction project.

With a budget of approximately $2.3 billion, Sphere is a massive entertainment venue constructed mainly of steel and concrete. How different is that from the typical Vegas high-rise, casino or hotel? When you account for the structure’s sheer size, uncommon shape and intertwining technologies—very.

Measuring 366 feet tall and 516 feet wide, with 580,000 square feet of fully programmable LED framing on its shimmering exterior surface, Sphere has been a top-trending topic since it opened in September. It’s primarily a concert venue, boasting a 17,500-person seated capacity; 20,000-person standing-room capacity; 10,000 haptic seats; a groundbreaking audio system that allows sound to be directed in a specific location without compromising volume; and 160,000 square feet of display canvas showing images and video at 16k resolution—the highest level possible.

Sphere was the brainchild of Sphere Entertainment CEO Jim Dolan, who also serves as CEO of Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp., which owns Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers. “His vision was to create a venue that uses immersive technologies to engage the senses and transport audiences to new places,” says Paul Westbury, executive vice president of development and construction for Sphere Entertainment. “A spherical venue is conducive to the type of fully immersive experience we were looking to create with Sphere.”

What Sphere Entertainment bills as the largest spherical structure in the world features a cavernous, column-free interior that gives audiences unobstructed views of the stage, display screens and anything else happening inside the big ball. The LED display “wraps up, over and around the audience to envelop the audience in environments,” Westbury says, “which can be anything from the snow-capped Alps to outer space—making guests feel as if they have been transported from a venue in Las Vegas to somewhere entirely new.”

A HEAVY LIFT

To properly execute a megaproject—especially one that takes place just off an environment as highly urban, pedestrian and popular as the Las Vegas Strip—contractors, subcontractors and other crews involved must be carefully selected for collaboration. Sphere Entertainment served as its own construction manager, choosing Populous as its design and architecture partner. “Sphere is truly an engineering marvel, and it would not have been possible without the expertise of the thousands of designers, engineers, supply-chain partners and skilled tradespeople working to make our vision for Sphere a reality,” Westbury says. “Their selection was a key part of our project processes, and we spent considerable time ensuring that only the best partners joined our team.”

Given the soaring heights and complicated engineering involved, the crane contract—operator and supplier—was particularly pivotal. That went to Sarens, a global leader in heavy lifting, engineered transport and crane rentals that has worked on operations such as transporting a World War I monument, constructing the stages at Belgium’s Tomorrowland music festival, assembling and maintaining wind farms and much more. But Sphere was something else entirely. Robert Martinez, vice president of sales for Sarens U.S.A., calls the project “a technical and logistical challenge.”

In fact, the process was so technical that Sphere’s website lists every single math equation that helped guide Sarens and the other teams through that challenge, from how to find the area and volume of a sphere to how light filters through different environments (tip of the hard hat to the Sellmeier Equation).“This is the first project of its kind in which we have participated, in terms of the form, size and technology involved,” Martinez says. “It has been a unique challenge and has required meticulous planning and coordination with the other project stakeholders.”

Westbury agrees: “Constructing the world’s largest spherical structure, as well as the world’s most technologically advanced venue, presented new and exciting challenges, with the construction and technology teams working hand in hand to ensure the structure we were building was ready for the technology they were creating. It was a truly collaborative effort with all partners from multiple disciplines, backgrounds and indeed countries working together to achieve the best outcome for our overall project.”

ABOUT THOSE CHALLENGES

Despite the challenges they knew were coming, everyone involved was sure the venue would be nothing short of spectacular. But it had to be built first.

The project broke ground in September 2018, and soon Martinez’s crews were lifting some 32,000 tons of prefabricated steel parts—all assembled onsite—into place to form the spherical superstructure. The equipment they used included a CC8800-1 crawler crane with a maximum lifting capacity of 1,600 tons and a CC 6800/1 model with a capacity of 1,250 tons to install the parts, and a 64-axle self-propelled modular transporter with a 2,560-ton capacity to move them from the fabrication area to the assembly site. “Advanced machining was essential to be able to place the parts in their correct position,” Martinez says. “The heavy weight of the beams and the height to which they had to be lifted posed a challenge rarely seen before, which, thanks to the company’s team of engineers and machinery experts and their extensive experience, could be overcome without any setbacks.”

What did pose a setback, of course, was COVID-19. When construction began, project stakeholders never anticipated that the world would screech to a halt—and with it the global supply chain. Despite a healthy budget and the combined industry experience of everyone involved, “The schedule was affected by the pandemic, which forced work to stop for several months and delayed the opening from 2021 to 2023,” Martinez says. “There were delays in the delivery of some essential construction materials and equipment, such as steel and concrete, LED screens and sound systems.”

Those are essentially all the materials that comprise Sphere. With nothing to put together, the project was at a standstill. When construction started back up, it did so at an accelerated pace—which became another challenge, along with building Sphere in a way that ensured it would be able to withstand the temperamental Nevada terrain. That meant compromising neither design nor structural integrity in the face of rain, drought, earthquake or other natural weather occurrences. “The structure had to adapt to the climatic and seismic conditions of Las Vegas,” Martinez says. “This involved the use of resistant and flexible materials.”

BAND, MOVIE, ROBOT, EMOJIS

There is an irony in a human endeavor that was clearly designed to stand out also needing to blend with its natural environment; that irony is not lost on Sphere Entertainment. In addition to a 25-show residency featuring U2, Sphere hosts “The Sphere Experience,” which includes “Postcard From Earth,” an immersive film directed by Academy Award nominee Darren Aronofsky. Aura, an advanced humanoid robot that resides within Sphere’s atrium, interacts with guests upon their arrival and throughout the program.

As Sphere Entertainment describes the experience: “The approximately two-hour program begins in the atrium, [and] tells a universal story of how culture, technology, science, art and the natural world have been intertwined throughout human history. Through one-of-a-kind immersive experiences created specifically for Sphere, guests will gain a better understanding of how technology amplifies our human potential. The Sphere Experience then continues in the main venue bowl for a multisensory cinematic experience at an unparalleled scale—Aronofsky’s ‘Postcard From Earth’.”

Aronofsky’s film is the first production to feature Sphere’s 4D multisensory technologies, including immersive seats with infrasound haptic systems such as deep vibrations, and environmental effects such as cool breezes or striking scents. “When a guest is sitting and watching the cinematic experience and there is a scene in the desert,” Westbury says, “they are fully surrounded by that landscape and in unprecedented clarity. Or when there’s a scene in the middle of a torrential storm, guests can hear the thunder with tremendous clarity and feel the wind through their hair—as if they were standing in the middle of the storm and not sitting in Las Vegas.”

U2 is similarly taking full advantage of the venue’s next-generation technological infrastructure, curating a concert specifically for Sphere and its unique accommodations. They make full use of Sphere’s bleeding-edge sound system and 360-degree LED display, allowing the audience to hear the faintest whisper into the microphone and see the sweat drops beading off interim drummer Bram van den Berg—who is placeholding for U2 veteran Larry Mullen Jr. following wrist surgery prompted by his years of drumming.

As over the top as they are, a world-famous rock band, an interactive humanoid and a 4D immersive movie all seem like obvious fits for Sphere—each with a sound and style as unique as the venue. Less obvious—but no less attention-grabbing—are the delectable displays that play on Sphere’s exterior, called the Exosphere, when U2 is on a break or the atrium is closed. Enormous emojis, eyeballs, basketballs and abstract art are among the fantastic imagery displayed via the Exosphere’s 1.2 million multi-LED “pucks.” “We have an in-house team in our Sphere Studios group that manages the content,” Westbury says, “and as a company, we are committed to ensuring the Exosphere displays a wide range of dynamic artistic and branded content.”

WHAT HAPPENED IN VEGAS

It might seem futile to shine so bright in a city that’s already world-renowned for its dazzling lights. But in many ways, that’s the point. If you still have to ask, “Why Vegas?’”—why did Sphere Entertainment choose the so-called “Sin City” for its epic megaproject—Westbury has an emphatic answer. “Las Vegas is a global destination for entertainment experiences, so it was a perfect fit for our first Sphere,” he says. “People come to Las Vegas from around the world specifically seeking out entertainment that cannot be experienced anywhere else—and Sphere is exactly that type of experience.”

Yes, Westbury said first Sphere. Las Vegas is just the beginning. Sphere Entertainment is actively exploring opportunities for other Sphere locations around the world, including London. “Over the course of the five years between [groundbreaking] and opening, we obviously learned a lot as the final project details were developed and constructed,” Westbury says. “But the team managed these challenges superbly, and what we’ve learned about constructing the Sphere in Las Vegas will certainly be an asset as we look to construct future Spheres in other locations.”

by Grace Calengor
Grace Calengor is associate editor of Construction Executive.

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