It’s Your Facility

I’m having a tough day. I’ve spent the entire morning on the phone with studio owners who are a little confused about how to go about designing a facility.

One client wants construction plans by the end of the month. She just can’t decide whether her new facility will have three or seven studios, which of course depends on whether she decides to produce radio jingles or go into film scoring.

Another guy wants to know how much foam to use for a room of 1600 cubic feet. (Kind of like phoning a brain surgeon out of the yellow pages and asking what size scalpel is best.)

Then there’s the studio owner-to-be who’s just signed a lease on a former S&L building, has some equipment coming in on a truck tomorrow, and wants to know where on the walls to put the acoustics so they can be ready for their first session week after next.

And now I’ve got this magazine calling me, asking for a column on studio design. “With all the changes in technology,” they ask, “what new problems will studio owners face?” “We don’t need any new problems”, I respond. “We’re having enough trouble dealing with the old ones.” OK, OK, so maybe I’m just feeling a little beat up right now, but we take a personal interest in our client’s projects, and it’s hard to help some of them see where they’re going. Just as it’s true that you don’t get an instruction manual when you become a parent, there’s really nothing that prepares a studio owner for building a facility.

It’s no wonder that a lot of clients are pretty bewildered when they first call us. The hardest part, the part that charts the course for the entire project, is getting started. What we need is a guidebook for taking the first steps in the design process, so that you ultimately get a successful working facility.

Where to Start

We periodically help teach a seminar on facility planning and design. It gives us a chance to step back from specific projects crises and take a more abstract perspective on the design process. More often than anything else, the people in these workshops want to know: What do I do first? The front end of a facility project is probably the most important yet misunderstood part of the design process. What can you do to make your project a success?

If you can establish reasonable goals, find a good site, and select a competent design team, the rest of the project will generally take care of itself. This requires that a lot of concentrated effort be expended early on in your planning, but it will pay off in the long run. Good decisions at the beginning of at project act like a fulcrum to increase your leverage to control the budget, quality, or schedule later on.

Many of you have been involved with sessions that were not rehearsed (inadequate planning), where the bass player brought his brother and girlfriend in to produce (poor team selection), and where the band came into the studio with a few half-baked ideas and preconceived notions, but expected to cut six songs in 45 minutes (lack of understanding about the process).

On the other hand, if you recall a session that went smoothly and created exactly the results that everyone envisioned, I’ll bet that the reasons are pretty clear: planning, leadership, an understanding of the process, willingness to give and take direction, open communications. Well, the same things apply to designing a studio.

Getting With the Program

Most clients are keenly aware of the effect of the designer or the budget or the building will have on the outcome of their project. Sometimes they overlook that their own input, actions, and leadership have at least as much impact on the results.

Before you can create your dream facility, it’s important to set clear project goals that reflect your operations, finances, technical performance, and target market. As you bring in other people to assist in the project, these goals help keep everyone on the same page. In architectural terms, as these ideas and expectations are fleshed out and refined, they become the facility program, a document that spells out what the facility is supposed to be and do, and serves as a reference for the design team with guidelines for their efforts.

The more information you can provide to the people you select, the more likely you will get what you want. They need to understand who you are and what your operation is about before they can effectively help you plan your project.

Write it down. If you find that you can’t explain what you want to do in black and white, you may not actually know what it is yet. Include as much supporting information as possible — photos, equipment lists, and sketches anything that will help define where you’re headed.

However, don’t focus on new technology as the driving force behind design. Figure out how you want your rooms to function, then relate available equipment types to those functions. Remember, even when equipment changes, many other facility needs — acoustics, ergonomics, traffic flow, lighting, noise control — still remain.

Selecting a Site

It is hard to overstate the importance of good site selection. If you make a poor choice, you can spend all your money, time, and effort just dealing with the shortcomings of a building or location.

Picking the Design Team

Pick a design team that you trust. Remember that these are individuals or firms who are on your side. This is not an adversarial relationship — design professionals aren’t used-car salesmen. In fact, if they have something to sell or prove, run (do not walk) to someone who has your best interests at heart.

Different studios have different needs. Every project is unique, and you should be wary of anyone who seems to have a “cookie cutter” approach to design, or implies that they know exactly what you need before you’ve even shown them around the place.

This is your facility. Your design team is working for you, not the other way around. Their job is to provide you with ideas, recommendations, guidance, and alternatives based on their experience and expertise, but always directed by your desires and goals.

We’ve all known and dealt with people who seem to never be satisfied with what they’re doing. Design consultants are part of a service industry, but occasionally we hear other designers talk about clients as if they were the enemy, complaining that they get in the way of good design. That’s a pretty good sign that it’s time to start looking for another line of work. A design professional should thrive on challenging projects. The charge of your design team is to find creative ways to meet your needs, enthusiastically attack the problems at hand, find cost effective solutions, make appropriate compromises, and as much as possible make the process fun.

Occasionally we receive a call from someone who is reluctant to seek our services for a project that they feel is too small for us to bother with: “You must be too expensive for my little project, right?” In fact, we were recently termed “overqualified” for a project, which seems to be a real distortion of the design process. Acoustics is an applied science that deals with the perceptual (subjective) experience of sound waves interreacting with bricks and mortar. Why would you hire a mediocre piano tuner or an inexperienced surgeon?

Through all this, try to keep your role in perspective. As the director and focal point of the design team, your talents are wasted if you can’t keep a fairly global overview of the process. If you want to dabble in the details because it’s fun or because you’re particularly good at it, great! But don’t lose the forest for the pine needles. The selection of rack mount screws should not interfere with your review of the room sizes or the technical power systems or some other larger, less forgiving issue. As someone once told me, if you want to get somewhere in particular, it’s always better to be the mule driver than the mule.

The design team can’t (or at least shouldn’t) tell you your business. No one knows your market better than you. The reason to seek out qualified designers is to help flesh out your ideas, figure out how best to get what you need, and find new ways to address old problems.

Effective communication is the lubricant that keeps a project moving. Miscommunication is responsible for more failed projects (and relationships) than any other factor. If you establish the form, frequency, and distribution of project information among the design team early on, the rest of the process will be much easier (and maybe even possible).

Keep from backing up. Any time your efforts are spent making field changes to the design, you are not spending your money wisely. Work-arounds always represent a compromise in quality, time, or cost. [We’re seeing some old acoustical myths slowly fade away.] Much of what we read and even talk about would lead you to believe that new ideas, new technologies, new working relationships will determine how you need to prepare for the future. In reality, it’s rare that owners make significant errors in predicting the future, and much more likely that they make the same old mistakes. I see the design of a studio facility increasingly as a holistic process. It’s not about good acoustics vs. the budget, or good acoustics vs. aesthetics, or good acoustics vs. anything else. For a successful project, acoustics must work in concert with the architecture, the electronic systems, the structure, and everything else about the building. It is meaningless to champion “perfect” acoustics, because there is no such thing. There is only appropriate acoustics, and that has to do with a whole host of other issues besides the narrow concerns that most people associate with what a design consultant does.

Of course, there’s much more about the first steps in the design process that is important to the success of a project, but you get the idea. Just remember that the more you do to make well-thought-out, careful, rational decisions early on, the easier it will be for everyone else to help you get what you want out of your new facility.

Oops. Gotta go. I think I hear my phone ringing. Probably that guy who’s building a studio on some really cheap land at the end of the runway.