Creating Sustainable Theatres: Part 2


In Part 1 (October 2009), I spoke in general of sustainability. Here are some specific areas to consider in new buildings or renovations.

Making sustainability an actual goal is the single most important thing you can do. If you start with the goal of a sustainable operation, it will be relatively easy to achieve. If you do it as an afterthought, it will always seem to add cost because you will be modifying a less efficient design. By doing things in a sustainable fashion from the start, you may incur additional costs in some areas, but you are likely to reap savings that net an equal or lower cost in the final analysis.

Next, take a whole-building approach. Think about your construction materials from the sourcing of the raw materials to their ultimate disposal. A “green” material that has a short life or cannot be reused isn’t as “green” as it seems. Facilitate a sustainable operation through design. The easier it is to behave responsibly, the more likely it is that occupants will operate sustainably. A LEED Platinum facility that doesn’t support sustainable operation is a failure in the long run.

And why not reuse an existing structure? In the world of historic preservation, we speak of the embodied energy that is a building. An existing building has already spent energy and carbon being built. As long as it exists, it is the embodiment of the energy spent manufacturing the materials and components. A reused building comes with character for free. When coupled with a sustainability initiative, historic preservation tax credits can make many sustainability initiatives possible.

The Secretary of the Interior’s standards allow a building 50 years old (or younger, architecturally significant structures) to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many performance facilities are architecturally significant. This listing yields significant federal tax credits as high as 20%. Many states offer additional credits. My home state of North Carolina offers 20% state tax credit in addition to the 20% federal. A tax credit yields you $1 in reduced taxes for every $1 spent preserving the structure and keeping it in active use. With some creative financing, this tax credit can be leveraged by a non-profit organization to yield an even greater net budget impact. Look around; in North Carolina, there is also a tax credit, in addition to the preservation tax credit, for putting old mill structures back into use.

Buildings must be designed to accommodate materials separation for recycling. This is particularly important for producing organizations with construction shops, as these are light custom manufacturing operations. Consideration needs to be made for the location of not only dumpsters for landfill-bound waste and for food waste, but for the categories of recyclable materials: wood, paper, metals, plastic, and items for reuse centers.

Just as materials represent embodied energy, the same is true of a physical production, which creates a double carbon footprint: building the set is the first, and sending it to the landfill is the second. Reuse saves the energy spent on producing that element and on its decay. An organization without storage will find that it is throwing away a huge amount of material or driving it to storage. In order to be good environmental stewards, we need to remember the inherent value of stock platforms, flats, costumes, and props when we design facilities. Having an effective storage space for stock materials is good for the environment and good for the operating budget.

We can also use more efficient fixtures. Yes, they use less electricity, but if that is all you consider, they are not arguably financially viable. They also lower the heat load on the building, which means lower cooling costs and electrical costs. During system design, this translates to smaller mechanical systems, smaller ducts, and smaller silencers on the ducts. Efficient fixtures also extend the life of expendable items such as lamps, color filters, and packaging, thereby saving materials, labor, storage, and waste. These units also require less power cable, and fewer are usually required to achieve the same coverage.

Occupancy sensors represent old technology that we often overlook in the name of savings. Offices, dressing rooms, rehearsal halls, restrooms, and even corridors benefit from them. With a more sophisticated control system, they can be incorporated into worklight control systems on stage and in the house, including pit areas, grid, catwalks, followspot booths, control rooms, etc. An occupancy sensor need not be the sole control in a system. The key here is centralized override, so that the sensors do not function during rehearsals and performance.

Daylighting is a fancy word for windows—features we traditionally avoid in theatres, yielding cave-like facilities. They’re a no-brainer in offices, studios, dressing and rehearsal rooms, shops, lobbies, etc. With the use of well-designed blackout systems, even stages and audience chambers can take advantage of windows. My years in a cavernous performing arts center sporting that pasty complexion Frank Zappa referred to as a “studio tan” has made me fond of bright interiors.

And what about air flow? Fan wall HVAC systems are newer and employ an array of fans instead of one huge fan in a mechanical system. They have a variable flow so you only run as many fans as you need for the load. They also produce less low-frequency noise, so the silencers in the system get much smaller. Between fan wall systems and reduced cooling loads, the reduction in the size of ducts and duct components yields easier coordination of systems and can decrease the amount of unoccupied floor space, which means more building for your money.

Indoor air quality can be a significant issue in wardrobe and wig areas in touring facilities where dilution ventilation should be considered. In producing facilities, fabrication shops that manufacture scenery, furniture, small props, and costumes may require spray booths, ventilation hoods, dilution ventilation, and negative pressure to keep fumes from being spread throughout the facility.

Waterless urinals have a perceived “yuck” factor, right? Well, in practice, they are as sanitary as traditional urinals and are ideal in high-use environments, like theatres, as they greatly reduce water consumption. In a 1,000-seat theatre, waterless urinals serving the lobby would save 150 gallons per performance per urinal over conventional urinals.

We can even green our roofs. Theatres generally have huge roofs that can be turned to an advantage. Green roofs, rainwater collection, and bio retention ponds all help contain a facility’s ecological impact to its site. Green roofs provide mass for sound isolation and mitigation of rain impact noise, as well as offer excellent insulation, extending roof cycle life (no UV exposure for covered areas), and reduced solar gain.

Rainwater collection from the roof can act as a source for irrigation and restroom facilities (check with your local code official). In some municipalities, this can be an interesting issue, as sewer charges are based on water usage, and a well-designed system can have minimal potable water usage and a significant waste flow. Where a green roof is not viable, white or reflective material can reduce solar gain, reduce the heat island effect, and give you access to reflectivity tax credits.

With the large roof areas typically found on a theatre, solar water heating is a natural choice because long periods of time pass with little or no usage. The system could be designed to accommodate peak draw or could be augmented with variable rise demand water heaters. This solar water heating could also be used in heating occupied space. Solar heating doesn’t just work when the sun is shining. A well-planned system will hold a volume of heated water for cloudy days and nights.

As photovoltaic and wind technology come online, that roof area can be put to use generating electricity to offset usage. In some areas, even private residences are taking advantage of this by incorporating as utilities and having their electricity sold back into the grid as part of the local utilities’ carbon neutral requirements. Tax credits are available here to help offset the initial cost.

At larger performing arts complexes, where there is a central heating plant, a lot of energy is wasted in the steam production process. There is a small, but growing, cogeneration industry that uses that waste heat to generate electricity and sell it back to the grid.

Many theatre complexes have significant physical plants that generate steam and waste heat. Cooperative utilities can take advantage of the capacity that goes unused during daylight peak consumption hours and sell excess capacity to adjacent structures. This is a green alternative because these existing systems are usually at their most efficient when running at or near capacity. Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, NY (“Proctor’s Gamble,” LD, August 2006) has become the main steam provider to its downtown area.

We are just scratching the surface of existing green technologies that can help theatres to become sustainable organizations in all senses of the word. We need to open our eyes to the multitude of proven technologies already available and to embrace new technologies as they become available. Make sustainability your goal early, and take the whole building approach to sustainability.

Curtis Kasefang is trained as a lighting designer and embarking on his 20th year as a theatre consultant. He is a principal with Theatre Consultants Collaborative, LLC. Prior to his consulting work, he was a production manager for a four-theatre complex. He also chairs his local Historic Districts Commission.

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