Venues for the performing arts are complex, high risk and very much in the public eye. Simon Downing of Davis Langdon, an Aecom company sets out the design and construction considerations and the impact these all have on the total project cost


Performing arts buildings are complex, high risk and costly. These buildings are designed to house the performing arts of music, drama, opera and dance. Often designed to be awe-inspiring, they are more about volume than floorplate. Challenging to fund, they are built to provide a cultural function, which will benefit the public at large rather than an individual client.

Performing arts buildings have three distinctive sub-types:

  • Concert halls: mainly used for music
  • Theatres: mainly used for drama
  • Opera houses: used for opera and ballet.

Sometimes these sub-types may be combined to provide a multi-purpose hall, often for use by a local authority.

Within each sub-type there are wide variations. A concert hall may be a 500-seat hall for chamber music, or a 2,500-seater for performances by orchestras. Halls may be more suited to non-amplified or amplified music.

Since the mid-nineties, arts buildings have been well funded by either governments or philanthropic individuals, often linked to lottery funding. However, in more recent times, the effect of worldwide austerity measures and the changing priorities of the public purse have meant considerably fewer projects moving from initial concept to construction. Despite these challenges, there is a continuing need to ensure performing arts buildings are modern and meet the requirements of today.

The Arts Council, and the Heritage Lottery Fund are still significant potential funders for performing arts buildings. Heritage Lottery Funding is linked to heritage-related issues,
and generally the building user or owner will need to raise match funding. In London, most West End theatres are privately funded, and there is an increasing move to self-funded community theatre, many associated with schools.

Arts projects are high risk in that they are highly complex, bespoke buildings, and often have inexperienced clients with limited budgets.

Analysis by the National Audit Office on 15 early Arts Council/lottery-funded projects found that although most projects met or exceeded attendance targets and other, artistic, targets, nine were completed late, and 13 exceeded their budget. Subsequent projects have also experienced difficulties.

Steps to improve project delivery have included more vigorous monitoring, strong client project management resources, setting aside a significant client reserve to cover unforeseen contingencies and also funding shortfalls.

Any arts or cultural organisation embarking on a capital project must ensure that it has a well-defined project proposal, and the required management resources. Business planning is essential and funding bodies will ensure that plans are artistically and financially robust.


The key question to consider when designing a performing arts building is to consider the client’s aspirations. This will determine the brief and the key value drivers throughout the life of the project.

The theatre consultant and a specialist cost consultant can add much to the client’s concept in helping to refine it into a coherent brief for the architect and design team while also guiding the first thoughts on funding.

At the heart of the client’s aspirations will be the auditorium and the relationship between the performer and the audience. The “feel” of the auditorium, the size, the number of seats, and the finish to the auditorium, are all important.

The back of house space, the stage and technical equipment can be equally important value drivers. These will contribute to the attraction of the building for performers.
Increasingly, the foyer space and the retail space are perceived as value drivers. They can transform the building from having an evening-only use to an all-day use. At London’s Royal Festival Hall, the foyers are now vibrant with activity throughout the day, and form a destination in their own right.

Foyer, retail and catering space will contribute to the economic viability of the building.


Each performing arts building is unique, designed to meet the aspirations of the client while providing a building fit for use. Even a local theatre is expected to make an architectural contribution to its neighbourhood, and an international theatre will most likely be an iconic building in its own right. All performing arts buildings add to local economic activity and often lead to developments in surrounding areas. Classic examples are the Lowry and Salford Quays, the Globe and London’s north Southwark.

Key design drivers are:

  • Volume
  • Number of seats
  • Area per seat
  • Core area
  • Core front of house efficiency
  • Area front of house
  • Core back of house efficiency
  • Area back of house
  • Lifts, risers, plant,structure, efficiency
  • Specification level.

Targets for these need to be established as early as possible in the concept stage to guide the design team and to plan costs and fundraising.

The theory of layout

These are complex buildings with many functions. The diagram below shows the complexity of the relationship between the various types of space. In particular, it can be seen how plant, circulation and space for structure is required, if the building is to function properly.


Core area - performance space

The performance space is the core of the building, enabling performers, directors and designers to reach out to their audience. It includes the seating for the audience, and the stage for the performers. A well designed performance space will enhance the performer and link them to their audience, whereas a poorly conceived space will make it much harder to perform and to participate.

There are as many different forms of auditoriums as there are ways of presenting performing art.

Specific designs might include a proscenium, where the audience is separated from the stage by an arch; a thrust stage where the stage projects out into the audience; theatre in the round where the audience surrounds the stage on all sides; an amphitheatre; or an arena.

Flexibility can be important, both from an artistic and commercial perspective, but may increase both capital and operating costs.

In auditoriums and stage planning, the key issues are:

  • Arrangement of the performance space to create a two-way communication between the performer and the audience and the principal character of the performing arts building
  • The design should address sightlines, audibility, access for all, means of escape, audience comfort, the needs of the performing brief and “get in” to the stage
  • Mechanical services installations, providing an appropriate balance between capital cost and running cost, audience comfort, space take-up by ductwork and plant noise levels. The introduction of air conditioning has been a key aspect of many projects, improving an audience’s concentration and experience. However, running costs are potentially a major problem. Some projects have been developed to use low-energy solutions, such as ground water cooling and natural ventilation flows
  • Seating. This may be flexible and can be easily and economically rearranged, or fixed
  • Technical provision throughout the auditorium to enable fully flexible sound, lighting and staging, meeting modern health and safety standards. For example, provision of a technical attic, to provide safe, quick and flexible installation of production lighting and audiovisual installations.

Front of house

Front of house areas represent the public face of a performing arts building, and are complex, multifunctional spaces that need to meet a wide range of demands, from break-out space to retail and catering space, while creating an identity for the building, and the cultural organisations that use it. They will be full before a performance but much emptier at other times and need to be warm and inviting in both conditions.

The foyers should draw in the public and create a sense of anticipation ahead of the performance. Many challenges in the design of public space relate to establishing the character of the venue, accommodating intensive patterns of use, and specifying for high levels of wear and tear.

Sizing of areas is a key issue, balancing comfort and convenience against the high capital cost of front of house space. Other considerations include:

  • Design of circulation flows to avoid pinch points and cross flows
  • Opportunities for performance in the public spaces
  • Design of layout to optimise the number of staff employed and avoid their potential isolation
  • Efficient and effective segregation of public and private space including secure money handling and space for patrons taken ill during a performance.

Back of house

Back of house facilities are often the first to be reduced if funding is constrained. However, space for technical and artistic staff is relatively cheap compared with front of house and auditorium areas, and a reduction may not deliver significant cost savings.

Major considerations regarding back of house design and layout include:

  • Getting the brief correct. For example, only providing rehearsal and production facilities where these will be required on a regular basis
  • Locating staff accommodation to facilitate management and the strengthening of company spirit and identity
  • Access requirements, including appropriate access to technical areas, and for unloading and getting equipment on stage
  • Storage space for props, musical instruments, and technical equipment. Storage is particularly critical in buildings where the auditorium is designed to be rearranged.


Along with the key drivers and design issues, there are specific issues and requirements that need to be considered.

Buildings that house the performing arts can be very expensive. Often they have an innovative design, so they do not benefit from the use of well tried construction techniques, or the economies of scale that are available to commercial schemes of a similar value.

Indicative construction costs per m2 are:

  • Mid-range theatre (regional standard) £2,500-£4,000
  • Large theatre (national standard, more than 600 seats) £4,000-£6,000
  • Opera house (iconic standard) £6,000+

One challenge is that costs are mainly driven by the auditorium, stage and foyer areas, so there is little flexibility once the size of the performance space, and character and quality of the building has been determined. Furthermore, there is no simple set of cost drivers that can be addressed to make savings without drastically affecting the character and quality of a scheme. Key cost drivers are:

  • Building volume
  • Wall to floor ratio
  • Quality of facade treatments
  • Acoustic standards
  • Building services specification
  • Extent of finishes and client fit-out
  • Theatre equipment (technical fit-out).

Indicative budgets for theatre equipment are often initially set as a percentage of the construction budget. (Excluding theatre equipment.)

Size of theatre% of construction budget
Large theatre/opera house (greater than 1,000 seats)18-25%
Medium-size theatre (up to 1,000 seats)15-20%
Small theatre (up to 500 seats)15-22%

[There is a minimum base level for equipment]

A receiving house would tend to have a lower percentage of the budget committed to theatre equipment than a producing house of the same size.

In the context of performing arts buildings it is also important to consider the concept of total project cost. Typically, arts clients will only commission large construction projects infrequently, compared with a commercial developer who will be aware of all the costs involved.

The construction element of a performing arts building could only comprise 60% of the total project cost, excluding site purchase. Examples of non-construction costs are:

  • Surveys to existing buildings
  • Design competition and consultant selection costs
  • Furniture, fittings and equipment
  • IT and communication systems
  • Professional fees - project team
  • Legal fees
  • Planning and Building Control fees
  • Insurances
  • In-house project costs including fundraising, marketing and reopening
  • Decant costs and interim performance space costs
  • Project and construction contingencies
  • Non-recoverable VAT.



The cost model is for a new build regional theatre, with a Gross Internal Area (GIA) of about 4,850m². Costs are at first quarter 2013 price levels, based on a lump-sum contract in a South-east of England location. The following items are excluded: fit out of retail, kitchen and exhibition spaces: site preparation, external works and incoming services: professional fees, VAT and specific site abnormals. The rates may need to be adjusted to account for specification, site conditions, procurement route and programme.

 Total (£)£/m2 
Basement substructure, sheet piling, temporary supports: 600m @400240,000  
CFA Piled foundations, 600mm diameter, 21m deep: 140 nr @ £3,200448,000  
Ground slab: 300 thick on hardcore bed: 1,830m @ £160292,800  
Allowance 200mm for suspended slab: 530m @ £220116,600  
Allowance for lift pits, including excavation, water proofing and insulation 1 item @ £20,00020,000  
Frame and upper floors1,589,800327,799.28%
Structural steel columns: 120 tonnes @ £2,500300,000  
Structural steel beams: 210 tonnes @ £2,000420,000  
Additional steelwork in the form of steel trusses and circular hollow steelwork: 1 item @ £200,000200,000  
Allowance for fireproofing to steel beams and columns: 1 item @ £75,00075,000  
Precast concrete planks: 100-200mm thick: structural topping, reinforcement: 2,220m @ £90199,800  
Allowance for reinforced concrete tiered floor system: 850m @ £400 340,000340,000  
Lighting bridge and forestage grid over auditorium: including support system: 100m @ £55055,000  
Kingspan roof panels: including secondary steelwork, insulation and perimeter treatment: 1,830m @ £130237,900  
Steelwork trusses to fly tower60,000  
Cladding to areas of sloping roof: 420m @ £18075,600  
Allowance for roof access and mansafe system: including access hatches, ladders, etc: 1 item 2,270m @ £2045,400  
Allowance for insitu concrete staircases, each staircase comprising 2 flights and 2 landings: 10 nr @ £7,00070,000  
Allowance for other steps to front of house areas10,000  
Allowance for balustrades and handrails to all stairs, balconies and performing areas: 915m @ £500457,500  
Allowance for balustrades and handrails to back of house stairs and performance areas: 600m @ £350210,000  
Allowance for access ladders, etc, to plant spaces: 1 item @ £10,00010,000  
Allowance for reinforced concrete ramps: 2 nr @ £10,00020,000  
External walls, windows and doors1,572,250324.189.18%
Cavity wall construction, insulation, render both sides to roof walls to open plant area paint: 1,000m2 @ £220220,000  
Allowance for cladding to the studio theatre walls: 600m2 @ £400240,000  
Glazed curtain walling to foyer, third floor and elevated office: 665m2 @ £900598,500  
Allowance for cladding and insulation to fly tower: 975m2 @ £250243,750  
Allowance for facade enhancements: 1 item @ £200,000200,000  
Allowance for external doors, including feature entrance doors, steel doors and scenery doors 1 item @ £70,00070,000  
Internal walls (structural)104,70021.590.61%
140mm blockwork: 1,650m2 @ £4066,000  
Reinforced concrete wall 300mm, lift shafts: 215m2 @ £18038,700  
Internal partitions & doors433,25089.332.53%
Auditorium walls jumbo partition, insulation: 975m2 @ £6058,500  
Partitions: dry lining taped and jointed 2,095m2 @ £50104,750  
Allowance for glazing: 1 item @ £20,00020,000  
Allowance for internal doors, including acoustic doors: 1 item @ £250,000250,000  
Wall finishes473,45097.622.76%
Extra over for fair face on concrete/precast: 1,310m2 @ £1013,100  
Extra over on blockwork for fair face and pointing: 4,115m2 @ £520,575  
Plaster: 7,315m2 @ £20146,300  
Wall paint: 10,800m2 @ £775,600  
Hygienic paint: 1,335m2 @ £1520,025  
Wall paper to bar: 130m2 @ £202,600  
Tiling: 550m2 @ £5530,250  
Allowance for enhanced finishes to foyer: 1 item @ £20,00020,000  
Allowance for acoustic treatment: 1 item @ £100,000100,000  
Allowance for Internal decoration to fly tower: 1 item @ £20,00020,000  
Allowance for cable routes: 1 item @ £25,00025,000  
Floor finishes490,500101.132.86%
Screed: 2,690m2 @ £3080,700  
Carpet tiles to BOH: 210m2 @ £408,400  
Vinyl to BOH: 835m2 @ £4033,400  
Semi-sprung stage floor: 510m2 @ £10051,000  
Auditorium carpet: 850m2 @ £120102,000  
Carpet to corridors, etc: 330m2 @ £7023,100  
Carpet to foyer: 365m2 @ £6021,900  
Safety flooring, WC and kitchens : 290m2 @ £6518,850  
Timber strip flooring to FOH: 35m2 @ £1505,250  
Timber strip flooring to stairs: 95m2 @ £20019,000  
Hard finish to foyers: 315m2 @ £10031,500  
Paint to plant rooms, stores: 765m2 @ £107,650  
Allowance for matwells and nosings: 1 item @ £20,00020,000  
Skirting: 3,350m @ £1550,250  
Allowance for wheelchair locations to auditorium: 1 item @ £10,00010,000  
Paving to external balcony: 100m2 @ £757,500  
Ceiling finishes264,03554.441.54%
Low quality suspended ceiling: 655m2 @ £5032,750  
Med quality MF suspended ceiling: 315m2 @ £6018,900  
High quality MF suspended ceiling: 765m2 @ £8061,200  
Extra over on reinforced concrete planks for fair face (unpainted) 1,145m2 @ £55,725  
Plaster finish: 250m2 @ £205,000  
Emulsion paint finish: 2,285m2 @ £613,710  
Suspended ceiling to underside of auditorium: 635m2 @ £10063,500  
Oil paint: generally to public areas: 1,490m2 @ £1014,900  
Hygienic paint, 290m2 @ £154,350  
Finishes to underside of auditorium balconies: 440m2 @£10044,000  
Internal directional and advertising signage: 1 item @ £50,00050,000  
WC cubicles duct and back panels: 45 nr @ £1,20054,000  
Vanity units: 51 nr @ £50025,500  
Shower surrounds: 2 nr @ £6001,200  
Mirrors and sundries: 48 nr @ £602,880  
Box/booking office joinery and grilles: 1 item @ £10,00010,000  
Main bar and grilles: 1 item @ £70,00070,000  
Dressing room joinery: 1 item @ £50,00050,000  
Kitchenette/WC fit-out: 1 item @ £5,0005,000  
Stage door joinery: 1 item @ £3,0003,000  
Laundry fittings: 1 item @ £2,0002,000  
Cloakroom counter, fittings and grilles: 1 item @ £10,00010,000  
Baby change units: 6 nr @ £7504,500  
Usher seats: 4 nr @ £3001,200  
Sets of safety eyes below seats: 2 nr @ £1,5003,000  
Lighting bars: 1 item @ £30,00030,000  
First aid fit-out: 1 item @ £2,5002,500  
Buggies store fit-out: 1 item @ £1,0001,000  
Fittings to sundry offices and similar: 15 nr @ £5007,500  
Control room fittings: 3 nr @ £2,0006,000  
Roller shutters generally: 1 item @ £32,00032,000  
Roller shutter to bar: 60min pcc finish: 1 item @ £10,00010,000  
Blinds to foyer: 1 item @ £28,00028,000  
Merchandising/drink/info desk: 1 item @ £7,5007,500  
Gate to loading bay: 1 item @ £2,0002,000  
Specialist theatre equipment2,370,000488.66 
Theatre equipment900,000  
Production lighting300,000  
Sound and communication500,000  
Theatre seating: main space: 1,200 nr seats @ £300360,000  
Studio space: 150 nr seats @ £40060,000  
Orchestra pit lift - allowance: 1 item @ £125,000125,000  
Scenery lift: 1 nr @ £125,000125,000  
Front of house lift and enclosure: 1 nr @ £80,00080,000  
Mechanical installations1,516,050312.598.85%
Sanitaryware: 121 pieces plus 10 accessible WCs: 1 item @ £85,00085,000  
Rainwater installation: 4,850m2 @ £734,000  
Soil, waste and vent installation: 4,850m2 @ £1259,000  
Hot and cold water services: 4,850m2 @ £30145,500  
Gas installation: 4,850m2 @ £314,550  
Low pressure hot water system: 4,850m2 @ £50242,500  
Air handling unit: 1 item @ £90,00090,000  
Room ICT: 4 nr @ £6,00024,000  
Ventilation: 1 item @ £530,000530,000  
Smoke extract to stage areas and basement: 1 item @ £40,00040,000  
BMS/controls: 4,850m2 @ £40194,000  
Curtain drencher: 1 item @ £12,00012,000  
Automatic roof smoke vents to staircases: 5 nr @ £3,50017,500  
Testing and commissioning: 4,850m2 @ £628,000  
Electrical installations1,667,000343,719.73%
Mains and sub-mains distribution: 4,850m2 @ £65317,000  
Small power installation: 4,850m2 @ £29139,000  
Power to mechanical services: 4,850m2 @ £1256,000  
Power to stage engineering: 1 item @ £12,00012,000  
Light fittings FOH: 2,850m2 @ £90256,500  
Light fittings BOH: 2,000m2 @ £50100,000  
Lighting wiring: 4,850m2 @ £30145,500  
Emergency lighting: 4,850m2 @ £2097,000  
Wiring for production lighting: 1 item @ £140,000140,000  
Earthing and bonding: 4,850m2 @ £417,000  
Lightning protection: 4,850m2 @ £314,000  
Fire detection and alarms: 4,850m2 @ £23112,000  
Sound/audio: 1 item @ £65,00065,000  
Voice and data: 1 item @ £30,00030,000  
Public address system: 4,850m2 @ £2097,000  
TV aerial system5,000  
Disabled toilet alarms5,000  
Disabled refuge system10,000  
Induction loop to box office: 1 item @ £3,0003,000  
Access control, security detection20,000  
CCTV containment and wiring: 1 item @ £6,0006,000  
Testing and commissioning20,000  
Builders work in connection282,00058.141.65%
Allowance 5%282,000  
Testing and commissioning of building services installations: item @ £30,0003,000  
Management costs, site establishment and site supervision. Contractor’s preliminaries, overheads and profit @ 14.5%1,973,000  
Allowance for design & construction reserve @ 10%1,558,000  
Total construction cost - (including theatre equipment)17,135,0003,530.00100%
(m2 rate based on GIFA)