Venue design: keeping the focus on people (and flexibility!)

April 9, 2021

Originally published as a LinkedIn article by Aaron Wong.

When we’re designing spaces for gatherings, we always consider the bigger picture. Who will use the space? What kinds of events or productions might happen there? How can it best serve the local community? How do we envision the needs of the users and community changing in the future? How can we make the space inviting, accessible, and inclusive? That’s a starting point.

At the heart of all these questions is the people. At Theatre Projects, we strive to create spaces that come alive when people gather together, and—after a year in which hosting large scale public events has been all but impossible—it’s a great time to reconsider what, if anything, will change as a result of a global pandemic. How can we make our venues safer and healthier for our communities without losing any of the magic of human connection in intimate surroundings?

Any broad change in public attitudes will determine a lot of what will change in the future—that’s always been the case, but what we’ve all experienced over the past year may accelerate an evolution in changing habits and behavior. We’re hoping that some of the trends that have evolved in this past year will make people feel confident that attending an event won’t jeopardize their health or safety, and they’ll return to the spaces that bring them joy. After all, if we’re creating spaces that people will want to use, we need to design them to the standards they want and have come to expect.

Here are some of the changes that we have seen and anticipate might affect how we design venues in the future.

  • HVAC and filtration system upgrades – there has been an emphasis that, in a post-pandemic world, there should be updates to HVAC and filtration system standards for public buildings. In order to accommodate this push for healthier environments, we’ll need to allow for more space in our venues during the design process and work even more closely with the HVAC engineer to ensure that noise levels won’t negatively affect the performance environments. While we care about the quality and efficiency of air distribution, we also need to maintain a focus on the purpose of the venue—people gathering together to participate in an event with minimal environmental distractions.
  • Outdoor event settings – as the weather gets nicer, some venues want to continue hosting events outdoors, climate permitting—avoiding the need for potential air filtration systems completely for some events, as well as allowing for greater social distancing. This push to “get back to nature” seems to be the quickest and most economical way to build patron confidence. 
  • Sustainable design features - evolving public attitudes has also accelerated the demand for more environmentally friendly design features in our venues—natural lighting and ventilation, passive heating and cooling systems, and the use of technology to improve building and operational efficiency, to name a few. These don’t just improve our environment but support the health and wellbeing of our communities too.
  • Health-oriented design finishes – we have seen an infusion of more antimicrobial surfaces and materials (such as medical-grade seating fabrics and copper door handles, restroom fixtures, and handrails) installed in our buildings to reduce the spread of bacteria and disease. How widespread any of these finishes will become will almost certainly be determined by how well we can seamlessly integrate them into our designs.
  • Flexible programming needs – during the past year, many arts and events venues stepped up to provide practical support to their communities during protests for social justice movements, extreme weather events, and a public health crisis. We hope venues will continue to play a similar role in future, finding ways to bring people together and promote stronger cohesion within our communities. So, we hope to see a shift in venue operations and business models to welcome more community-focused social events and programming. While many of our spaces are already capable of hosting these kinds of events, being able to activate and pivot the use of public areas and ancillary spaces to support the various needs of the community will be paramount. Those community needs also need to be considered when designing all spaces—not just the auditoriums—as it will likely evolve the design of these spaces for event types not yet imagined.

Humans are social creatures and we’ll always need to find ways to come together, share ideas, stories, and experiences. And the challenge will always be to find ways to balance the intimacy, flexibility, sustainability, and accessibility of our spaces with the need to create a healthy, supportive, and inclusive environment for the people who will use it.

If you’re working on a project that includes a gathering space—whether it’s a dedicated performing arts venue; a presentation space in a museum, retail, or corporate environment; a space for learning and discovery; or a mixed-use development with a community space for informal gatherings—and you’re wondering how to increase its flexibility or add value to the local community, get in touch and we’ll be happy to explore the options with you. You can reach me at [email protected] or 203-493-2978.

Venue design: keeping the focus on people (and flexibility!)
Credit: Theatre Projects
Venue design: keeping the focus on people (and flexibility!)
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Phillips Center