Stream of consciousness


With even greater proliferation of film and TV content across a growing range of streaming platforms since the pandemic, there’s huge demand for sustainable production facilities in the UK. Jason Lebidineuse of Scott Brownrigg and Michael Davis of JLL explain the opportunity for architects

One of the key findings of a 2021 report published by JLL, ‘Reel Estate – Film and TV Studios as an Investment,’ was that demand for “new studio capacity, services and facilities has never been greater, with more than double the current amount of permanent stage space in the UK needed to meet it.”

The increase in the streaming of films and TV series has only been amplified during the pandemic, and has seen the need for space to produce more content soar. Renowned for its talent pool and famous studios, the UK is a dominant player in Europe for film production and has therefore seen the demand for studio space intensify.

Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in achieving production companies’ ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) objectives. It is recognised that while creating temporary studios resolves timing issues associated with limited studio space, in order to be truly sustainable we need to be looking towards creating high-quality, permanent space that can not only flex to meet future need, but also contributes positively to wider society. Bringing thousands of highly skilled jobs, improved sustainable infrastructure, and significant new revenue to local areas, studios are increasingly becoming a catalyst for regeneration across the country.

What was historically considered as the ideal site characteristics for a film studio (essentially large, flat and located near west London) is now in short supply, so developers are broadening their horizons to see how they can adapt, and make alternative sites in a range of new locations suitable for filming. Herein lie the opportunities for architects.

Space & reuse challenges
To serve the rapid increase in demand for space, the built form needs to be flexible and adaptable to cope with changing requirements. The challenge for project teams is the ability to bring facilities to the market quickly enough to align with production programmes.

Some production companies turn to temporary facilities as a solution, converting existing sites and buildings from industrial use into modular studios in just a few months. These temporary solutions offer a quick and flexible fix to the problem but they pose challenges in terms of sustainability, can be costly to reuse, and are unlikely to meet future building safety standards.

Permanent stages are often deemed a more cost effective solution, but finding the right site for a new facility can be tricky; large, flat sites with existing infrastructure resilient enough to cope with traffic associated with film production are scarce in the UK.

Projects tend to undergo a vigorous planning process, and taking the time to engage key stakeholders is crucial. The planning process can have a significant impact on how quickly a project comes into fruition, and ultimately how conducive the design is for requirements once the studios are finally built. We focus on providing clients with the flexibility to cater for a range of production companies and output. Film production is a highly adaptable and creative industry, we must ultimately mirror these qualities in the facilities we provide, at the same rate, if not faster, as the industry moves forward.

Design pointers
Production companies need different things, so flexibility and space are key. The spatial arrangement must be able to flex as advancements in technology change the way in which the industry operates.

Most facilities require a warehouse-type building with ample ceiling heights, plus a range of studios to the right ratio of workshop and office support for content creation. Ample external space is also important in order to deal with the circus of film production, including parking for large vehicles and deliveries and storage space for the dismantling of sets.

Following a recent expansion in digital CMI, such as special effects, augmented reality and gaming in the UK, there is also a growing trend where larger players are looking to relocate from Central London bases to established catchments for digital creativity. Ideally, they are looking to co-locate alongside production studios in open, campus-style offices with contemporary design and amenities.

Studio sustainability
A demand for sustainable solutions is becoming increasingly important – clients want studios that will stand the test of time. Tenants want to occupy facilities with clear carbon reduction plans and that champion the use of renewable energies to align with their own sustainability goals.

We should be advocating carefully thought-through, permanent solutions that are flexible and adaptable for the future. This means being designed with the circular economy in mind, the right site selection and orientation, and best practice on materials.

The challenge is how to build sustainably, while still meeting the fundamental need for more studio space across the UK, and within a short timeframe. We can design permanent facilities to provide flexibility and with quality materials that will stand the test of time, but there remains – in some cases – an immediate need for temporary facilities to meet demand for content. This makes designing for circulatory crucial, but does present an opportunity to create ‘pop-up’ studios that can be dismantled and reused or repurposed elsewhere.

Case study: Shinfield Studio
Designed to BREEAM Excellent standards, Shinfield Studios in Berkshire provides a new purpose-built film and television studio that can flex to the changing requirements of each production. Workshop space and offices will support 18 sound stages, ranging in size from 16,000 ft2 to 40,000 ft2, an on-site screening facility, which can host post-production work, as well as screening the latest releases, and supporting local film clubs and theatrical groups. The design adopts a fabric first approach, use of air source heat pumps and photovoltaic arrays (PV), and avoids use of fossil fuels. Through the integration of low and zero carbon technologies a typical reduction of 20% carbon emissions is estimated, double the level required under the council’s existing policy.

Four sound stages have already been completed and are now in operation, with a Disney production confirmed to start within the next few months. A further nine are due by the end of 2023, with completion of the entire 18 stage facility by the end of 2024.

Future challenges
We all have a unique part to play in helping to futureproof the industry, but fortunately our clients are increasingly becoming the key driving force behind a demand for innovative and sustainable solutions that can flex to meet future need. With this demand starting at the top, these priorities trickle down the supply chain, helping keep the entire project team aligned in achieving the same vision.

Utilising renewable energy on site will become a requirement for all future planning applications. Investing in photovoltaic panels, green roofs and sustainable energy technology like air source heat pumps will be key in moving towards a net-zero carbon future.

As film studios tend to work at a third of capacity at any one time, there is scope to harness intelligent building management systems such as Digital Twin technology to minimise energy use and enhance operations throughout the year.

Jason Lebidineuse is a director at Scott Brownrigg, and Michael Davis is head of London Unlimited at JLL