When Should You Bring a Home Theater Designer on Board?

When designing a high-end home theater room, too often we find there is a big misconception about when the theater designer should be brought in to consult on the project. We’ve found it commonly (and incorrectly) perceived that the theater designer isn’t needed until the room is designed and framed and “ready for the equipment”.

For a home theater to achieve its performance potential, it is essential that the theater designer become involved at the project’s earliest stages. This is due to the fact that the room itself plays just as important a role in the theater’s performance potential as the audio/visual equipment! The “room” we’re referring to here is the physical structure that houses the home theater (the framing, drywall, acoustic isolation construction, doors, windows, platforms, etc). The room is like the chassis of a performance automobile; without careful engineering the vehicle will underperform. With a properly designed room, the home theater’s audio/visual components will perform at their best.

The room’s size, ratios, layout, orientation, and construction play a huge role in the performance of the acoustics, the video, and the overall experience the private theater provides. When a home theater designer is involved early, the designer has the ability to influence key decisions in the room’s design and construction. These decisions can be the difference between a “better than average” experience and one that is awe-inspiring.

A valuable side effect is cost savings. Having the theater designer involved early eliminates the need for costly construction changes in the theater room to help salvage performance.

Two case studies will be presented to show just how important these early design decisions can be to delivering a world-class private theater experience.

Case Study #1 – Hired Late in the Process

Scenario:  The home theater designer is hired after the room is built. A concrete slab floor was poured including two raised concrete platforms and steps. The platform locations were not ideal for maximizing the room’s performance. Additional expenses were incurred to compensate and salvage the room’s capability for high performance.

A theater designer analyzes each room for acoustic and video performance and uses the results of the analysis to optimize seating positions in the room. This might result in moving a row of seats slightly forward, backward, side to side or coming up with a unique seating arrangement. The scenario with this particular room presented an issue due to the fixed position of the platforms in the room; it placed available seating at poor positions for audio and video performance. Typically we prefer to have a framed platform built within the room as it gives us maximum flexibility.

Not to worry – this is the job of a theater designer – to analyze a space given its fixed conditions and make design decisions to optimize the performance within those parameters.  Obviously, the more flexibility the designer has to influence the construction of the room, the more potential the room will have. Bringing a theater designer on board early in the process provides this flexibility and can avoid costly issues.

In the case of this particular room, a comprehensive analysis was made of the room. It was determined that the builder could remove the poured concrete steps at the sides of the second row and extend that row’s platform a little further into the room. This placed the second row seating positions into more optimal locations in the room. The floor in the front of the room was raised by creating a false floor and converting the third row to a bar seating layout. This allowed for the correct positioning both visually and acoustically for all three rows and met the client’s objective for the number of seating positions.

Results for Client: A private home theater that delivers very high levels of audio/visual performance and the “amazing experience” the client was looking for. Although there were some additional expenses incurred for the construction modifications and slight compromises to the seating layout (third row theater seating converted to bar style seating), the private theater’s performance exceeded their expectations and they love their theater! Had a theater designer been hired prior to pouring of the concrete foundation we could have exceeded our client’s expectations without additional cost or compromise.

Case Study #2 – Hired Early in the Process

Scenario:  The home theater designer was hired early in the design stages of the home’s future home theater and is asked by the homeowner to “work from a blank slate” and design the optimal room to comfortably seat 18 people.
This is the ideal scenario for a theater designer. On this particular project we were given the opportunity to specify the optimal room size to accommodate a specific number of seating positions. The ratio between the length and width of a room plays a particularly important role in the room’s performance, and having the opportunity to specify that ratio as a result of thorough analysis is a perfect situation. Unfortunately, we are usually brought in too late to make these critical decisions and therefore those theaters will be compromised to some extent.

Several rounds of acoustic and video analysis were completed to determine an optimal room size to accommodate the 18 seating positions. With this flexibility we were able to use the full range of our knowledge and capabilities to design every aspect of the room in order to deliver the world-class performance our client expected. This in no way means that an interior designer is excluded from the process, quite the opposite. The interior desinger is a part of the design team and has a say in many aesthetic portions of the home theater envelope, including colors and fabric choices.

Results for Client: Uncompromised levels of performance and a private screening room designed from the ground up, like a fine piece of performance machinery. The audio and video components are now able to deliver all of the performance they were designed for.

In conclusion, if you desire the best possible home theater performance, be sure you and your home theater professional consider all of the room’s details. As discussed, the home theater’s envelope (the room itself) is responsible for about half of the sound quality! Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking more expensive electronics and speakers or that digital equalization is the panacea. A properly designed room and great electronics in partnership make for a memorable home cinema experience that is addicting.

Key Takeaway: Get your home theater specialist involved early in your project. He or she needs to be part of the design team along with the architect, interior designer, and contractor.

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