As cultural icons they can make a huge contribution to any city, but concert halls can have costs and a complexity of scale to match, write Paul Davis from Aecom and Steve Roberts from Charcoalblue
As much cultural status symbols as performance venues, concert halls are buildings in which architectural innovation is matched only by acoustic perfection. A modern concert hall makes a statement about its host city to the wider world - about cultural vibrancy, taste, sophistication and, ultimately, importance.
Concert halls are also complex, high-risk and costly projects, often likely to hit the headlines for budget overruns and programme delays. To avoid these pitfalls, organisations need a firm statement of intent at the start of the project - that means being clear about the purpose, setting out a robust business case and undertaking a detailed feasibility study that will set a transparent path for future delivery.
Yet in these days of tight purse strings and cash-strapped city councils, getting funds even to start the process can be difficult. The UK hasn’t built a major concert hall for more than a decade. The last one, the Sage, in Gateshead, opened in 2004, with the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester (1996) and the Symphony Hall in Birmingham (1991) before that.
In Europe, the signature architect-driven Philharmonie de Paris, designed by Jean Nouvel, and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, by Herzog & de Meuron, have created momentum, despite well-publicised delivery issues. Now attention is turning back to London, with the proposal for a New London Concert Hall to be built next to the Barbican in the north of the City, on a site soon to be vacated by the Museum of London.
Discussions about concert halls often revolve around the requirement to be of an international standard, balanced against the need to be “world-class”. The former is usually a measure of acoustic quality - specifically, whether a concert hall has the sonic richness and fidelity demanded by a top-flight orchestra.
“World class”, on the other hand, often refers to architectural impact and the building’s standing in the city and wider world. Concert halls invariably have important symbolic and civic roles to play in the life of a city, and striking architecture is seen as a crucial ingredient.
This adds a layer of complexity over the purely functional requirement of the concert hall, manifesting itself in the form of challenging geometries and generous public areas - not to mention potentially adding 20% or more to the costs of a concert hall from the model included within this report.
Squeezes on funding from central government mean that performing arts buildings are under pressure to be multi-functional. They need to stage rock concerts, show films or support corporate events as well as host world-leading orchestras.
Increasing adaptability can compromise a concert hall’s core function. A particular issue is the requirement to change an auditorium floor from raked - sloped upwards and away from the audience - to flat. While this enables the space to be used for dining and other corporate events, it is often less than ideal for an orchestral concert audience.
Techniques to adapt the acoustics of the space to suit amplified music and other events need to be introduced with great care as they risk increasing capital spend and potentially compromising the concert hall’s effectiveness.
For projects as complex as concert halls, it is important that client organisations clarify the function, benefits and design criteria of the project early on.
Working through three key stages, before going out to tender, will help them achieve this.
The organisation should also consider the wider question of the organisation’s capacity to undertake the project. It should assess the impact of managing the project on the day-to-day running of the company, the risks associated with a disruption to its existing artistic programme and the risk of donor fatigue during and after completion of the project.
For any high-profile concert hall, maximising the listener experience is a priority. The best possible natural acoustics are essential, bringing the orchestra’s performance to life and adding detail and clarity to solo passages.
The acoustician is fundamental to the design process, helping to define the shape and layout of the hall and focusing on reverberation times and sound modelling to ensure audience enjoyment.
Within the auditorium, bespoke finishes may be used to model the sound. Wall panelling is often curved and will be solid to aid acoustic performance. Balcony fronts should be treated in a similar way and can incorporate
In addition to the quality of the sound within the space, acoustics experts will also reduce sound break-in and break-out to and from the auditorium. This is especially important in busy city centres, where traffic, other transport noise or vibration - from, for example, underground trains or air traffic - could affect performances.
A classically-designed auditorium is based around a “shoebox” design with between 1,500 to 2,500 seats in total, split between a stalls level and balconies wrapping around the sides and back. It is usual for the auditorium to have a volume of between 12m³ to 15m³ per seat.
Often the choir would sit behind the orchestra, who would sit on tiered orchestral risers. The facility to create an orchestra pit at the front of the orchestral platform is often provided for added flexibility.
Front of house
Front of house is the public face of a concert hall. These spaces are multi-functional, meeting a variety of demands throughout the day, drawing in the public and creating a sense of anticipation in advance of a performance.
Double-height volumes and high-quality finishes are often vital, reflecting the civic nature of the building and the intense wear and tear that these spaces will be subjected to.
Other considerations include:
Back of house is traditionally the poor relation to the auditorium and front-of-house spaces (although dressing rooms, particularly conductor and soloist rooms, are often high specification). Many projects have sought to provide high-quality accommodation for technical and artistic staff, but have had to scale down plans in the face of limited funds - even though back-of-house space is relatively economical and not a good source of significant cost reduction.
Access needs to be well thought out. Appropriate disabled access to technical spaces is critical, as is well-planned entrance and exit for performers and other staff to ensure efficient turnover between shows.
Designers should take time to understand requirements for rehearsal rooms, including storage requirements.
The location of staff accommodation is also important. A successful concert hall relies on its performers and technical staff working together, and so accommodation design should strengthen the organisation’s culture, identity and values.
Preferred procurement options must accommodate the complexity of concert hall projects through an equitable division of risk between the client and contractor – one that does not lead to excessive risk pricing from the contractor – while aligning to local market conditions. It pays to make this decision early in the project.
It should be clear who is managing the design co-ordination. The contractor’s design portion supplement must be carefully managed to align with perceived client risk transfer and capability of market. A detailed net cost plan should be agreed by all the design team members.
Programme is another important early milestone. It should be thorough and robust, outlining the discovery, design and procurement stages. Specialist trades should also be engaged early, wherever commercially possible.
A risk mitigation strategy should describe programme risk, define the mitigations and drive the actions across the programme.
Most European concert halls receive at least some public money and, as a result, are required to follow European procurement (OJEU) regulations.
OJEU applies to projects that exceed a value threshold of £209,000 for services (such as consultant commissions) and £5,225,000 for construction works. Both relate to the aggregate value of the design commission or construction contract. Clients cannot circumvent the regulations by tendering individual consultant commissions or construction packages separately.
Concert hall projects following OJEU regulations must invite prequalification or tender submissions publically from consultants and contractors, assess submissions against published selection criteria, and allow minimum timescales for preselection and tender procedures.
Decision-making may be subject to challenge from unsuccessful bidders, so following these procedures is important. The Freedom of Information Act 2005 means that being able to demonstrate due process and rational decision making is critical.
The real impact of OJEU on concert hall projects can be felt after feasibility, when the client is often required to reselect the design team if they have not followed the OJEU process from the beginning and the project requires an element of public funding. This can result in personnel changes at a critical stage, breaking the relationship between brief, initial design, detailed design and delivery.
This process can be avoided by formally appointing a design team early under the OJEU process. This minimises the impact of change later and enables greater emphasis to be placed on design concepts or a consultant’s approach as part of the most economically advantageous bid.
Construction of concert halls is complex, with the design teams integrating often quite intricate geometries with the need to create clear spans internally and all within an acoustically isolated environment.
The auditorium may need to be isolated from the surrounding structure by “floating” it on springs or pads. This is known as “box-in-box” construction, which needs careful co-ordination with the surrounding structure and adds additional volume to the building.
Technical attics are often provided above the auditorium, which serve to further isolate the auditorium from the external envelope of the building as well as providing maintenance access and a services distribution void.
High occupancies in the auditorium, combined with the demanding acoustic requirement lead to huge volumes of air being moved around the building to condition the main auditorium. Air conditioning is often distributed within the auditorium via a floor plenum, situated under the seats.
To achieve the required level of acoustic separation, it is essential to have significant levels of supervision to ensure that the highest levels of workmanship are achieved.
Mechanical and electrical services installation will require rigorous commissioning. We would recommend the inclusion of a separate commissioning consultant as a key member of the team.
The technical fit-out to the auditorium and rehearsal spaces is often an area of major expenditure. The budget is typically split into:
It is not uncommon to spend up to 10% of the net construction cost on the specialist equipment. This could increase to over 15% if you increase the flexibility of the hall, for example by introducing flat floor mechanisms to the auditorium. It is also vital to ensure that the interface between the technical fit-out and base building systems is clearly defined and understood.
Securing additional funding towards capital costs through grant aid is becoming increasingly difficult. Grant aid from the lottery is currently focused on supporting smaller revenue projects aimed at active community involvement, rather than on investment in physical assets.
Over the past decade, larger capital projects have received considerable support from lottery funds. Recent shifts in policy mean that support for these projects is now very much the exception. A successful outcome for a larger capital project is much harder to secure and the competitive nature of the bidding process means smaller projects seeking funding need to demonstrate that they meet local, regional and national strategic priorities to stand a good chance of success.
The Heritage Lottery Fund continues to support capital grants for heritage aspects of arts facilities, such as fabric restoration, but would expect this to be coupled with Arts Council funding. Many of the other sources of funding, including private trusts and foundations such as the Jerwood Foundation, are taking a similarly cautious approach.
Decision-making in the two-stage application process can take time. Two years is not uncommon, and this duration needs to be factored into allowances for inflation and other cost increases. With so many traditional funding sources on hold or being re-evaluated, organisations need to be creative in finding grant aid for capital projects.
For this reason, many organisations are targeting private donors, with areas of the completed buildings often branded with donor names or organisations.
VAT can result in substantial unexpected additions to project costs if not considered at an early stage. Risk associated with VAT liabilities can be driven by the organisation, the operations of the project client or end-user and the uses of the building.
This is a complex area for which specialist advice needs to be obtained. When the theatre is run by a non-commercial organisation, there is a common misconception that the construction works may be zero-rated. In fact, this only applies to new buildings used by a charity for non-business purposes. Where a charge is made for admission, catering or parking this will be deemed a business activity and VAT applies.
Once it is known the construction works are liable to VAT, the key issue becomes the amount of VAT that can be recovered. This depends on the extent to which the building is used for taxable business activities rather than exempt or non-business activities, such as outreach programmes.
Organisations whose activities are not fully taxable may not be able to recover the full VAT payable on their project. Admission charges to “a theatrical, musical, or choreographic performance” by certain types of organisations and companies that fall within the scope of the “cultural exemption” are exempt.
Similarly, if no charges are made for activities such as education then this will be non-business activity. In either case, VAT recovery on the project costs is likely to be wholly or partially restricted, subject to the extent other taxable use is also made of the building.
Staff costs will equate to the largest on-cost moving forwards. Factors such as the number of entrances to the building, the location and opening hours of bars and restaurants, the changing market around ticketing and efficient back of house facilities will help to reduce staff costs as much as possible.
Energy usage will often increase as organisations move into more conditioned spaces. Design should consider the use of mixed mode / natural ventilation for use in off-peak times to reduce energy costs.
Maintenance costs associated with new concert halls involve immediate and long-term commitments. Moving from an old building where a certain level of disrepair is acceptable to a pristine new building can involve a commitment to a substantial cleaning and preventative maintenance regime, in addition to longer term maintenance liabilities for replacement and renewal of plant and specialist equipment.
As a rule of thumb, the construction costs of a concert hall represent around 50-60% of the total project value. The remaining 40-50% usually includes:
The only significant exclusions from the project budget would typically be non-recoverable VAT and site purchase costs.
Aecom’s cost model is based upon a new build, international standard, 2,000-seat concert hall, built on a brownfield site in London with a gross floor area of 18,000m².
The model excludes the cost of demolishing existing structures and foundations, services diversions, infrastructure reinforcement and highways alterations.
A 1,000m² basement is assumed with the balance of the accommodation provided above grade.
The unit rates are current at June 2017 but include for construction period inflation based upon a two-and-a-half year construction period.
The model assumes procurement either by construction management or a traditional fixed-price contract with contractor-designed portions. In both cases, competitive procurement is assumed.
The authors would like to thank John Burgess and John Grounds from Aecom and Andy Hayles from Charcoalblue.