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Building Control Elements in Cinema Design

Carl Parkinson – Project Manager in Quadrant’s London office, discusses the unique challenges of movie theatres.

Carl Parkinson – Quadrant Building Control, London

I have worked on many cinema buildings over the last 10 years, providing the Building Control service for a wide range of new builds, fit-outs and refurbishments, including multiplexes, throughout England and Wales.

This article gives a broad summary of the Building Regulations requirements for cinemas and key areas needing consideration, but does not cover every possible technical requirement.

Cinema construction and layouts can be both complicated and unique; often the prescribed Building Regulations do not provide adequate commentary or guidance and other legislation must be taken into account.

As a rule, cinemas require a Public Entertainment License/Premises License under the Licensing Act 2003 to show films, and for associated activities like selling alcohol and playing music. This is obtained from the Local Authority.

Regarding compliance with Building Regulations and associated safety standards, as with other public / assembly buildings, one of the first considerations is fire safety, and either Approved Document B (ADB) – Fire Safety or BS 9999 – Code of practice for Fire Safety Design can be used for achieving compliance.  BS 9999 is usually the preferred route, taking the risk assessment approach to fire safety; appendix D provides more specific details/recommendations for cinemas and theatres.

On some projects, an alternative approach can be adopted with the use of the Technical Standards for Places of Entertainment guidance, which is produced by The Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT), the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), the District Surveyors Association (DSA) and the Institute of Licensing (IOL). This is often used, particularly for theatres with their associated greater fire risks from stages, scenery and effects.

The main considerations regarding fire safety compliance for cinemas are usually the occupancy numbers associated with several auditoriums or screens within a building, ensuring there are enough exits, and the capacity widths of exit doors and stairs.  Due to the large concentration of people seated within an auditorium, travel distances are reduced  when compared to other public buildings referenced in ADB or BS 9999: 15m in one direction or 32m for more than one direction.

It’s also important to consider the number of permitted seats within a row, seat way width and whether there is access to a single gangway or more. A gangway is the term used for an aisle, usually a series of steps between seats leading to an exit door.  There is a lot of terminology unique to cinema/theatre design, including traverse gangways and vomitory exits, which are exits within the body of a seating layout (The term originates from Roman amphitheatres, which had a passage found beneath the seating for the audience to exit through after watching the events of the day. This passage was called a vomitorium).

Flights of steps and stairs within cinemas can have different requirements for public safety – to prevent trips and falls – depending on location, for example step risers/goings to gangways. More guidance can be found within Approved Document K – Protection from falling, collision and impact, or the Technical Standards for Places of Entertainment.

Cinemas do contain a high degree of fire compartmentation within the layouts, often requiring fire separation to main entrance foyers and to each auditorium to achieve a safe level of passive fire protection throughout the building.  The design and choice of fire detection / alarm system is key to a cinema, based on simultaneous evacuation of the building. Often there will be a voice communication system per auditorium to convey instructions to customers for evacuation.

Furnishing within foyers and auditoriums is another key element for fire safety, considering the amount of seating areas and the types of acoustic treatment to auditorium walls to prevent sound transfer through to other areas.  Building Regulations Approved Document B and BS 9999 detail compliance of wall and ceiling linings to resist a spread of flame, and both Appendix D of BS 9999 and the Technical Standards for Places for Entertainment detail compliance for furnishings/fabrics of seating /curtains, including guidance on locations where such materials should not be used.

In line with all public buildings, cinemas should be accessible to disabled people. The number of wheelchair spaces/facilities per auditorium is based on a ratio to the number of seats, and there should be provision for means of escape such as disabled refuge spaces within fire protected lobbies or stairs. The location of wheelchair seating spaces and the provision of level approach access routes to disabled refuge spaces can be a challenge for cinema designers where there is a change of use to an existing building.

Recently, Approved Document M – Access to and use of buildings – has been revised to include requirements for an adult Changing Places WC for assembly buildings – including cinemas – with a capacity of 350 persons or more. This will generally apply to larger multiplex type cinemas. Guidance for cinema operators/designers is given in our Changing Places video.

The total number of WC facilities in a cinema, including accessible facilities for disabled people, should be reviewed, to ensure adequate provision, particularly in larger / multiplex cinemas. Often the use of BS 6465 – Code of Practice for the Design of Sanitary Facilities is used to determine this, or the Technical Standards for Places of Entertainment can be used. In practice, different cinema operators will often have different approaches to this and calculate the WC occupancy using actual peak times for a cinema, and the number of screens in use.

For further information or advice on cinema design and Building Regulations, please feel free to contact me:

Carl Parkinson BSc (Hons), MRICS, MIFireE, C.Build E MCABE,

Telephone020 7099 1021
Mobile07930 109432

Photo credits: Courtesy Everyman Cinemas

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