An introduction to auditorium design.
This article on auditorium design 101 is meant to be a wide overview of the various components that go into designing an auditorium. It discusses some general design guidelines and a few details to help you have a better understanding. We’ll cover auditorium lighting, stage design, fixed seating, and auditorium acoustics.
That being said, our expertise is in fixed seating design for auditoriums, lecture halls, etc., so we pulled in multiple experts who were gracious enough to contribute their expertise, and share their knowledge with you. If you need any more information on a specific area of expertise, we’ve provided contact information for them at the beginning and end of each section.
Whether you’re an architect or contractor tackling an auditorium design project for the first time, or whether you’re a building manager who wants a base understanding of the various components that make up an auditorium, our hope is that this article can give you a good introduction to auditorium design.
Table of Contents:
Auditorium Design 101
Expert contributor: the Team at Stages Consultants
The Audience to Stage Relationship
“…form (ever) follows function.” -Louis Sullivan
The success of any performance rests largely on the relationship of the audience to the performance. We humans love to experience story-telling: whether an intimate theatre piece, a booming cacophony of symphonic music, or a great battle of sports teams on the field, we are hard-wired for engaging with performance. When designing any venue, the intended types of performance provide clues about the shape and size of the room, the desired feeling of intimacy and collective engagement, and the overall distribution of seats within the room as related to the performers on stage.
The Essential Question: What is the primary type of performance that audiences will see here?
Every performance type has specific geometries that support not only the staged performance, but also the audience’s experience. The first step to designing an auditorium is to become clear about what kinds of performances will happen, and what the audience’s experience of those performances should be.
Theatre and Dance performances, for example, are usually most successful in a room that provides a sense of intimacy and immediacy. With these performance types, the audience is close and tight to the stage so they can experience the immediacy of the performance. The overall physical volume and acoustics of a drama room are controlled so that the room supports the performance with little or no direct amplification. A dance theatre can use amplified or live acoustic music, and may require more variable control of the acoustical environment.
Conversely, live acoustical music performances are most successful in a room that has volume and some reverberance, allowing music to reflect, bounce, and fill the room. Audiences enjoy being close to this type of performance as well, but it is less important to be close to the stage than it is to have a high-quality aural experience from anywhere in the room.
For musical theatre, staged concerts, and opera, a combination of theatre and live music performance criteria are considered with the balance between immediacy and acoustic envelopment varying based on the art form.
An auditorium often supports more than one type of performance or might need to serve an entirely new set of criteria as our definitions of performance evolve. Indeed, as we look to contemporary practice, new definitions of performance like “immersive” and “experiential” theatre are being developed with greater frequency and for larger audiences. With this in mind a multi-use venue that possesses the flexibility to support a variety of performance types can be ideal. Solutions for a multi-use venue might include flexible seating arrangements and stage configurations, variable acoustics, or room divisions that alter the volume of the room for different performance types.
Planning the Room
Once the performance type and general room function have been identified, the process of conceptually developing the room can begin.
There are three basic components that must be considered for the room to function properly: sightlines, acoustic requirements for room shaping and isolation, and accessibility and egress. Sightlines ensure that every seat has an unobstructed line of sight to the performance, studying the distance and viewing angles from the most extreme seats both near and far. Again, the performance type informs the criteria for sightlines. While it is critical to be able to see a dancer’s feet at the very edge of the stage, the sightline criteria of an orchestra hall can be less rigid. The geometry of the room should be designed to naturally enhance the acoustics of the room, while also taking variable and enhanced acoustic materials like reflectors and applied wall materials into consideration. Lastly, code requirements for egress and accessibility will determine the required aisle and path widths throughout the assembly space, which will be based primarily on the capacity of the auditorium.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use a proscenium theatre arrangement as an example.
Considering Seat Distribution and Room Shape
Intimacy, the shared experience, and audience enjoyment are significantly impacted by the relationship of seats not only to the stage, but also to each other. Seat Distribution and Room Shape are concerned with the position and arrangement of seats within the audience chamber.
In simple terms, Horizontal Seat Distribution studies the location of seats as related to the stage in plan view. Seated rows are often curved or angled toward the stage so that patrons are both facing forward in their seat and looking directly at the stage. That is, they should not have to shift sideways or turn their heads to watch the performance. This direct-view orientation allows for the audience to be “in conversation” with the performance, making it easier to achieve suspension of disbelief and invest themselves in the performance.
The size and location of sections or groups of seats will have a subtler but equally impactful influence on the audience experience. Generally, the greater the physical distance from the stage, the greater potential for psychological distance from a performance. However, the shape of aisles among seated sections and the delineation of “lower” (closer to stage) and “upper” (further from stage) areas with cross-aisles and egress paths can help a room feel inclusive, intimate, and connected not only to the performance, but also to other audience members within a section of seats. With this goal in mind an actual physical and perceived psychological distance from the stage can be mitigated by enhancing the perceived collective experience of a particular section of seating.
When it comes to auditorium design, there are an infinite number of ways to develop the shape of an auditorium. It’s important to keep these ideas about seat distribution and room shaping in mind to help guide design decisions as the nuts and bolts requirements like row depth, aisle widths, sightlines, and acoustic shapes and materials become clear.
Developing the Plan: Horizontal Sightlines
Horizontal sightlines are a product of the extreme seats to the left and right of the auditorium. As a rule of thumb, these seats should maintain a three-quarters view of the stage at the back wall of the stage house. Any seats beyond this 3/4 range of view will have a considerably diminished experience. Box seating at the sides of the auditorium, a popular way to create a “VIP experience” but the most sightline challenged, can be carefully studied and designed to accommodate this view as well.
Developing the Section: Vertical Sightlines
Vertical Sightlines require the examination of line of sight in section view from every seated row of the auditorium to common targets at the stage edge and the proscenium opening. Generally, a room should be designed for no less than an every-other-row sightline; that is, the eyes of the patrons in one row should have an unobstructed view to the stage over the head of the patrons seated two rows in front of them. (The obstruction of the row directly in front is resolved through the seating layout using variable chair widths to create a staggered seating pattern.) In this way, the slope of an orchestra level floor or the height of risers in parterres, boxes, and balconies can be determined. It’s important to note that this results in a parabolic sloping floor at an orchestra level, not a single line slope as with accessible ramps. Similarly, this process yields a variable run of risers at parterres and balconies. Though the variation in floor elevations may seem insignificant, these “slight” dimensional shifts can make a significant cumulative difference of inches and feet by the last row of the auditorium.
When studying the sightlines for parterre and balcony levels, the geometric requirements dictated by sightlines must be understood alongside the steepness of the risers. Balcony risers that are too steep, or rows that are not sufficiently enveloped by adjacent rows can feel dangerous, exposed, and unsettling to patrons. The addition of railings within rows can solve the security and safety issue, but it can also psychologically distance patrons from the performance.
It’s important to note that the sightline and room-shaping process is about balancing the complex symbiotic relationships among the many variables that influence the room. It is both a quantitative and a qualitative study to meet all the requirements of code and ensure the best live experience for the audience.
Confirming the Vision
As the room begins to take shape, it’s important to periodically check back in with the original intent. With the many factors that can influence the design of a performance venue such as budget, project timeline, and environmental factors (to name a few), it’s important to make sure that the room still does what it needs to do. Throughout each phase of the design process, the integrity of the seating layouts and sightlines must be rechecked and confirmed. By safeguarding the most fundamental aspect of the live performance – the audience experience – good design can ensure that a performance will continue to live far beyond the walls of the auditorium.
Need more help? TALK TO A DESIGN EXPERT
Expert contributor: Jason Osterman of Altman Lighting
The Goal and Approach
An auditorium lighting design needs to provide two fundamental components. The first part is the illumination needs of the public who work in and enjoy the space. The more difficult part is to convey the intended feeling and emotion that fits the program and the attitude of the space. A successful design elicits an emotional human connection to the space, and lighting plays a crucial role in accomplishing this goal.
Comparing a project’s budget and material resources with the project characteristics is also a great method of achieving the goal. Characteristics in this instance being such components as ceiling construction, timeframe, wiring infrastructure, maintenance schedules, personnel and budget. If a venue is to be successful, the design and build team must be realistic with regard to budgets, timescales, and materials. A low budget does not necessarily mean a poor design as a clever design can maximize resources, but as with most things, it is the detail work that makes the difference.
When considering auditorium design, good lighting design is always in step with a venue’s interior design. They are symbiotic. New build venues have the luxury of developing these designs in synchrony. However, that doesn’t mean that retrofits and refurbishments are at a disadvantage; necessity breeds creativity. There is usually a good surface or detail that is worth highlighting. Fundamental concepts in architectural accent lighting like shadow gaps, bounce lighting and grazing are great tools to consider. These can almost always be enhanced by using color changing fixtures. Opportunities for these lighting tools can be limited in refurbishment projects due to wiring considerations, but new technology such as LED line voltage dimming is helping solve these problems. A good lighting consultant or contractor will always understand the architectural goal of a venue and work to complement it using the latest tools available.
Lighting Quality: Beam Control, Color Rendering, Dimming and Power
The lighting scheme of a space needs to incorporate fixtures which will provide suitable color rendering (most commonly measured in CRI: color rendering index). In areas which are meant to be used for reading (of playbills for example) an index number of 90 or greater should be considered.
Flexibility and control of the light beam should be a consideration so that the fixture layout can be tailored to the details of the architectural design. Fixtures which have on-site adjustable beam sizes and attachments help with glare and are a great solution when tailoring a design.
When the performance or presentation starts, dimming of the houselights can focus the audience and help make the experience feel special. In recent years, research and development into LED dimming has provided the industry with top quality dimming that was not available 3-4 years ago. “Theatrical quality dimming” is a phrase that gets written a lot in the lighting industry, but unfortunately, there is no robust index or comparable measure to gauge this in a specification. A demonstration of a few fixtures in consideration will always be beneficial to a project. Seeing is believing.
The quality of light chosen should be with due regard to the human and broadcast requirements of a space. For example, low speed flickering of a light source (common with low quality LED and discharge sources) can greatly impact the quality of the light not only for people in the space, but equally as important, for camera. Even modern HD cameras are much more sensitive to flicker and phasing than the human eye. The results of poor power supplies can render an auditorium completely unfit for broadcast and video camera use.
Integrating minimum illumination standards and an emergency lighting scheme is necessary and should be an integrated component of the design. It’s possible to have a single fixture provide all these requirements if good coordination exists between the architectural lighting designer and the rest of the team. Standards vary between locales so getting a consultant or contractor who understands these requirements is crucial. It is worth noting though that sometimes a totally separate system is more preferable. This can often be the case with refurbishments and retro-fits as the emergency lighting may be adequate and not intrusive to the design.
The selection of lighting fixtures should be chosen with a realistic maintenance schedule in mind. Access to the fixtures can be difficult if they are placed in hard to reach areas. As safety standards increase, some venues are finding that older lighting schemes are no longer safe to maintain. Reasonable placement and access should be integrated into the design process along with the selection of long-life sources.
Downlight and General Illumination
Downlight for general illumination is not only necessary for public safety, wayfinding and reading, it serves a crucial role in creating excitement and eliciting emotion. Top quality dimming control is fundamental to achieve this effect through even fades. High resolution dimming using DMX control and good quality electronics in lighting fixtures can achieve this as they almost eliminate the “steps” that can be seen in lower quality power supplies and alternative signal protocols.
Getting a quality, even illumination in the main areas of a venue is a priority, but so too is accent lighting. Depending on the goal and resources available, this component of a lighting scheme can vary greatly. And even on a shoe-string budget, a few nice touches can go a long way to make an auditorium more inviting. For example, flood uplighters in a venue with an architecturally interesting ceiling will make the venue infinitely more inviting, and dimmable units can be used during performances.
Control and Systems Integration
Flexibility is the key when designing the control system. Normally, a venue will have a programmable lighting control console to operate the performance lighting, and then a separate architectural control system. Typically, it is best for the performance lighting system to control the auditorium lighting as it needs to be controlled in a comparable way to ensure the smooth transition from “pre-show” to performance. This system needs to be both powerful (to operate performance lighting in an effective way) and flexible (to enable a “lights on” state for a janitor or director to operate).
Complications can arise when the venue lighting is expected to be controlled from both systems. The integration of the two systems can be complex, both in terms of programing and physical wiring. However, a competent lighting consultant or contractor should be able to help with simplifying the design and instructing the build process.
The old adage, “you get what you pay for” is true for auditorium lighting, but equally important is the preparation and design work that goes into a great lighting design. Choosing the right fixtures and enlisting the help of professionals will always pay for itself many times over, and with the right planning and equipment, an auditorium lighting scheme can last for decades.
Need more help? TALK TO A LIGHTING EXPERT
Expert contributor: Staging Concepts
Stage Design Basics
The following is useful to consider for your auditorium design:
Delivery access, wide internal passage ways/ doorways and storage space are the most critical auditorium features that contribute to running a smooth installation and daily operation. Having outside delivery access for trucks speeds up the loading and unloading process, features like a truck height dock and adequate parking lot space for large delivery trucks are helpful. Wide internal passageways and doorways allow equipment to be moved quickly and efficiently in a space, especially with rolling carts. Lastly, having adequate storage space is helpful to organize and readily access unused equipment, contributing to increased speed when swapping between stage or seating configurations.
The beauty of portable staging is that it can be manipulated and is a versatile enough product that it can work well in any auditorium design. The critical part is creating enough storage space for the equipment. Often facility managers love the product but are frustrated when they realize they do not have a space for it when the system is not in the play position.
Considerations for the Project Coordinator
A project coordinator must always consider the spatial constraints of the auditorium and how the end-user will be using the product on a day-to-day basis. Platforms are robust products since they are designed with safety in mind first and foremost, but are often used in tight or confined spaces. This can make setup and tear down physically demanding. The project coordinator can help these procedures and the end-user, by changing the system based on his or her understanding of the entire environment the system is setup in.
Building Code Basics & Detail Considerations
Stages and risers are engineering and designed to building codes. Chapter 16 of International Building Code 2015 sets forth the structural design criteria. Some of the topics covered for stages and risers are floor live load, deflection, serviceability, and strength. Stage floors are subject to a minimum uniformly distributed live load of 150 pounds per square foot. Risers need to be engineered using a minimum of 100 pounds per square foot of uniformly distributed live load.
- The finishes of the platforms and guardrail must meet the aesthetics of the space. Think through the details of the design of guardrails, the platform surfaces and closure panel materials.
- The acoustics of the space should be considered. Platforms can be designed with acoustical damping materials to minimize footfall noise.
- Storage of the space should be considered. A full service staging equipment company can help determine the proper storage options for your space, such as carts to facilitate easy portability, doorway widths in your space and amount of space needed for portable platforms when they are not in use.
- Equipment set up instructions and training for staff on how the risers are assembled should be incorporated into your plan.
If you are mounting fixed seating onto platforms, you should coordinate this between the seating provider and the platform provider to ensure that fixed seating attachments are incorporated into the platform design. Portable chairs are easier to manage, but you may want to consider chair stops into the seating riser system.
Aisle lighting and power sources are important to consider into the design of the seating riser system. Seating risers that are flexible and can be used in multiple configurations can make your space more usable, but also require extra planning up front, so staging platforms and equipment can be reused for various set ups and efficiently deployed.
Need more help? TALK TO A STAGE DESIGN EXPERT
Expert contributor: Theatre Solutions Inc.
Fixed Seating Considerations.
If you’re looking for extensive information on seating layouts, example layouts you can download, and tons more, we highly read this article on auditorium seating layouts recommend you . It’s been very popular and gives a ton of detail, diving deep into fixed seating basics. Here, we’re going to give you just a summary of that information, so read on.
There’s two basic types of seating arrangements you can consider for your auditorium: “multiple-aisle” or “continental.” Generally speaking, a continental agreement will allow more seating in your space. Click here to view more details and to see images. For early stage planning, you can use an average of 7.5 sq ft. per person.
When it comes to seating widths, the most common chair widths are 20 inches, 21 inches, and 22 inches. That being said, available seat widths can range anywhere from 18 inches to 24 inches. You’ll also want to consider the row spacing. An average minimum dimension might be 30″, but if you space the rows at 36″ (for example) the audience’s comfort level will increase dramatically.
We would definitely advise you to take a look at various safety and building codes such as:
- Life Safety Code 101 – National Fire Prevention Agency
- BOCA (Building Officials and Code)
- Administrators – Basic Building Code
- Southern Standard Building Code
- Uniform Building Code
- Or governing State and Local building codes
- And more…
Finally, you’ll want to make sure you perform a sightline analysis to ensure that the audience members can see everything they want to (and are supposed to) see.
For free layouts, diagrams, and much more detail…
Be sure to read our full article on seating layouts and seat spacing. We took a whole article to better lay out each of these principals and give better visuals.
Need more help? TALK TO A SEATING EXPERT
Expert contributor: Aercoustics
Auditorium Acoustics 101
A huge part of the audience’s experience in your auditorium design will be the acoustics. The ideal acoustic environment in an auditorium is one where the visual and auditory experiences are both captivating, intimate, and efficient. The auditory experience is uniquely shaped by the acoustics of each room. This brief overview of natural acoustics is aimed at giving designers some basic fundamentals on how the room acoustics of a space are effected by design choices that an architect would make. We will start off with a brief description of how our ear works in the context of listening.
How the ear works.
The human ear has developed over the evolution of humans into an organ capable of receiving the short term fluctuations of air pressure around us and extracting vast amounts of information from them. These short term air pressure fluctuations are commonly called sound waves. Through the use of two ears at a known horizontal distance apart, our brains figure out remarkably detailed information about sounds that we hear such as speech and musical content, source location, sound characteristics, relative loudness etc. When in an auditorium, sound arrives at the listener both directly from the sound source, and through reflections from the ceiling, walls, and the floor, and their combinations.
When listening in an auditorium, our brains try to make sense of the cacophony of sound waves arriving at the ears. Here, it is useful to think of the concept of the flicker fusion threshold. This concept is very familiar to anyone who has seen a movie or an animation: If still images are shown to the eye at a very slow rate, the brain can distinguish each image as a still image. But as the rate of images being shown increases to the rate of flicker fusion threshold, the brain is then able to fuse the images together, and perceive movement, much like Eadweard Muybridge’s early The Horse in Motion clip in 1878 demonstrated.
Similarly, when the ear is presented with reflections of a sound that arrive much later than the direct sound, the brain interprets those as echoes, and is able to separate them from the original sound. This is often observed during old recordings of outdoor speeches where there is a strong but very late reflection/echo, or sometimes during telephone conversations where there is an echo. If the arrival of the reflected sound gets closer to the direct sound, it can sometimes be even worse: the reflected sound arriving from one consonant in the speech seems to interfere directly with the following consonant in a word, making the whole speech sound ‘blurry’ and unintelligible. Once the reflections arrive soon enough after the direct sound to pass the threshold of 50 milliseconds, the brain is then able to fuse the reflected energy with the direct sound and use it to enhance the intelligibility of the speech being heard.
Acoustic design principals.
The main driver behind acoustic design in auditoriums comes down to the phenomenon above: Strive to keep and enhance ‘early’ reflections to arrive at the listener no more than 50 milliseconds after the direct sound; and dampen and reduce ‘late’ reflections that would arrive at the listener more than 50ms after the direct sound. At a given listener location, if there is more early acoustic energy than late, speech will be intelligible. To that end, surfaces should be provided and shaped to provide such early reflections, and reflection paths that provide late acoustic energy should be made acoustically absorptive.
This leads to certain rules of thumb:
- Shoebox-shaped rooms provide for strong early lateral reflections (even more important for music, but quite helpful for speech as well)
- Reflections down from a ceiling can often provide early reflections, and therefore should be made acoustically hard (reflective)
- The back walls of an auditorium have a risk of providing late reflections – both to the audience and to the stage: Providing acoustic absorption at such locations is usually helpful. This could be in the form of fabric panels, slatted wood finish, acoustic plaster or even acoustic drywall.
- The audience seats and the audience themselves are usually the biggest acoustic absorption in the room. The use of the right amount of acoustic absorption in the seats can serve as a great way to achieve the acoustic goals of the space.
There are, however, many other aspects of the auditorium acoustics that would require analysis, and any space where the acoustics are critical should be analysed in more detail for things like: the overall Reverberation time (RT60), the Distinctness (D50), the Acoustic Strength (G) of the space, and the background noise from building services or exterior activities. Getting an acoustic consultant to evaluate these aspects and provide suitable solutions that fit within the architectural expression is key to arriving at a cohesive design outcome. The best spaces are the ones where the acoustic elements fit seamlessly into the design and the space doesn’t scream out “Acoustician was here”.
Need more help? TALK TO AN ACOUSTICS EXPERT