High Performance Rooms: Design Factors and Opportunities

LS3P works across a wide variety of project types, but certain specialized spaces present interesting design challenges across market sector boundaries. One such program area is a high performance room, a type of program space which might include a worship center auditorium, a corporate meeting space, or a performance space at a fine arts center. Our recent project work has included high performance rooms at Elevation Ballantyne’s new worship center, the “stairitorium” for the office’s town hall at AvidXchange, and auditoriums for Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center and Charlotte Christian School. Though these projects serve different functions, they draw from a similar tool kit of strategies to create a specialized space and a world-class user experience.

In designing these and other high performance rooms, we need to understand the expectations for the room’s performance. Will this room be based on theatrical, musical, speaking (lecture/teaching) themes or all of the above? Other key design drivers include establishing the room layout, seat count, sightlines and Audio, Visual, Lighting (AVL) and acoustic implementation.

The room layout begins with the understanding of the room’s function, which is greatly impacted by orientation, stage function, entry-egress, seating layout, and meeting the desired seat count. During the visioning process, the team will define expectations for the room’s performance, which will be tailored to anticipated uses. The performance medium will inform the required clear ceiling heights, and the ideal seat-to-stage proximity. Clear ceiling heights will be determined by AVL and the intended room performance, particularly with sound; to get more technical, the balanced spread of sound from the line array speakers throughout the room will dictate the ceiling height.

The sense of intimacy in the room will depend upon the shape of the room and the stage and the interaction between the two. It is important to note that the shape of the room will impact sound control, with box rooms being easier to control and manipulate sound than radius-style rooms. Sound reverb is the primary element to control in these rooms and will dictate the particular room shape, acoustical strategy, and interior surface applications that are all integral to optimum acoustical quality. Acoustical dead rooms, which are typically created for a studio venue, will incorporate sound-absorbing elements for minimal reverb. Live rooms, typically created for music venues with high levels of reverb and echo, will require different finishes. Hybrid rooms, which strategically control music reverb while intensifying the crowd participation reverb within a room will require yet another set of interventions.

Three basic floor-to-seating relationship options can be integrated into these rooms, each with pros and cons. A flat floor room offers maximum flexibility for multiple uses, but creates challenges in terms of maintaining sightlines and acoustical quality. A sloped floor room comes with a cost premium, but can greatly enhance sightlines, while a tiered seating and/or balcony strategy creates intimacy with the performance or teaching and ideal sightlines, but is costly.

Once the team has established the room parameters, then begins the process of seat selection that will establish the room’s aesthetic, functionality, comfort level and identity. Seats may be fixed or non-fixed, and both strategies offer advantages. Fixed seats are typically higher quality and allow the room acoustics to be designed based on a predetermined layout. However, fixed seats limit flexibility and are higher in cost. Non-fixed seats offer unlimited flexibility for a lower cost and are ideal for live recording style events as they offer standing room and the opportunity for crowd interaction; however, shifting configurations will impact sightlines and acoustics, and can present a non-permanent appearance. Design parameters determined during the visioning process will serve as an invaluable guide for prioritizing these options.

Outside of the room shape, AVL design will become the single most integral component to the success of a high performance room. The partnership between AVL specialists, the architect, and the building user must begin in conceptual design to provide an integrated AVL strategy to meet expectations. Ideally, the AVL system is a catalyst to create a communal experience, regardless of the size of the audience or the number of venues participating. For example, at a multi-site church, the high performance headquarters room serves as the live video feed broadcast to the other venues and online in real time to create one fluid experience across all venues. A high performance room in a corporate setting may have a completely different function and design solution, but also has a critical AVL component that must be strategically thought out and integrated. In any setting, the AVL system should be flexible enough to provide the user with unlimited set design solutions.

Tight integration among all team members is critical to the success of these complex rooms. The architect will orchestrate this effort with assistance from the electrical partner to coordinate the intense power infrastructure and control of the AVL sources from the audio and video suites to the stage to the sound booth to the audience; the mechanical partner to coordinate HVAC systems with AVL rigging locations, control HVAC supply and return locations, manage HVAC sound, and ensure desired temperature levels are satisfied regardless of equipment and occupant loads; and the structural partner to design to support heavy and very particular AVL load points within the building’s superstructure. Close collaboration from conceptual design through construction helps the team create a holistic plan for design, installation, and operation.

In creating a successful high performance room, these elements will work together to provide a seamless experience for the audience, and a valuable space that will serve the client well long into the future.

About Nathan

Nathan Daniel, AIA, LEED AP, is a Principal and the Faith Practice leader at LS3P, working from the firm’s Charlotte office. He is responsible for the design of the overall project character for worship, office, retail, entertainment, mixed-use, and streetscape. Nathan’s role is one of leadership and guidance, seeing the project vision from concept through to completion; mediator, helping to foster trust and respect between the stakeholders.