Putting the Audience Front and Center

Installed seating suppliers take the the lead as facility owners seek to maximize ROI.

by Kenn Busch

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The fixed seating you choose for an auditorium, lecture hall, theater, luxury suite or place of worship needs to satisfy the requirements of a variety of different audiences.

First, it must be comfortable enough for people to stay for a long worship service, a 90-minute opera, a three-hour NFL game or an all-day training seminar. Comfort, of course, is more than just ergonomics. The seating layout will determine how easily the audience can get in and out of their seats and rows, and the design of the seating itself has a significant effect on how well the audience can hear and see what’s going on from any location in the theater or room.

For facility owners, seating must meet targeted capacity goals, comply with municipal and international codes, be flexible enough for the varied functions held in the building, and enhance the aesthetics of the theater or room. (In higher education, for example, an auditorium may be the only space the community ever sees, and is usually one of the first destinations for candidates for admission—not to mention their parents, who will be writing the checks should the blossoming scholar happen to choose that school.)

The facilities department will lobby for seating that is convenient and cost-effective to care for, clean, and clean around.

The high price of land and shortage of space has forced architects and interior designers to create multipurpose spaces that offer maximum ROI for hall owners, such as arenas and large spaces that can be used as sports facilities, as well as venues for concerts or conventions, or churches that can host local theater, music performances and community meetings.

setting the stage, assembling the playersThe fixed seating selection begins with a clear understanding of how the space will be used, and by whom. Some of the questions that need to be asked include:

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    After reading this article, you should be able to:

    • Describe the benefits of fixed seating in a variety of environments

    • Discuss the access and egress requirements for fixed seating installations

    • Determine which types of fixed seating are compatible with different facility configurations

    • Discuss the advantages of the different materials used in fixed seating construction

    For musical concerts, performances or plays, will they be amplified or strictly acoustic? Will there be an orchestra pit or a dance floor?
  • For training sessions, are writing surfaces, microphones or access to data ports needed?
  • Will a worship facility double as a concert venue?
  • Is it general admission or reserved seating?
  • Is the typical audience young or elderly? Are there enough ADA access locations to meet code?

To complicate things further, designing for some of these elements may affect others.

With so many factors to balance, you might be thinking about bringing in an expert to help. The great news is that the top installed seating suppliers offer consultative services to guide you through the process, from beginning to end.

At least one fixed seating supplier offers complete project tracking via a cloud-computing software package. It gives all parties involved the ability to stay on top of the project schedule, comment, and share their progress and concerns—this includes the architects, interior designers, electricians, HVAC vendors, lighting suppliers and acoustical engineers. Because it is a cloud-based program, it frees users from needing to have specific hardware or software installed locally.

This kind of dynamic and all-inclusive communication facilitates a more streamlined and successful outcome, because the whole team is constantly engaged, through the briefing, concepting, CAD rendering, prototyping and installation phases. Without open lines of communication, the entire project may be compromised because one or two people are forced to interpret and attempt to deal with every issue that arises, whether or not it’s within their field of expertise.

Fixed seating projects are also trending toward a more European approach—custom products designed entirely to the customers’ requirements, versus off-the-shelf “cookie cutter” solutions—so dynamic project tracking and management is a critical part of the complete package.

Here are the main players in the fixed seating market, and their concerns and roles in the process:

  • theater consultants
    • Layout development w Seatway dimension
    • Gangway/aisle dimension w Line of sights check
    • Configurations w Chair specifications
    • Fire retardancy w Ergonomic details
    • Safety requirements w Accessories
    • Adhering to building codes
  • architects
    • Design direction w General coordination
    • Materials choices w Form and details development
    • Integrates the performance and style of the space
  • acoustic consultants
    • Creates and analyzes virtual theater acoustic models
    • Finds and specifies acoustic parameters for chairs
    • Checks materials in advance
    • Follows the chair design development process with stage tests
  • contractors
    • Project management w Time planning
    • Budget control w Client guarantor
    • General coordination of construction phases
  • clients
    • Functionality w Durability
    • Spare parts availability w User-friendly features
    • Customized functions w Return on investment
    • Drawings and maintenance handbook
    • Ease of repair by maintenance staff

And here are some typical applications for installed seating and their key elements:

  • theaters and auditoriums
    • Acoustic standards w Comfort
    • Product flexibility and adaptability w Excellence in design
  • meeting and conference rooms
    • Space w Ergonomics
    • Product flexibility and adaptability w Design
  • lecture halls
    • Maximum seating capacity w Functionality
    • Ergonomics w Sturdiness
    • Product flexibility and adaptability
  • places of worship
    • Comfort w Space
    • Product flexibility and adaptability w Design

plotting the layoutFirst, it’s important to clarify our terminology. “Fixed seating” is commonly understood to be seating with tip-up or automatic lifting seats, permanently mounted to the floor or riser fronts in an auditorium, performance hall, luxury suite or similar facility.

There are multiple facility configurations: curved, straight, tiered, stepped and sloped. While there are no fixed seating styles engineered specifically for any of these layouts, certain designs will allow greater seat density for tighter radius curves.

In any of these configurations seating may be mounted to either the floor or to the face of the riser behind; however, seating attached to a floor- or riser-mounted beam may not be compatible with certain curved configurations. Beam-mounted seating can sometimes transmit vibrations to other occupants, depending on the number of seats on the beam. Riser-mounted and beam-mounted seating makes cleaning under the seats more accessible.

Some manufacturers also offer freestanding (moveable) bases for their chairs, with adjustable glides, suction feet or even casters, for convenient reconfiguring for open spaces or to make way for additional ADA locations, when required.

To support floor anchors for stanchion, pedestal, beam or riser-mount standards, concrete must be 3,000 PSI. Rebar and conduit must be no less than 1 7/8 inches below the surface. If the floor is wood, it must be at least 1 ½ inches thick.

Most riser treads are 36 inches deep, although because knee room is tighter in riser seating than in main floor seating, 38-inch treads are recommended. Seats are installed so the seat back creates an overhang of the riser behind. Against the back wall, risers must be deeper to accommodate the seat back and 2 inches of clearance. These dimensions may be different depending on the particular seat style that is being used.

ease of movementAccording to international building code, minimum egress is 15 ¾ inches (400 millimeters) for fixed seating. To ensure easy exit of persons from the seats, a maximum of only seven seats can be crossed by any one person (i.e. eight seats per row) in order to get to an exit aisle if the row is served by only one aisle. If the row is served by two aisles then a maximum of 20 seats may be used in a row.

Aisles that exit the seating areas must be a minimum of 35 ½ inches (900 millimeters) wide for aisles that only serve seats on one side, and 43 ½ inches (1,100 millimeters) wide for aisles serving seats on two sides. In addition to these minimums, 1 inch of aisle width must be added for every 39 ½-inch (1,000 millimeters) distance from the exit to the furthest point from the exit along the path a person would take.

These rules can be used in general, but the international building code does have a number of exceptions depending on the number and placement of exits, the numbers of seats that exit into a specific aisle, and egress depth.

Flip-up seating increases capacity over fixed continuous bench-style seating, such as pews in places of worship, by defining the number of occupants per row. People on benches typically try to spread out, taking up about 26 inches each, versus 21 inches in an installed chair. These gaps of 4 or 5 inches per occupant result in an additional space loss of 20 percent. Cleaning crews also appreciate self-rising seats because debris naturally falls to the floor, eliminating the need to brush off fixed seats or pews.

comfort and functionFlip-up seats are driven by one of three basic mechanisms: springs, gas cylinders or gravity-activated. Gravity-activated seats are considered the most maintenance free and longest lasting, because the designed balance of the seat automatically returns it to the up position. Gravity mechanisms also tend to be quieter, which is an important consideration in most installations.

Ergonomically installed seating distributes occupants’ weight more evenly than bench seating, enhancing circulation, reducing muscle tension and better regulating body temperature.

Higher quality installed seating uses cold-cured molded foam seat and back cushions, rather than slab or laminated foam. In the latter, any shape or contour is provided by the upholstery detail, resulting in inconsistent density. It also tends to wear more rapidly.

Cold-cured molded foam is poured in its liquid state into a mold, and forms an integral “skin” surface as it cools and cures. Its density is much more uniform and consistent throughout its shape and contours than that of slab foam, and it also retains its shape, extending the life of the chair. The skin serves to deter moisture absorption and foam disintegration, delay stain penetration, and reduce odor retention and foam off-gassing.

By carefully forming ergonomic seatbacks, manufacturers are able to minimize foam at the lowest part of the back and move the lumbar support up to the hollow of the back, increasing both comfort and leg room. Too often, what is supposed to be a lumbar support is too low, missing the area that requires support and pushing the sacrum and hips forward, reducing circulation.

Cold-cured foam over a molded seat pan results in a firmer seat that is more rigid and robust, and holds its shape longer than seats with metal frames with webbing or serpentine steel-spring chair frames. Wood backs and under-seats may be offered as an upgrade feature, although these are more for warmth and style than for any specific comfort or durability benefits, and may affect the acoustics of the room.

Although not required by code, taller seat backs may be specified (42 inches versus 34-36 inches) to provide greater safety when risers are 14 inches or greater, and to act as a modesty screen by extending above the knees of those behind. Some backrest designs will also accommodate optional headrests without changing the chair depth.

Upholstery options abound, naturally, but should be chosen carefully. Most commercial-grade fabrics are treated for stain resistance and ease of cleaning, but be sure any special care instructions or limitations are fully understood.

If your supplier is willing to manufacture with COM (“customer’s own materials”), consideration must be given to the durability of the material. A double-rub test rating of 500,000 is recommended for fabrics used in installed seating. For comparison, most commercial grade fabrics usually wear out after 100,000-250,000 double-rubs. Domestic fabrics are usually rated at 25,000 double-rubs. If a COM fabric is required, most manufacturers will ask for sample yardage to test on the chair to make sure that it is compatible.

When it comes to making repairs or replacing upholstery, fixing an individual seat is obviously more practical than replacing an entire bench cushion.

elbow roomThere are two schools of thought when it comes to specifying installed seating with or without arms. At first glance, it would seem that arms function as much as a social buffer as they do an actual arm rest, but this is actually not the case. Chair arms actually force the occupants’ elbows out, taking up more side space and resulting in more uninvited contact. And in reality, only one person can use the arm rest at a time.

Arm dividers are of limited use in helping people rise from their seats, especially if the seat itself is of sturdy construction. Those who need help rising almost always reach for the back of the seat in front of them or use their own knees; pushing yourself up using arm rests takes a great deal of strength and balance.

Specifying arms takes up at least a minimum of 2 inches of the seat space. However, should you decide arms are needed, each seating product will usually offer several different hard-surface and upholstered options.

Aisle panels or caps for the ends of rows may be an option should you need to clearly identify row numbers, or just want that finished, traditional look.

writing tablets and accessoriesMost installed seating systems can be accessorized with writing tables, mounted on the seatback ahead or a tablet arm. Anti-panic seatback-mounted tables will not reduce egress, although tablet arms do force you to give up a little seat space.

Standard in Europe and gaining ground here are “anti-panic” mechanisms in writing tables and tablets, which allow them to smoothly and easily retract with a very light touch—or a bump from the torso—should the occupant need to rise quickly and exit the row. Older designs and mechanisms are prone to jamming, are heavy to lift or seize up with quick or panicked movements, trapping the occupant and blocking egress.

Other accessories range from traditional add-ons like vertical or horizontal baskets, beverage holders, and personal or safety lighting, to a full suite of multimedia functions including microphones, headset jacks, interactive touch screens, and data and power ports. Such devices have obvious value for conferences that are translated into several languages or require audience participation, but can also provide subtitles for a foreign-language opera, or discreetly alert an audience member of a home emergency during a ballet performance.

Facility owners are beginning to inquire about the ability to use seating multimedia to buy licensed performance souvenirs online, place a bet on the game you’re watching, order food and drinks, electronically display hymns for worship, or even make electronic donations. Some installed seating systems also incorporate HVAC into the pedestals or the bottoms of divider arms. Distributing airflow like this reduces noise-producing velocity, and offers Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) advantages by cooling the audience more efficiently—heat displaces naturally upward and out of the building.

seating and acousticsAcoustics in a room are described on a continuum from “live” (lots of sound reflection, like a gymnasium) to “dead” (like recording studio booth walled with foam). Seating is an integral element in the acoustic design of a room because it affects how sound behaves, whether or not anyone is sitting in it. A flipped-up seat plays the bigger role because it’s essentially a large surface directly facing the stage. A wood seat bottom is highly reflective, so a gridwork of small holes is commonly drilled in it to bring the acoustic properties under control.

For installations in which acoustics are especially critical, chair prototypes are sent to labs where acoustic engineers test them and suggest modifications to other materials and surfaces in a space. When necessary, a thin layer of acoustic material is added under the upholstery to control the seating’s acoustic role.

spaces are evolvingSeating has evolved significantly in the last decade as demands increase for more integrated technology and higher levels of comfort. The nature of live events and performances is also affecting audience expectations. With average ticket prices for concerts and theater productions now over $60, people rightfully expect a luxurious environment.

Experts are predicting that spaces themselves will become far more dynamic than could have been imagined even 10 years ago. Particularly in Europe, designers are imagining and planning for spaces in which different areas of the floor itself will be hydraulically raised and lowered relative to the stage, morphing a venue from a concert hall to a boxing arena. Seating will disappear into trap doors for standing-room only events and reappear as necessary for more formal performances.

Ensuring that your projects meet both current expectations and the demands of the future requires choosing a quality seating supplier with the expertise to customize their products to your clients’ specific needs and goals.


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