How Big to Build It

A key principle of good private theater design is that function comes first but must be integrated with form.
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A key principle of good private theater design is that function comes first but must be integrated with form.

Five Parameters to Help Determine a Theater’s Ideal Size

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Sam Cavitt ( is president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, Hawaii, and Carlsbad, California.

A key principle of good private theater design is that function comes first but must be integrated with form. An understanding and application of this principal is one of the distinguishing characteristics of good theater design and is why my company approaches a theater design as if we were creating high-performance machinery.

The first piece of any engineered performance design is the chassis that supports the entire machine. For a private theater, this is the room’s shell. Significant analysis, engineering, design, and documentation are performed to assure the room is engineered to support each client’s specific performance objectives. An improperly designed chassis can cause all other components to under-perform.

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The ideal size for a specific room is dependent on many parameters. Just take this odd-shaped theater designed by Paradise Theater for AudioVisions in Palm Desert, CA, as one example of how there’s no such thing as one size (or shape) that fits all homes.

We are often asked, “What size should I make my theater?” The expectation is that we can throw out a set of dimensions, and all will be well. The truth is that the ideal size for a specific room is dependent on many parameters, and even if those are known, the dimensions need to be qualified for specific construction considerations, or costly errors could result. Here’s a list of five parameters and qualifying considerations that need to be addressed.

1 Audience Size. Each seat requires a certain amount of space for the seat, the aisle, raised footrest, recline (if included), plus space on each side for entry and egress. Additionally, each seat needs to be in a proper location for viewing angles, sight lines, and sound performance. The theater designer must analyze and integrate all of these disparate requirements when planning a room’s configuration.

2 Screen Size and Configuration. Many options exist for screen configuration and, although there are industry standards (which differ depending on which standard is considered), screen size preference is somewhat subjective. Some clients find the SMPTE screen size too small and others even feel the larger THX standard is too small. Our process includes informational discussion with each client and balancing the standards, size of audience, and client preferences for an ideal balance.

3 Room Construction. The most significant acoustical improvement and the one that all people can immediately recognize is a quiet room (not to be confused with a dead room.) A properly engineered and constructed room prevents outside noise from entering the theater and theater noise from disturbing those outside the theater. Building a quiet room requires consideration of the building’s construction techniques, analysis of surrounding spaces (including those above and below), and the proper specification and installation of acoustical materials. To get this right, the requisite analysis must be performed and appropriate solutions specified to assure adequate space is allowed to accommodate the needs of each private theater.

4 Acoustical Considerations. A lot of information is published about the size and shape of listening rooms, and while much of that information is correct, some is not. What is always the case though is that size, shape, and configuration have to be integrated with the factors discussed above. For instance, if a room is “rough constructed” to the ideal acoustical ratios but the audience considerations or the acoustical construction is not considered, the resulting room will be incorrect. It requires a holistic approach to accurately solve these often-conflicting elements and arrive at a solution for each unique space.

5 Finishing Touches. After all the construction, isolation, seating, and components have been addressed, we still have more to consider. The interior treatment of the private theater is important on numerous levels. One level is performance. For instance, adequate space needs to be allowed for acoustical treatments that will benefit the experience. Ideally, we will have room for an additional four inches on each wall, although there are some newer engineered products that do a good job at less depth. In no cases is one inch adequate to provide balanced sound in small rooms (meaning all private theaters). Another level is aesthetics, such as millwork, lighting fixtures, furnishings, and other touches that add up to a great private theater. This is another area where a holistic perspective on design delivers the complete experience.