top of page
  • Writer's pictureTheater Design Inc.

Value Engineering for the Performing Arts

A method of analysis that became popular in the 1980’s, value engineering is a tool used to save money. The principle is to find ways to complete a project for less money while retaining its desired “value.” Every element in the building is assigned a relative value. Those items deemed of great value are retained; those deemed of lesser value are modified or eliminated. Seems to be a good idea - - helps keep priorities in order - - keeps client and design team on the same page - - and purports to increase value while decreasing costs - - but does it?

In the 1966 movie Gambit, Michael Caine’s character has a plan to pull off a major robbery and needs Shirley McCaine’s character as a ‘gambit’ and window dressing for his plan to succeed. The opening of the movie shows the plan as a dream sequence where everything goes exactly according to plan. Then the film shows us the plan’s actual execution where, of course, everything goes wrong. I believe this is often what happens when value engineering is applied to performing arts facilities. It’s not that I believe the process is flawed, but that it is often applied at inappropriate times with unrealistic expectations.

Although the cost of a design should be monitored at each design phase, it often happens that bids come in significantly over budget. This can be the result of poor budget accounting during design, wishful thinking on the part of the client and design team, an unforeseen jump in labor or material costs or a malfunctioning crystal ball. Whatever the reason, there is almost never additional funding available and so the design team must find ways to reduce the cost of the facility.

The knight-in-shining-armor most often called upon is value. The only problem is that everyone has their own idea of what is valuable to a theater. Substituting gypsum board for plaster will not likely be a problem for anyone. Re-design of the architect’s cherished lobby window wall will be a disappointment but after the theater is built, no one will ever know. Deleting 25% of the stage lighting circuits and 50% of the counterweight rigging sets can seriously handicap the theater over the course of its entire existence. It may seem far-fetched but in these situations, it is often the theatrical systems, essential to the function of the facility, that are asked to suffer significant cuts.

The client/owner is the ultimate arbiter of the value engineering process, although the work of creating value engineering choices is delegated to the architect. Sometimes the client elects to bring in an outside party to oversee the process. The rationale is that the architect and design team may be too invested in the design and another firm will be able to see the project with fresh eyes.

In my experience, this reasoning is flawed. Often, a construction management firm is engaged and charged with reducing the cost of the facility to the monies available . . . period. Despite the best intentions, they can have no understanding of the history of the project, consensus that has been built or the relationships, professional and social, which have accrued. They are often granted carte blanche and the architect and design team are expected to accede a year or more’s work to a relative stranger with minimal time allotted and, most often, no additional fee. You may imagine the unpleasant climate this creates. In fact, it can poison the entire construction process.


Aside from licking old wounds, I am writing this as a cautionary tale to help make performing arts facilities the best they can be. Keep track of project costs at all times during the design process.  A cost consultant can be a very valuable member of your team in this regard. If the project is over-budget at any point in the design, it should be addressed then. The earlier a budget problem is identified the easier it will be to remedy and the less it will cost. As the design proceeds through construction documentation, budget problems become increasingly difficult to remedy and will increase in cost. If you attempt to implement value engineering at this late stage, you will end up with less building for the money.  To paraphrase Yoda, the Jedi master, “Be afraid . . . be very afraid!”

124 views0 comments


bottom of page