Theatre Green Book PRODUCTIONS Toolkit – Designing and Making

 

Modular Design

 

With thanks to Chris Pepler, Sanne Brodersen, Janet Williamson and Nathan James  

 

Modular design strategies can be used to promote reuse within theatrical designs: the core approach is to imagine the design as a collection of smaller units or modules which can be combined to produce a desired outcome.

Geometric modularity is the most commonly used approach in theatrical installations, where an item is split into a smaller group of items which can later be combined into a different shape or customized by remaking only one module rather than an entire fabrication.

Functional modularity by contrast defines and splits an assembly into modules defined by their function. For example, a lifting component could be removed from one item and reused on another.

Benefits of using a modular design approach are long-term reductions in financial and environmental cost, where the majority of any structure or system can be reused in each iteration. The modular approach may be embraced to gradually increase the organisation’s stock of modular parts over time, creating a stock of scenic assets for rapid and low-cost future deployment.

Challenges to overcome are interoperability of modules from different suppliers of similar systems. If producing a new modular system, initial design time may be increased to prototype and test a system before committing to larger investments in it.  Initial manufacture cost is often (although not necessarily) greater than producing for one-off use since there may be redundancy in connections or increased durability requirements where a part has multiple reuses in numerous different configurations. For critical components it is also important to consider the risk of damage to parts and potentially to implement an inspection system to check modular parts before reuse.

For creative teams, an initial task may be to understand an organisation’s modular unit stock, or potential hire stock, using the availability of these as a starting point for a design and working out how to combine and clad them to minimise requests for bespoke fabrications from new materials. It may be necessary to consider some flexibility within the sizing and placement of design elements. For example, within a show floor, it may be possible to reuse a standard size plywood floor if any applied pattern is divisible within the boundary of a 2.4 m X 1.2 m sheet. Modifying a design concept in this way can both open options for using reclaimed material and reduce damage to the material during use, enabling a future life for the material.

Promoting circularity of materials and components within your organisation is an important achievement. Developing common standards across the industry may help us to hire or share across a larger community and dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of theatre and events.

Modular Design Strategies

 

Modular design strategies will vary dependent on whether the modules are split according to function or geometry, and the degree of flexibility desired in the future life of the item. To enable successful reuse there are several factors to consider:

  • What size stock material is available? In order to minimise waste, this may be a key driver when determining the size of the standard module.

  • How will modules be connected together? The type of fixing will be determined by factors including structural requirements, ease of assembly and disassembly, cost of fixing parts, availability of spare parts and tools needed to apply the fixing.

     

  • Dimensions of modularity should be considered. Do you want to re-combine parts later in a 2-dimensional array, or create a new structure in three dimensions? In each case, consider if parts could be connected in different orientations or offsets to the original design intent. There will be a trade off between future flexibility, cost of manufacture, structural integrity of the part, ease of assembly and interoperability with other systems.

 

Modular Design Examples

DKT Multiwagon

Developed by The Royal Danish Theatre, a modular wagon with multiple different configurations capable of use throughout the construction process and during productions, from materials handling in workshops to stair units, auditorium seating and moving scenery during performance.

RSC Modular Framing System

A modular structural scaffold system utilizing laser tube cutting to enable rapid build times of steel frame structures to replace previously welded frames. Frames can be reconfigured and clad in different materials for each show.

National Theatre Timber Modular Flat

A system of reusable modular plywood flattage produced in various sizes at 300mm increments, to allow construction of wall elements which can be configured to allow openings in various positions. Decorative surfaces can be screwed to the front face and removed for future reuse.

RSC Show Floor

The RSC has a stock of 8 floors for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with different surfaces and board sizes. Designers are encouraged to design their floor to accommodate the standard module size and if necessary, apply an additional tile covering to align with the standard module size. Each show may then only need to remake floor modules to accommodate new trap or track positions. The strategy has helped the RSC to not make a new floor from new materials in this venue since 2019.

Commercial Modular Design Systems

Steel Deck: Temporary staging and platforms with multiple different compatible sizes.

Truss: There are numerous truss systems which allow the construction of structural frames and beams in ground-supported or grid-supported applications. Each system may not be compatible with others, but they are often compatible with standard fittings such as doughty tube clamps.                 

Unistrut: A modular framing system comprising multiple different section sizes and connectors which can be configured in different ways and disassembled for subsequent reuse. 

Triple E: ModTruss and BEEEM structural framing systems offer standard sections which can be connected in different configurations via standard bolted joints. 

Layher Scaffolding Systems: All scaffolding uses modular principles, but Layher is one system which offer faster build times with its bespoke connection design.     

etSetera Emagiblock: A new approach to scenic flats which provides greater flexibility for reconfiguration with rapid assembly and disassembly times.