Chapter 1

Putting on a Building

It’s the same . . . only different.


When I was first out of graduate school, in the late 1970’s, I worked for Theatre Design Technology, a sound system design and rental firm. At the time one of the owners, Lou Shapiro, was designing many Broadway shows.  He returned to the office, one afternoon, looking a little hang-dog and said, “Everybody knows two things, their business . . . and sound.” We all looked knowingly at each other because what Lou had said was consistent with what we experienced everyday.  Today I would modify the phrase and substitute theater consulting for sound.


It is not uncommon to hear this sentiment voiced “. . . we work in the theater every day - - we know what we want - - why do we need to hire a consultant?” Doesn’t the technical director know about stage layout? Don’t the scenic, lighting, costume and sound designers know their needs? Doesn’t the House Manager know what is needed in the lobby? Well, yes they do. They all know about working in a theater.  They all know how to “put on a show”. What they may not know is how to “put on a building.” Although there are similarities between the two, there are also significant differences.


A show is just one particular show.  Within the confines of a given venue, all efforts are directed toward fulfilling the needs of the show and that show only. The run of a show may be open-ended but is, ultimately, finite. A performing arts building has to satisfy many masters. It may have to accommodate drama, musical theater, dance, ballet, opera, symphony orchestras as well as unknown user groups, touring shows, other attractions. The facility must be flexible so that it may grow, over time, to satisfy what the future may bring. The “run” of a performing arts building can range from 30 – 100 years.


The design team for a show includes: a director, technical director, lighting, projection, costume, scenic and sound designers. Most likely they have all worked together and, even if not, they all have the same background in mounting a production and have been involved in many shows.  The design team for a performing arts facility includes: architect, owner, structural engineer, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, civil engineer, theater consultant, acoustician, lighting consultant and code consultant - - to name but a few. The larger the facility is; the more players who will be involved. Most likely they have not all worked together before and, even if they have, performing arts facilities are all unique and complex (even though they may share certain infrastructure requirements.)


The approach to designing a show also differs from designing a building. A theatrical production generally includes: design meetings, rehearsals, load-in, technical rehearsals, dress rehearsals and opening night. A production schedule, from beginning to end may last 2-6 months. The sequence of events for designing a building is more specific and has been codified by organizations such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and local, state and federal agencies. The design sequence for a performing arts building may include: programming, site selection, schematic design, design development, construction documentation, bidding, shop drawing review, construction and final inspection. Design and construction may take anywhere from 2-6 years.  


The Players

The design team for a performing arts facility has its own unique cast of characters that differ from those involved in putting on a show.  They typically include: architect, owner, structural engineer, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, civil engineer, theater consultant and acoustician. A large or multi-venue facility might also include: code consultant, cost consultant, lighting consultant, interior designer, parking consultant, signage consultant, ADA consultant and art consultant. Each of these represent an individual group that may comprise 1-20 people (and you thought your production meetings were unwieldy!) Who are these people and what, exactly, do they do? Although there are exceptions, a brief, partial description is listed below.  


Architect - overall design of the facility, hiring and coordination of the other design team members and legal responsibility to meet all applicable codes and regulations. The architect will often hire the theater consultant and acoustician. (More about this later.)


Owner (that’s you!) - the person or agency responsible for initiating the creation of a theater in the first place. Also the entity that holds the purse strings.


Structural engineer – design of structure (building steel, rigging steel, catwalks, galleries, concrete foundations, footings etc.) They make sure the building won’t fall down.


Mechanical engineer – design of heating and ventilation (HVAC) systems. Also responsible for plumbing and sprinkler systems.


Electrical engineer – design of electrical systems and equipment (power to building, power infrastructure, emergency power, security systems, general lighting, incorporation of stage lighting and sound systems prepared by theater consultant, fire alarm system, telephone and data - - anything that uses electricity.


Civil engineer – evaluation of site and necessary preparations for the site to accept the building.


Theater consultant – works with the design team on planning of facility and design of theater equipment and systems. Responsibilities include: stage and backstage layout, seating and sightlines, design and specification of stage lighting, audience seating, stage rigging and motorized stage machinery.  Also reviews shop drawings, monitors construction, inspects and test theatrical equipment and provides quality assurance. Makes sure that, at the end of the day, the completed project will be functional for all the people who will work there.


Acoustician – works with design team to shape the audience chamber and its interior finishes to provide the required acoustic response (for the program.) Also provides noise criteria for the mechanical systems and ensures that they are followed.


Code consultant – advises design team about interpreting and satisfying local, state and federal codes and ADA .


Cost consultant – monitors project cost throughout design and assists the design team should the project go over-budget.


ADA consultant – works with design team to ensure requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act are met, as well as, requirements of local Persons With Disabilities (PWD) advocacy groups.


The chain of command starts with you. It is ultimately your responsibility to participate throughout the entire process. You are the person with the most intimate knowledge of how the facility will operate and will be living with the decisions you make for many years. The theater consultant’s experience in the architectural design process will ensure that seemingly small decisions during schematic design don’t snowball into large problems during construction documents or during construction (when they are difficult and much more costly to remedy.) The design team wants to design a facility that fits your unique needs; now and in the future and they will welcome your input.