Monday, February 11, 2008

Why You Need an Experienced Theater Designer

From time to time I get called in to fix someone else's mistakes. The latest case involves 3 different parties that worked on the theater to create this particular set of issues. It started off with an AV dealer who is know for sub standard work and a small local theater interior start up with little or no experience. The third party is another small local theater interior company with some experience. The story as I got it from the client is that the AV dealer and first interior company did some things which left the room looking like a Hodge Podge of colors that did not match, very plain, a carpeting that was not the one selected and a ridiculously deep seating platform in a very shallow room. The platform had to be cut into at the sides to slide the seating back in order to have more that 5' of distance from a 104" diagonal screen.
By the time I visited the room, the clients list of complaints was very long. Some of the changes made by the second interior person did seem to help the look of the room some what but not the functionality. The client has over 1,000 DVD's and wanted access in the proscenium as well as the AV gear. Where the first person made MDF black shelving units which allowed many discs to be placed in it, you could not see where any single title was so interior person #2 added slide out holders and to finish the front where it was left completely open added a sliding curtain. The problem that remained is that though somewhat hidden the access to the discs was nearly impossible to deal with and the AV gear on the left side was slid into the shelves with some components on their sides to get everything or almost everything in place. One of the components which was the device that allows for storage and access to some discs was hidden behind a built out piece of furniture under the screen along with the 2 subs and center channel speaker. This piece of furniture weights about 80 Lbs and was not designed to have any reasonable access. So the bottom line with the proscenium was no real access to anything, made of substandard materials, cumbersome to work with in any way and looked like an amateur did the work.
The second interior person tried to make the room look better by purchasing a bunch of different pressed wood elements and painting them gold and applying them to the soffit, columns and ceiling. It caused the room to look like it was designed by Kmart. They also replaced several panels on the curved rear wall but the new panels were very short which made it look like they ran out of materials. At the end of the day, anyone walking into the room could see that almost nothing matched. The walls and soffit are a mauve with dusty blue carpet, tan seats, dark blue crown, brown wood columns and panel frames, tan and burgundy fabric in the frames, black front with some wood elements at the bottom, a black ceiling and little gold elements all over the soffit and ceiling.
What the client wants now is for all of the equipment to be placed into a proper rack with access and has agreed to move the discs to a storage unit because they will now purchase a much better disc management system designed to burn the discs and then play at will. They want the room to have the gold appliqu├ęs removed and the entire room repainted. The proscenium will be replaced with one which is designed to be functional and more elegant. They want a functioning motorized curtain instead of the curtain panels which are designed to be pulled out of the way to access items. They want the short panels replaced with proper sized panels.
The sad thing is that with the money the client has already spent doing the interior and then doing things to fix the first persons work, they still have a Kmart look and have to add 10's of thousands of dollars to get it to the place that they wanted to begin with. It's hard for clients to know who the real professionals are as there is no accreditation for this line of work but there should be!

It's All About Trust - A Home Theater on the Intercoastal

I often get called to meet with prospective clients by my dealers and never know if they will decide to work with me or not. This story starts a year and a half ago when I drove 2 hours south to meet with my dealer, a designer and their client to discuss their theater. In the discussion I went through my typical question and answer session which is the only way to find out what they really want. The room was on the blue prints as basically 21' x 20' x 13' with the equipment room one room over. This was a huge 20,000 sq ft home on the intercostal in Miami on 4 acres. The budget never came up but the concept of very high quality with value did. They were not cutting any corners in this home but they did not want to be taken advantage of. After describing many of the issues that might arise if we did not pay careful attention to a variety of things, the clients seemed to feel that they could trust me and made notes on many of my preliminary suggestions.
I hadn't heard anything from them in a year and a half and when I checked with the dealer I was told that they were quite a way out before we needed to get together. Several days ago I received a call from the client asking me to visit the job site as he was getting very close to building out the walls of the space and making expensive decisions on windows. He didn't want the builder to do anything without my input so the time was at hand for me to get involved.
I collected my notes of the meeting and went to see what his concerns were to provide the best advice I could for now. Upon arrival I was awed by the scale of the project. It looked like a hotel going up. I went to the builders trailer where I met the client and builder to start our discussion. The plans were posted on the walls and covered much of the space. This was going to be a spectacular home. We started off discussing the fact that the room is on the front corner of the home and he had to make decisions regarding the windows on the theater room. Because they are on the front of the home I knew that removing them would not be possible. They were to be 4' wide and 9' tall to match the other 14 windows on the front of the home. These were to be Hurricane windows with motorized blackout shades built in at a cost of $16K each. In our discussion I described several options. I expressed that if the windows were not there that we would not have to design around them and would therefore have more options to the final design. If the windows had to stay, we could work them into the design but a perfect theater has no windows. The last option was to keep the windows visible from the outside but covered inside which offers the look the home needed but the flexibility the theater interior needed. He liked the idea of covering them up and I let him know that we have done this procedure many times with excellent results. He will purchase the windows without the blackout shades built in which will save him about $3600 each.
We walked over to the house to look at the room which was just a concrete shell. The floor and ceiling were poured concrete and 2 of the walls were exterior walls of concrete block. Metal support columns showed the boundary for the interior walls. A farther discussion ensued regarding levels of sound proofing. I advised that there are many levels of sound abatement and asked what he wanted to achieve. The client said he had a bedroom above the theater and aside from the 2 exterior walls, the others butted up to an electrical room which is where the AV gear would go and a hall way. He said he wanted as much control as he could get. I told him that the highest level would require building a room within the room but that is seldom done aside from recording studios. When I asked about the bank of air conditioners located right outside one of the walls I was told that they were the AC units for the entire home. I then advised that they be mounted to isolation pads of neoprene to make sure that the vibration would not transfer through the concrete pad. The builder and client liked the idea very much.
The end result is that I will send the builder plans to create stager stud walls with a combination of sub straights including 1 lb barrier material which is an EVA form of vinyl and resilient channel for the walls and for the ceiling isolation hangers to suspend the drywall by way of springs. I will put together drawings to guide the builder through the sound abatement as well as where to obtain the materials that he is not familiar with. We will build the ceiling down about a foot to allow space for the AC ducts and any other items needed. I will run a set of room mode analysis to make sure that we have the best final dimensions that we can have while still providing enough room to get everything the clients want in the room like seating for 12.
We will start the design but I know it will morph a bit over the next year with regards to electronics and perhaps the finish materials but the design is a lock as the client and his wife found the design they want in my catalogue of images. It is critical to get involved as a theater designer before the walls and ceiling go up if we are going to provide the best finished shell to work from. This room will have a very high level of control with all of the electrical components wired properly regardless of equipment model changes a year from now.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Ten Pounds of Potatos in a Five Pound Pigskin

Recently I was called to visit with the parents of an NFL player who was putting their sons theater together for him in his brand new home. The player owns 2 homes, one in South Florida and the other one in the state of the team he plays for. Since the player is seldom around, the parents offered to help him get his theater done. The interesting problems were many. The first problem is that the parents are making all of the decisions with no idea what they are doing. Another issue is the room itself. It is a room made out of an attic space which is 40' long but only 13' wide with a 7'8" ceiling. To top the odd shape of the room off, the only access to the room is by way of a very narrow stair case which though new is flimsy. When you get to the top of the stairs you walk into the rear of the space where a wet bar has been built which is wall to wall and in that part of the space the ceiling is about 9' tall. The floor is all wood and as you can imagine there is quite an echo in the space.
In my initial conversation with the parents I learned what they wanted and what they have seen. Their exposure to theater designs was very limited to what was described as 1 or 2 poorly thought out rooms. They wanted the front of the room or proscenium to be like a wall unit with display cabinets on each side to show off trophies, helmets and so forth with the screen in the middle. The front has an item that must be designed around in the form of a dry wall build out that is like a bench that spans from left to right 2' deep and 3' tall containing AC ducts. They also want a wainscot on the side walls with columns to break the space up. The wood on the floor is a red stained look and they want red walls, red wood work, red seating and if they have to have carpeting it would be red. The player plays for a team that has red as one of its colors. They had a rudimentary 3-D of the space which a wood worker doing other things in the home came up with which was following what they told him they wanted.
I asked what the room was built to be originally and was told a theater. It came out after a bit that the builder is 25 years old and probably didn't really know what he was doing. By the way the player is also 25 years old and didn't know how to guide the builder. So what was left was a very poorly designed room for any purpose never the less a theater. The one positive is that on each side of the room are 2' wide doors that provide access to the large open space on each side of the room which is the balance of the attic. This makes retro fitting the electronics and speakers easy as well as any lighting changes. The floor was surprisingly poorly done as it was springy and very loud to walk on. There is no way to keep the sound contained in any way because of the open stair way and flimsy floor.
Did I fail to mention that the player wants a pool table by the bar and 3 rows of seating for the screen? I can't imagine how they are going to get a pool table up these stairs. Seating will be challenging enough. He wants the largest screen he can have and there lies another serious problem. 3 rows of seats, large screen and a ceiling of only 7'8". I advised that a sight line would have to be created to see what would be possible. I suggested that a 235 aspect screen would make a lot of since as it could be pushed close to the ceiling which would solve several problems. It would allow the projector to mount flat to the ceiling or perhaps be partially recessed and if the screen is high enough we might be able to get away with 6" rises for each of the 2 rear rows. These guys are all tall so we need whatever tricks we can use. I suggested that the memorabilia should live at the bar and not at the front of the room. This would allow us to bring the screen out and if a perf screen, the speakers could be hidden. Now we can have a proscenium. By the way, they were thinking about a drop screen with art or an image of the player on the wall when not showing a movie. I expressed that they would be spending money on an inferior device with no advantages. In our conversation I expressed that I am a professional and have been designing theaters for more than 15 years and this room would be a challenge even for me.
I invited the parents to see some properly designed rooms and about a week later they visited my facility. They liked what they saw but another issue arose. They want to keep the cost low because as they said, the player would only live in the house for 3-5 years and they did not think he would get his money back out of it. I advised on going with a classic in neutral colors which would increase the value of the home but they are stuck on the team red color. Then came the discussion about budget. The comment that they stated is that they didn't want to spend $200K on a theater in a home he would not be in for long. Now, we haven't discussed budget but more came from them. They said that they looked at seating somewhere and "It was too expensive, at $1,000 per seat". I advised that $1K is where it starts for anything decent. I put the proposal together and forwarded it to the AV dealer that we are working with to present to the parents. The interior came out at about $125K which would provide everything they wanted but I am guessing about$100k more than they thought they were going to spend. The electronics will put this room to $200K. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. If they go with the wood worker and cheap electronics, it will be a really bad theater and by bad I don't mean good!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Challenges of Media Rooms

The other day I was at a clients home to look at a space which has acoustic issues but this time is was a living room. Since we usually advise on theaters and conference rooms I had to think out side of the box a bit. The clients live in a home in Miami which is large, stark and very contemporary. As I went through the process of defining what they were looking for and what they would be open to doing to get to a satisfactory point I was told that they would not consider window treatments of any sort and that the middle sized area rug might be replaced but the new one would only be about 1 foot larger in each direction.

The room is a challenge. It is 22' tall by 20' deep by 21.5' wide with a tile floor, has an area rug with a large glass coffee table, large windows over 2 walls of sliding glass doors. The ceiling is flat and the couch which is the only furniture aside from the coffee table is leather. An additional acoustical concern is that the front of the room is open to a kitchen and hall way. There is no carpeting in this home.

The clients complained that when they have even a small number of friends over, the noise gets out of hand very quickly and watching TV is no pleasure. I showed as many images of projects as I had with me and they liked the looks of a room that we did with a chair rail and simple clean light colored panels above the chair rail and a darker version in the lower ones. They also liked a conference room design that had 18" x 18" panels spaces apart in different colors. This room is going to have a 5.1 surround system and the client don't want to see the speakers which will require in wall mounting, however we are dealing with exterior walls. The surround speakers can not be placed in the ceiling as that is 22' high and will sound bad.

In a room with this type of layout, I would normally try to get as much material into the space a I can but the other wrench that the client threw my way was a budget of $10K to $15K. They asked if covering one wall or the ceiling would be the best bet and I advised having absorptive materials on more than one surface to get the best bang for the buck. I currently have 2 proposals put together for them. One is a coverage on all wall surfaces in the living room up to the lower edge of the upper windows including a chair rail and the other is for the conference room look. The conference room look will just barely make the budget but the other, nicer looking in my opinion,
will actually do more to solve the acoustical problems and more than doubles the budget.

I am betting that the more advanced proposal will be one accepted. If so, the room will finally sound pretty good and get more use.