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Hi Gang.


I'm on the hunt for reference material relating to designing a venue that would be used - in the main - for musical/theatrical type shows.


The background to this is that I'm heading to a local meeting next week about a proposed new secondary school in my home town which is to be a "community campus", with various proposals being bandied around regarding which bits to spend the money on.


Being cynical, the underlying proposal is to close the local City Hall as it's in a bad way and have the local groups do their shows in this new school.


Being even more cynical, I've never been in a school anywhere in the locality that would be suitable for putting on anything greater than a school concert, but that's by-the-by.


I understand that the puropose of this meeting will be to ask for the local groups comments and a wish-list that would entice them into using any new venue.


I have something of a wish list in terms of facilities that are - I consider - standard, but I want to be able to sum up by saying that I would expect the venue to be designed with reference to XXX book.


I'm sure I've heard mention of a design guide on here somewhere, but for the life of me, I can't find it or remember what it's called.


As ever, all ideas gratefully received.

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Don't forget things like FOH circulation space, accessible toilets and somewhere for a bar. It's not just the tech and auditorium.


I'm hoping that those would be considered by the architiect as part of the overall school/community facility design, but thanks for the heads up - I'll add them to my list.


As for a bar - yes, but there have already been arguments about that ("It's a school!" "No, it's a community building!").

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Never assume...


The "front of house" needs for a theatre are VERY different to the needs of a school or community space. For example a theatre needs lots of toilets (with corresponding boosted water supply) because there will be hundreds of people using them for 20 mins (pre-show, interval, post show) but which will be unused the rest of the time. A community or school space needs considerably less toilets (for the same number of people) but they will be in almost constant use so will be designed on a completely different scale and in a completely different layout. Likewise a "bar" for theatre is a completely different size (and tehnical set-up) to the bar for a community lounge again due to the "spike" v "trickle" customer flow the respective uses produce.


...and you have the architects perennial favourite; making the control position a "projector room" and sealing you in behind multiple fire barriers with no simple cable routes to the rest of the venue.



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I'm sure you've heard most of the horror stories already. I'm on the other side of the country from you, and our local school went through a similar process a few years ago. They ended up with quite a nice venue, but it could have been so much better... and I don't think it's ever been used for anything other than school events and local dance shows, despite being promoted as a "flagship venue" at the beginning.


(my favourite horror story from that venue is similar to ImagineerTom's post - a "control room" with a tiny glazed window to the auditorium. But not only was it impossible to hear, it was also impossible to SEE the stage, as one of the house lights was hung directly in front of the window!)


Having said that, it does have plenty of circulation space, and plenty of adjacent toilets...



There's an identical installation (I think the architects and the lighting contractors have a standard set of drawings that they use for all of these venues!) across in Arran - John (Boatman on this forum) has worked there extensively. It's had much more community use, hosting local and touring shows. Perhaps he'll have some useful insight.

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The other thing is having toilets both backstage and foh. Normal architects just don't get this.


I would really advise getting a consultant. They will save more money than they cost by fixing problems before they are built rather than after. Charcoal blue seem to have a very sensible approach and are very happy to deal with small projects.

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A few thoughts:


1) Is the school a PFI build? - Community use and PFI schools can be a nightmare as this type of use is never a high priority when the contracts are written and when you factor in the man hours and extra hoops you have to jump through to put on an external event the school will be lucky to break even financially.


2) Smoke - There aren't many shows now that don't use smoke/haze and unless the theatre is in a self contained building this will be difficult to get authorised. Our school hall is in the centre of a 3 floor building and I'm looking at disabling 15 zones and taking the building off-line from the monitoring stations to use smoke for the next show. To remain covered by the insurance we have to have fire marshals patrolling these areas in case there is a real fire.


3) How active is the host school? - So you hire out the hall/theatre to a drama group every week but then how many weeks a year is it actually available? During term time we normally have 2 events in the hall on different evenings so what will the long term hire booking think of that?


4) Who is responsible for the equipment? - Our community team love to use everything in the hall but who pays for the wear and tear on equipment and consumables? The PA system has to stay on 24/7 fair enough but do zumba really need another 10kw of ambient lighting using lamps and gels from my non-existent budget!?! Even if the community team charge for the wear and tear etc does that money ever get back into my budget? er no!


5) Cleaning - Our cleaners work 15:00-18:00 so who is going to clean up after a show ready for the next school day? This goes for toilets and everything.


6) Site staff - Does the school have enough staff to work a venue from 06:00 - 23:30?


7) Multi-use - So you have drama/dance/PE lessons during the day but how will that work then a theatre group want to book the space for a week show plus setup. School admin person can't see a problem with lessons during the day and theatre during the evenings completely unaware that when the scenery goes up it stays up for the two weeks.


8) Insurance and performance rights - This will obviously need an additional policy as the school's will not cover it.


We have a great performance space at our school but the calendar is so tight that I struggle to get in to setup for the next event. Add on to that the external hires and it becomes a real headache to the point that we may be closing and cancelling all external booking for this space very soon!


Edit to add: Good luck getting a licence to sell alcohol on school premises. I've tried this from the school and events side with no luck!

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One thing to bring up at the meeting is usage.


Many of the projects I've seen where the 'community use' tag has been used to engage additional funding sources is that it seriously impacts on the people who are trying to use it every day. My old college had a Victorian school hall - 12m x 6.5m, and we could paint the walls, even the ceiling for productions - we had plenty of decking and truss and could rig pretty well whatever we needed. we could take weeks planning, designing and building a complex set and loads of the students got great grades. It started to leak, and a few cracks appeared - still we used it while the bean counters found additional funds for a new build. I left before the money became available. The new theatre was built - and guess what? The students STILL go out to a local theatre for their big productions because the community use agreement means it has to be empty every evening so they can do the Zumba classes, keep fit and of course community dance for the disabled group - all people named in the funding bid. They cannot put some flats up one day, then paint them the next, because by 4pm, all has to go back to the initial empty state. The lovely walls cannot be disguised. Light cream is a terrible colour unless you want grey-outs rather than blackouts, and the light colour is totally unsuitable for a performance space. Blackout shutters were vertical black blinds that don't blackout anyway. They hate it with a passion, and all the plus features of the old space just are not there.


Apart from the use issue - there are no facilities to get cables from room to room. Plenty of patch panels on the walls, but they don't patch to where people need things. We used to find that we'd often put a few channels of dimming at one end, and feed them via large diameter mains, which was easier. The new build has a space for dimmers at one end, and outlets distributed all around - so they initially used lots of TRS, but again, this is impossible to use and put away each evening.


Other issues:

Control room for sound behind a non-removable window. Little speakers for monitoring. No facility to talk to the room, so comms hopeless.

Lighting outlets in places they're never used, and not in places they are.

Dance floor in places where people won't be dancing, and carpet in places they will.

Dressing room/changing room space on the opposite side of the public area than the stage, meaning people get changed in the stage areas. Showers away from the backstage areas.

Lighting controls accessible via a tortuous route, but no money for a riggers control meaning you get fit quickly. Non-isolating smoke detectors of the wrong type mean no smoke. Where smoke is possible, there will be air handling that sucks out the smoke and haze before it can be seen, and no off switch!

Expensive lighting bars on motors so that focusing can be done at ground level, over and over again until it's right.

Sound systems that have speakers permanently installed in exactly the wrong places. Expensive mixers and totally unsuitable speakers.

Racks of expensive radio mics and no running budget for licenses and replacement parts.



When you go to the meeting, remember that the so called experts have to deal with senior education minded people in your centre who have no idea what you babble on about. It's common for the architect to use a consultant who knows what you really should have, but already knows that the school or college won't understand, and still request things using the wrong words. They won't say we need a space to perform dance and performance to the public, they'll say they want a drama space - something they understand. The consultant and architect forget about stages, wings, sound and lighting and think about a bunch of students studying Brecht or Shakespeare, where there's little technology requirement. If nobody ASKS for the ability to become totally black, they'll give you windows to save electricity lighting the space (gaining green points). If you don't explain that moving lights yourself and connecting dimmers is important for the course, they'll protect you from such dangers. I've seen great places where lighting bars were on all sides of an octagonal space, up high, with a balcony running all the way around, so students could simply focus the lights with both feet on the balcony floor. They can give you if the budget is there, a tension wire grid for safety - they could even arrange disabled access to the grid if they really want - but they won't unless the need is justified. The real problem is the specifiers are NOT the users, and may be unaware of the latest techniques. Not wanting to cloud the waters, but with a bit of thinking, they could provide you with (stands back and waits for it) moving LED lighting kit, controllable from the ground - LEDs do seem to offer a longer lifespan, and reduce electricity consumption and remove the need for powerful zircon. I know we've always said NO MOVERS FOR SCHOOLS - as a kind of policy, but in a multi use building, washes and spots can be a boon - especially if you can get the specifiers to perhaps consider more sophisticated control systems - proper ones for the real lighting, but maybe something simpler that can be controlled from a wall panel so the dance teacher or drama teacher can throw a big switch to turn the lighting power on and shove up three faders marked red, green and blue - for mood lighting.


With these multipurpose buildings, it's vital you can do everything it needs to do quickly. If you need to set up a couple of decks and a set of treads - you need local storage, directly off the room so you can clear away quickly ready for the yoga class. No good at all if it needs caretakers and technicians to make anything work. Not being rude - but it needs to be dance teacher friendly. They need a knob to turn or slide that makes lights come up, they need to be able to play CDs and maybe their iPod from a panel in the room - so a CD player with I[pod dock and a volume knob need to be readily accessible - NOT in a control room. You can buy small mixers with an iphone dock now, so one of these and a CD player in a rack is very easy to use - no 'help' required.


At the meeting stress the things your course makes you do now - things that HAVE to be done to get grades. If the design puts up a block to any of these - this is where to make a noise. Nobody will press for technology for modernness - but if they insist there can be no ladders, then ask how you'll be able to do Criteria 2, or whatever it is. Check on the change of use time - from seating to empty space - see if they're willing to guarantee exclusive use for a two or three week period in the spring/early summer so there is a chance of doing a major production. If this is not going to be possible - ask what they're planning for the final major show part of the course - I'm sure you follow me.


Don't ask for things, ask for a space that lets you use the things! If the music dept are involved, ask if it will have acoustics suitable for both speech and music - they're not the same, and the architects already know this - but may not mention it.

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Skim reading this, and two things I haven't seen mentioned - storage space by the bucketload, and a decent get-in space (specifically, a space that isn't storage, but means you can unload a large show without either choking the stage it all has to fit on or blocking access for the rest of the load) Good luck with either of those, have found them to be very difficult concepts to get across to the powers that be over the years...
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Good post Paul but I think for Scotland it is all a little different. Architecture and Design Scotland will be let loose on the Smarter Places programme and the demands of the school will be a priority.


Hereis the PowerPoint presentation so Jex can get the relevant questions ready. The consultation process is fairly rigidly set down and shows how much more organised Scots education is.


Your best bet, Jex, is to PM Boatman for when he gets back from New Zealand, he will almost certainly have been involved in the process in such a small community as his.

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