Protecting the Best Seats in the House
Theatre designers the world over have struggled for decades with conflicting and poorly conceived building code requirements pertaining to balcony railings. The International Building Code (IBC) has seven exceptions for guarding elevation changes greater than 30-inches, and fully five of those impact stages and performing arts venues. The NFPA Life Safety Code (LSC) has similar exceptions. Today we discuss the issues of “sightline-constrained rails” for assembly occupancies. In most jurisdictions in the United States where an audience will view an event, these rails are permitted to be 26-inches tall. Part and parcel of good theatre design is making sure the audience can see and hear the stage well. It’s not just balconies that are a concern either, because the sightline-constrained condition can apply to the stage and orchestra pit, opera boxes, galleries, or any raised seating area. There have been several documented cases of falls in sports venues such as reaching for foul balls, medical emergencies, and the like in recent years, but few or none from the balconies of performing arts venues. None the less, there is a perception by some that a 26-inch rail is too low to protect a person from falling. Compounding the issue, venue workers like ushers, cleaning crew, a lighting technician, or even the director of a show, who may be subject to OSHA regulations that require a 42-inch guard will need to enter that same area a patron will need to sit an hour later.
There have been a handful of reports of falls inside of theatres, but when researching the stories, it becomes murkier. At a Phish concert, it seems the patron may have leaped instead of fallen from the balcony; or at least that’s what eyewitnesses say and the local prosecutor pressed charges for inducing panic – it certainly seems some “substances” may have been involved. In 2013 there was a story about a fall in London’s Palace Theatre, but apparently the man was pushed by his wife as a “joke” and he luckily stopped his fall by grabbing the lighting rail along the balcony face. It’s unclear the state of their marriage at the time (or today for that matter). Other news stories about “balcony” falls read as if the occurrence was not within the seating but perhaps in other public spaces. People just aren’t falling out of theatre balconies with any regularity, yet there is almost universal concern.
So what is going on here?
We got in touch with four ASTC Theatre Consultants to discuss the issue in detail. Bill Conner (BC) has decades of experience working on NFPA Assembly Occupancy committees. Todd Hensley (TH) is a Principal at Schuler Shook in Chicago. Jim Hultquist (JH) is a consultant doing most of his work in Australia for Schuler Shook. David H. Rosenburg (DR) is a Managing Principal with Theatre Projects Consultants.
Is the exception for a Sightline-constrained rail at the front of the balcony being challenged in codes?
BC: Yes. There is a task group of the NFPA Assembly Occupancy committee, which I’m on, tasked to look at the issue, determine if changes to the requirements are needed, and what those changes should be. It’s unlikely to occur during this revisions cycle, which will be the 2018 Code, but it is certainly possible for 2021.
DR: I believe that it is being challenged by clients. Most often audiences are the ones to raise the issue, causing the venue management to go back to the code to confirm that nothing illegal was done. I think we are experiencing a trickle down scenario.
Is there a problem with falls from balconies and similar situations where the sightline-constrained rail can be applied?
BC: That clearly seems to be a case in stadia and arena. There have been very few anecdotal incidents reported in performing arts venues. That will be the basis I plan to present in the [NFPA] task group for continuing the exception for performing arts venues. We also have to look at alternate means to protect people from fall hazards besides just height of a rail. One of the possible presently unintended outcomes is recognition the 42-inch guard is based on very old study data and probably not sufficient for people of today’s taller stature.
JH: I do not know of any falls from theatre balconies. Similar to the US, the contractors here will build a temporary guard at the balcony edge during construction.
DR: In my experience, I am not aware of anyone who accidentally fell from a balcony or box that wasn’t involved in “counter behavior”. At a ball park, reaching for a foul ball is more common than someone in a theatre doing the same.
TH: If we look at the number of falls versus the number of attendees, I believe we see an extremely low rate of incidence. Moreover, these falls seem to be largely affected by alcohol. Any fall presents a problem, but this problem seems to be minimized and controlled in performing arts venues.
The codes for places of public assembly don’t make distinction between various uses (i.e. theatre, sports, worship). Would such a distinction make sense? Can it be done in a clear way within the codes?
DR: In concept yes, this would make sense in the same way that viewing sightlines in a movie theatre are different from a live performance. However, this could be a slippery slope where people who write code language and don’t understand the room type could make things worse.
TH: I believe this approach has merit but will be difficult to implement. Many theatres include programming in worship, pop and rock music, boxing, and other events with less focus on the fine arts and more focus on popular appeal. Liquor is permitted (and encouraged) in more and more performing arts centers. The categories will get blurry, and the enforcement seems very tricky.
The current IBC and LSC permit a rail as low as 26-inches. Why do we want a rail that low, especially since in some theatres there may be even two or three balconies with substantial distances to lower elevations?
BC: First, sightlines are widely misunderstood. One of the architects involved in a lot of stadia and arena design stated it well when he said fewer than five percent of the architects understood it at all. Too often sightlines are designed and drawn to an all sights point, sort of indicating what someone wants everyone to see, but I much prefer illustrating what everyone can see. And it’s not just a point at or above the edge of the stage that is important. The performing arts is a social event and the audience seeing and being seen is as important as seeing the performers. For the audience, knowing that you are in a room with a lot of people enhances the event, and the lower rails and the sight rails – flat bars angled, cables, etc., – all facilitate that.
JH: Interestingly the higher the potential fall from seating position, the lower the railing needs to be for good sightlines. Especially when we are trying to keep the first row of the balcony close to the stage with sightlines into the pit.
DR: Because at some point, building a balcony does not make any sense if the views to the stage will be blocked for an average height person. We need balconies to get people closer to the action.
What is happening in other countries that don’t use IBC or LSC?
JH: In Australia, the Building Code of Australia (BCA) requirements are for a 1 meter (39.5inches) high guard or alternately a 700mm (27.5 inch) guard with a 1m extension outward. In the state of New South Whales, their version of BCA permits 750mm (29.5 inch) guard and if there is a ledge more than 70mm (2.75 inches) wide, it must slope toward the seats. This is to avoid the problem of items being placed on the ledge and falling off toward the audience below.
TH: Also, note that some US cities have differing requirements. Chicago requires a 30” railing.[Note: In our research we found that our neighbors in Canada require a minimum rail of 760mm (30-inches) in front of the seats. In the UK, codes require either 800mm (31.5 inches) or a 750mm (29.5 inches) rail if at least 230mm (just over 9 inches) wide. So there is precedent in other countries for a taller rail or an option for lower if it is also thicker.]
Can a balcony railing be taller and still work for sightlines? What is the impact of raising the rail to 30 inches or more on sightlines? Are there other impacts?
JH: 750mm is about 29.5 inches and it works when the top of the rail can be leaned in a bit.
DR: This has everything to do with the type of room, the shape of the room, the type of performances, and the sightline goals. If the room has a deep apron or thrust configuration, raising the balcony rail will make the sightlines of the room impossible to achieve.
TH: I try to raise the railing to allow the desired line of sight (stage edge, conductor, or whatever has been determined) but still be as tall as possible. I often look at a 28-inch or 30-inch railing. However, railings higher than 30-inches tend to look like an enclosure for the patrons in the balcony.
BC: Where the adjacent row of seats is parallel and against the rail, like on a side gallery, a higher rail could be acceptable. Though the seats against the rail and removing circulation from being directly adjacent, minimizes the hazard.
Sometimes owners will become concerned about the sightline-constrained rail because of the perceived risk. What are some alternatives that can reduce this perception while still maintaining good sightlines?
JH: We get asked this question a bit. Sometimes a shelf below the balcony rail lighting position is considered (this will effect sightlines looking up from below). If it’s a big problem then we look to the 700mm high, 1m deep railing or some variation thereof. One thing about the 1m projection when it is on a slant is this creates a new hazard because patrons will put objects on the diagonal surface and that item will slide off and hit a patron below. There was a recent occurrence of this in Brisbane, but that wasn’t our project, thankfully.
DR: I have two specific examples. In one case, we had a demountable seating condition in a small courtyard theatre where the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) insisted on having the ability to “raise” the balcony rail when the seats were not in place. Oddly enough, they agreed to a 26-inch to 36-inch change in height. They did not require the more standard 42-inch high rail. In the second case, a 1300-seat road house, the campus OSHA department insisted on a higher balcony rail, not for audience safety, or electrician safety, but for house cleaners. In this case we had the ear of the executive director and were able to illustrate the potential catastrophic downside of raising the rail up to 42-inches. The executive director was in a position to mandate that cleaning staff will be harnessed which was a far better end result than if we had to raise the railing. This was several years ago, and to date I am not aware of any falls from the balconies.
TH: Most owners who express doubt about this railing are school officials. Their concerns can be met with details about the very few balcony falls and with details in design.
Thickening the balcony wall can help audiences feel more contained in the front seating row, helping them avoid a feeling of vertigo. Angling the railing into the aisle accessway and rotating the railing to align with the line of sight also helps.
We have IBC and LSC protecting audience at 26-inches but OSHA requires a much higher rail for workers. How can workers be protected and still meet the needs of sightlines, considering there are technicians that need to access lighting in this area, cleaning staff, or even ushers during a show? Should the balcony rail height requirement be different for workers than for audience members?
BC: Employees [such as cleaners] who enter the first and second row should be provided with personal fall protection equipment (PPE) or better, be directed not to clean these rows. Technicians – who may well be leaning over or actually stepping over the rail, definitely need PPE, and perhaps anchor points under the seats or in the rail are required.
JH: It’s a good point. Should we motorize the rails for variable heights? We often put in a cable below the seats to tie a harness off to, but it’s hardly ever used and when it is used the staff is often not trained to use the equipment properly or in the procedures to follow when a fall happens and a person is hanging from the railing.
DR: Short of creating a telescopic railing, which is a significant cost and space item, I don’t believe this can be solved for both safety and the need for good sightlines. We could legislate on the side of safety in every case, but I would hate to see this at the cost of the theatrical experience, especially when there’s little record of injury.
TH: Since the codes allow patrons to have a low rail, I wish we could see a definition of “work” at the balcony. A technician works over the edge. A cleaner works at and near the edge. An usher walks the aisles, talks to people, and points to seats. An assistant director sits in a seat to watch the performance (and sometimes to sweat profusely!). Do all of these “workers” need OSHA guards? Shouldn’t the rail address the work and the fact that seats are installed?
During the course of construction, contractors frequently point out the dichotomy that a 42-inch OSHA compliant guard is required for their work, yet a much lower rail is acceptable for the public. How do you respond to this question?
TH: They have observed the dichotomy correctly. However, they are performing construction work on this elevated platform – not walking in a controlled path to a seat in finished construction.
JH: In the case of the contractor they are working in the area with a number of heavy objects, in a variety of situations. In the case of the patron they are walking into a row in a controlled manner with fixed seating on one side. The path of movement is also parallel with the balcony edge.
DR: Very often contractors are focused on many things simultaneously and could accidentally back up over a rail or misstep. An audience is in a performing arts venue for a specific reason and they are not worried about wearing hard hats or protective eye gear. What might be a hazardous situation for one condition, is not in another.
How are the ends of aisle stairs or walks along a balcony edge without seating handled in the code? Is this distinction important? Does it impact sightlines? [Note: IBC requires a minimum 36-inch guard and it must be 42-inches measured diagonally from the nearby stair nosing]
BC: If it’s a cross aisle – which I believe should never be at the front and practically only at the rear of any seating section – 42-inch guard is required – and of course it impacts sightlines. But a cross aisle at the front of a balcony is simply bad design by unknowledgeable and inexperienced designers. Aisle accessways (aisle stairs that terminate at the balcony edge) are nearly inevitable, and probably the biggest issue.
Another issue is the wheelchair space at the front of the balcony. When unoccupied it’s not compliant because it’s no longer sightline-constrained. I did two different projects where the guard could be lowered for patrons in wheelchairs.
JH: While I’ve never seen or heard of someone going over a theatre rail, I have both seen and heard of patrons tripping face first down the stairs. I try to avoid ending a stair at a rail where ever possible. Architects hate this [the taller guard along the lower, sight-constrained rail] because the shape of the railing is now a bit odd. It does impact sightlines at times depending on the side to side view.
TH: Aisle stair ends create problematic railing heights and often lead us to alternate designs, such as avoiding internal aisles that meet the balcony front.
In many theatres there are boxes or locations without fixed seating. In those cases, is there sufficient protection for patrons? What if the seats are removed?
DR: We are running into this more and more if the seats can ever be moved the box needs to be protected. We see the code as only getting stricter in this case over time. A university project of ours was concerned that if kids were moshing in a box without seats, it would be very easy to flip over the rail.
BC: If the area is not being used for the seating for which it was designed, what is it being used for? Performers? Then the stage exception would apply.
TH: This is a complex area of seating. Box seats often need a code minimum railing to allow sightlines. However, I attempt to raise these whenever possible, as a matter of preference. Since loose seating can be moved very close to the railing, a railing that allows some contact is useful. Many patrons will move the seat close, then rest their forearms on the railing. A 30-inch railing is very comfortable for this position, but won’t work if the patron pushes the chair farther back.
JH: In my regulatory environment I try to make the seats adjacent to a box rail fixed to avoid this question. If the seats are removed, technically the rail should be higher.
So after all this, considering that falls from seating balconies aren’t a common problem for performing arts venues, what changes can be considered without degrading the audience experience?
BC: There is a strong case to be made for height plus width equaling 42-inches. It’s all based on post-World War II research and a rigid person of 95th percentile height and center of gravity. Just like the 42-inches is measured diagonally in section at the foot of aisles.
JH: There is one architectural advantage to the extension as used frequently here in Australia since it creates a hidden balcony rail lighting position. This is a finicky element though, as the lid of the guard needs to hinge open to allow access without blocking the technicians view to the stage so they can see their work.
TH: A thicker wall can work and help to address the problem but it creates challenges for lighting and technical use. But it’s not insurmountable.
BC: The code doesn’t handle it well, but perhaps some warning and education is in order. Signage, announcements, ushers and attendants telling people, even a program of awarding balls to people to dissuade them from reaching for tossed prizes. Perhaps the first two rows of every upper deck should be the alcohol free zone, since alcohol does play a role in this.
A less stout guard might permit a taller rail that is not as much of an obstruction. The current requirements for guard strength (200lb point load and 50plf) requires a heavier construction; built to withstand “crowd crush”, not a single person losing balance in a balcony, which is a lower load.
So if sightlines are so important, why can’t we just look through glass as frequently done in an arena or stadium? Doesn’t that solve the problem?
TH: No, it makes the problem worse. Glass guards can’t cover the entire viewing plane, or the audience would effectively be in an enclosed room! Partial-height panes are problematic due to the visual effect of seeing the stage in a “half-glassed, half-open” view. Patrons complain about this view. Glare, smudges, and edge conditions all show up and make this a visual barrier.
JH: Acoustics matter and a sense of intimacy matters. Also if we make the rail just 1m tall for instance in glass, the top edge of the glass will disrupt many sightlines.
DR: Why not watch the event at home on your flat screen, that’s glass too? People go to live events to connect with performers and other audience members. I can’t imagine experiencing something “live” from behind glass.
Conclusion: It’s hard to say there’s a clear solution for this problem. As theatre designers, we must carefully consider the needs of audience experience as well as their safety. In our interview discussions there was a general consensus that if rails can be taller without affecting sight lines, then they should be raised above the minimum. Obviously in many venues a 30-inch railing will work; they work in other countries and even in Chicago. But at the same time it’s critical to remember the goal of getting the audience closer to the stage is important for a more intimate experience; sometimes that requires taking seating higher with more balconies instead of further away from the stage. Options for a thicker railing design, where the height and depth equals 42-inches or even close may be a solution to the problem; that thicker guard may effectively prevent a fall. But at the end of the day, falls from theatre balconies are simply not common. Sports arenas are clearly a concern, but for performing arts there’s scant evidence of falls. What we are dealing with more than anything in performing arts is the perception of risk.
If IBC and LSC will be revised, it seems a clear line between sports venues and performing arts spaces is needed. The risk in sports venues is clear and many of those venues have proactively raised the railings. Alcohol sales, perhaps a little bit of fan excitement, along with the enticement of a free t-shirt or foul ball vastly increase the risk for sporting event attendees. But generally performing arts venues don’t have these issues and shouldn’t be painted with the same brush. There may be gray areas where arenas are used for ice shows and concerts, but in all likelihood the owners of those venues have already chosen to use a more stringent requirement.
The issue of protection for workers is trickier; the OSHA rules are more stringent for workers than the public who are covered by other codes. It’s simply not practical and certainly expensive to make entire balcony rails raise and lower at will. Strategies such as training, requiring employees to stay where they are protected by the taller foot of aisle guard, clear aisle warnings, limiting visits, using a spotter, and finally strong anchorages for fall arrest (along with a rescue plan!) are all possibilities for which management would be responsible.
In the research for this article, ASTC Fellow Robert Davis added this, “The Owner can change their minds in mid-construction with disastrous results. A railing height might be agreed upon in early meetings and a concrete balcony slope might be poured that allows balcony patrons to see over that railing. Then later in construction another group of stakeholders, who maybe did not attend the earlier meeting, might decide to raise the railing, with the result that nobody in the balcony can see the front of the stage over the raised rail.” Careful planning and buy-in from everyone is clearly needed.
By Paul Sanow, ASTC