Dance halls and hotels - problems of overheating when used for folk dancing - good and bad design of dance halls and hall heating systems.


At the present time most pages in this section exist as headings with skeleton contents only. None of the pages contain finalised text. It is likely to take me a year or two of my spare time to produce any sort of 'finished' content. Life tends to intervene in these projects....... In the interim, comments are welcome if they are related to additional topics which you feel could with benefit be included.


There are many sizes and types of village and community halls used for folk dancing. Some are highly satisfactory, others are appalling. Very often the reason(s) why they are unsatisfactory are related to basic design rather than to problems with operation and maintenance. The key factors are the floor size, the floor shape, arrangements for ventilation, and the type and efficacy of the heating system. Other important factors are provision for parking, hire costs, kitchen facilities, acoustic performance and lighting. With a little attention to detail, many halls (and a few hotels) could easily be made more suited to dance events.

Quick check list:

If you are hiring a hall for a one-off dance event here are some things to watch out for (all based on experience!)

This checklist can be used to help highlight problems that need to be addressed in both design and operation. For many years I was a building and energy scientist involved in heating system design and operation - amongst other topics. This has informed my interest in the (arguably dangerous) design of some dance marquees, as well as the design of village and community halls and hotel ballrooms.

sidmouth ham aerial small.jpg (285250 bytes) The Ham marquee at Sidmouth FolkWeek has grown progressively larger over the years 2008 to 2016. It now seats over 1000.

It may already be potentially dangerous owing to the risk of heat-stroke in hot weather. It would certainly be unusable for (say) 500 dancers. This design is mentioned here as a warning of the importance of building and heating system design to ensure public safety.

Ignoring basic rules for building design and operation (or feigning ignorance of them) might even lead to a charge of corporate manslaughter were fatalities to occur.

Factors in the Sidmouth design are - a sheltered location, an emphasis on keeping the marquee closed up as much as possible (to prevent non-paying members of the public seeing the stage acts), use of a 'buffer zone' (the bar!) on the only side the marquee that could experience any significant wind and a large ratio of floor dimension to building height. Calculations for temperature build up will be given elsewhere (add link and photos).

In preparing this section I have come to realise that I know around 50 dance halls quite well. Many I have not visited for years and I have forgotten most of their details but the following table shows how a few of my more regular haunts could be ranked. Of course, the ranking is for folk dance purposes. Some factors may be more or less important were the hall to be used for another purpose - and most of them are most of the time.

Some factors have been omitted - the acoustic performance of the hall for example. This is important for dance (and even more important for music evenings) but is often an unknown quantity. Halls used or designed primarily for sports often have hard 'harsh' surfaces and be very difficult acoustically. Retrofit kits comprising sound absorbing material (sometimes shaped like sheep) are available to hang on walls - these are used by several dance festivals to temper the acoustic performance of gym halls. Even drawing heavy curtains across windows can improve the 'warmth' of the acoustics. Lighting is another factor where a hall may be very much 'take it or leave it' - a few are truly appalling.

It might be noted that even though my nearby Willand hall is rated 'excellent' it underwent a major refurbishment in 2016/17. This was centred upon replacing the original asbestos roof (it was many decades old) and maybe even replacing the dance floor - which is already one of the best in the area. For the moment, these halls are listed in no particular order.

Location Ventilation Heating Floor size/shape
Floor surface Parking Kitchen WCs
Willand Excellent Controllable Excellent (110) Usually excellent Very good Good/spacious side room Good
Sidford Adequate Poor control Excellent (80) Adequate/good Adequate on road Good/spacious Good
Aylesbeare Adequate Adequate Small (36) Adequate/good Adequate + on road Very good OK/cold!
Mackarness Honiton Poor Abysmal/poor control Good (130) Good - and good acoustics Nearby + on road Dismal/old Adequate
Budleigh Salterton Good Controllable? Excellent (100+) Adequate/good Excellent Good Good
Broadclyst Victory Adequate/poor Controllable? Excellent (90) Adequate/good Adequate + on road Excellent Good
Gittisham Good Controllable/Good Small (36) Adequate Adequate on road Good Adequate
Sulis Club Bristol Appalling/single sided Controllable Good (60) Adequate Excellent Unknown Good
Irish (Br) Poor Unknown Adequate(60) Very good (refurbished 2016) Adequate OK Poor
Irish (Ne) Poor Unknown/poor Adequate (40) Poor Nearby good Poor Dismal
Irish (Di) Good Good/controllable Small (24) Excellent/dangerous! Adequate Excellent Good
Irish (Sh) Adequate/poor Adequate/controllable Good (60) Good Excellent Good/small Good
Irish (Ba) Adequate/poor Unknown/poor Small (24) Poor Adequate Poor Poor
Irish (SMD) Excellent Controllable/good Excellent (80) Excellent Good + on road Good Good
Irish (SMD2) Adequate Unknown Excellent (100) Excellent but very harsh acoustics Excellent Good Good
Colyford Excellent Controllable/good Excellent (48) Excellent Excellent Good Good
Topsham Good Unknown Excellent (100) Good Poor/Difficult Good Good
Kenn Centre Good (doors either end) Unknown/automatic Excellent (100) Good but difficult acoustics Good Good Excellent
Clyst St Mary Adequate Unknown Excellent (80) Very good Good Good Adequate
Stowford Rise Sidmouth Excellent Unknown, presumed good! Excellent (130) Very good Excellent (at nearby Waitrose) Excellent Excellent

A few of the halls listed above stand out as being very good all round. Amongst these are Willand (often thought of as the best in Devon despite its age), Colyford and Budleigh Salterton, which used to be home to regular and well attended Saturday night social dances. Topsham is another pleasant and recently refurbished nearby hall but the parking is very difficult. One or two halls are generally abysmal. What is important is that there needs to be more appreciation amongst both designers and operators of the requirements for high energy high density folk dance.

As I expand and complete this section I'll add more detail on halls that are very good all round (for example, Willand and despite its age) and those that are less good but that could be improved by refurbishment. This will help to highlight factors that should be considered.

The financing of village halls varies widely, some are formally operated by a Trust, some are controlled by a local council, others may be privately owned and operated. Willand hall is one of several I know that were funded essentially by major private donations or bequests. Decades ago a local couple left money in their wills to three local 'good causes' - the Church, funds to help construct a new village hall and funds to help support a local folk dance club. The total sum was around 75,000 in the 1960's - an equivalent sum in 2016 would be well over 1 million.

Village Hall, Church Hall and hotel heating system design.

Examples are given here of heating systems that are poorly designed, and also some that are excellent and could be used in any small hall undergoing refurbishment. If a local village or church hall is to be refurbished it is an opportune time to make it as dance-friendly as possible.

When many people think of a heating system they consider primarily the type they have at home - often traditional 'wet' radiators with a centralised gas or oil boiler. Often similar systems are used in village halls and with the same types of control systems - a central thermostat (somewhere hidden away or maybe not even connected?) and thermostatic radiator valves (which people invariably turn up to maximum thinking it will improve the pre-heat time). Very often the response to overheating is simply to open the windows - with the heating system still operating at full power. This harks back to the 'centralised' district heating systems often used in communist countries in the 1940s to 1970s - heating was supplied to all flats in a block, with no means of control whatever except to open windows.

During the days of cheap energy even some office buildings in the UK were not fitted with light switches - it being thought less trouble simply to leave the lights on 24 hours per day. Many shops in the UK still adopt a similar policy - albeit partly for security reasons. Many charity and other small retail shops are grossly overheated - often by 'hot air door curtain' systems that are left operating in all weathers. Others have the air-conditioning left on when the doors are open all day. It is simply a reflection of how little 'ordinary' people think about waste and world resources.

The heating requirements of village halls are different from those of homes - for example they need an adequate frost-protection control (to prevent water pipes freezing during cold weather and when the hall is not being used). Also, they need (ideally) a heating system that can both be controlled by users and that is quick to react to a sudden input of heat - the most extreme example being a room full of energetic dancers. Thermostatic radiator valves fitted to wet radiators and without any form of 'anticipatory' control react far too slowly. If these heating systems are fitted they should be manually switched off well before dancing starts. Even then, the residual output from radiators can last ten or twenty minutes and can be unwelcome. Halls with access to mains gas do however benefit from relatively inexpensive energy and have potentially low maintenance requirements.

For halls used intermittently and often not for days at a time, a background heating system (or just the thermostat turned right down on the main heating system) can provide adequate frost protection and sufficient heat to keep the building 'aired'.

Hotel ballrooms can suffer from design failings as well as poor control - the heating system can be linked to the rest of the hotel (where heating may be required because of the cold weather) yet in the dance hall people can be sweltering. Zone control (and with the zone able to be controlled in real time by occupants) is the answer - but can be expensive to incorporate into an existing heating system that may be 30 or 40 years old, and best left well alone.Some hotel ballrooms only have single sided ventilation and many rely on ceiling mounted fans to provide air movement - yet this is a poor substitute for proper ventilation that will produce air exchange (and heat removal) instead of just air recirculation. One example is the Torbay Court Hotel in Paignton, used by several folk dance groups including Gittisham Folk Dance Club in 2016/7.

The hall became oppressively overheated in 2016 and wholly unsuitable for dancing at times - yet the hotel staff refused to allow doors to the outside to be opened - citing 'Elf and Safety' reasons. In fact, the hotel has a problem with neighbours having complained about noise from dance weekends - thus 'Elf and Safety' is invoked as an excuse. If such palpable nonsense resulted in a fatality from heat-stroke both the hotel management and maybe even the dance organisers might be held liable under 'duty of care' both having failed adequately to assess the needs of people in their charge and to provide adequate relief from overheating in a situation where this was readily available - yet not implemented. The problems in June 2016 were quite severe and some attendees felt distinctly uncomfortable in the heat - yet the outdoor temperature could easily have been 5 or even 8 degrees centigrade higher. Heat-stroke can be serious or even fatal - and as noted on the link above, it can develop inside a few minutes. Legal liability of dance organisers is discussed in another section (add link to committee responsibilities)

It may also be noted that using (typically) ceiling mounted air recirculation fans may be less effective for dancers than for seated occupants in the same room. The reason is that air flow from fans may produce a large percentage increase in local air speeds around a sedentary seated person (maybe attending a meeting or a concert). Yet for dancers, who may already be thrashing around the hall, the fans may have only a marginal effect on their overall comfort. Floor mounted cylindrical cooling fans can be effective if many are located around the periphery a dance hall - but you only have to move outside of an air stream to lose the benefit of the highly localised air movement. This is experienced in the sports hall at Chippenham festival, for example. And of course all fans add a little motor heat to the building! In any case providing additional air movement via fan systems does not address the core reason for physiological stress - the excessively high temperature. The only truly effective solutions are greater natural ventilation (via double sided ventilation) or substantially to seal the room and use air conditioning - as is done at the Town Hall dance venue at Chippenham. Here, on a sweltering summer day, high energy dance in a packed hall can be undertaken in comfort - yet if the system were to break down the building would become unusable within a few minutes.

It is very expensive and often impracticable to retro-fit air conditioning to an existing building because of the duct sizes involved.

Mackarness Hall Honiton - maybe the worst heating system I have encountered in a church or village hall.

It is worthwhile outlining the design of this heating system and its poor control as a warning to others. The hall is old and tall and the heating system may be the original (and maybe with asbestos components). A central burner provides heat to a large (probably) air to air heat exchanger. Powerful fan(s) blast hot air downwards from output grilles in the ceiling - which is (fortunately) a long way above any hapless occupants. Nevertheless, the first problem is that you can be gently roasted if you are sitting (or dancing) directly underneath one of the ceiling grilles.

Whilst a rudimentary control system is fitted and that allows user on/off control, the system does not respond to an 'off' command instantly. The output fans only cease operating when the heat exchanger has cooled down (this is probably to prevent overheating of the exchanger). Thus 'off' can mean 'off in maybe 5 minutes' - and the building has such poor ventilation that there is no way easily to dissipate unwanted heat.

Even worse, in wintertime the heating system can operate even when the hall itself is at a comfortable temperature. A frost-stat located somewhere in a cold part of the building senses that there might be a risk of frost damage - and so the entire building is heated until the frost-stat is satisfied. The main hall is fitted with several powerful high level extract fans but these don't work and I was told in no uncertain terms not to touch any of the control switches. Thus even though the building is known to need powerful heat extract at times, the systems fell into disrepair years ago.

Nevertheless, the hall is one of the most expensive to hire - over 40 for a weekday evening - and with arrangements for collecting keys that are unhelpful (to say the least). It is probably only ever used because no alternative of an equivalent size is available locally. Its good features are the floor and 'warm' acoustics.

Use of infra-red wall mounted heaters in village and church halls.

Potentially, wall mounted infra-red heaters can provide a well controlled and comfortable environment in village halls. These systems are much used in industrial buildings where there is a high ventilation rate (large opening doors with fork-lift trucks constantly operating for example) and they work broadly on the principle of 'heat the the people not the air'.

In fact, conventional radiator systems do this also - but the mix of air/radiant heating is different. People often claim to 'prefer' radiator systems to warm air heating systems - what they are expressing is that they 'feel' more comfortable. This is because people are sensitive to average radiation temperature as well as the local air temperature - and so called 'comfort temperature' is a function of both of these - and varies according to type of clothing.

It is possible to be 'comfortable' sunbathing in the Alps on a cold winter's day if you are in strong sunshine and with no wind. Here, radiation heating dominates. The same idea lies behind infra-red strip heaters that used to be popular in cold bathrooms before the days of central heating - and before Elf and Safety took over. These comprised typically a heating spiral of resistance wire inside a small diameter quartz tube. They were cheap and effective. Nowadays wall mounted down-draught heaters are sold for bathrooms - and are arguably safer yet less effective at providing 'comfort' to an unclothed wet body. Indeed, the air movement generated produces a cooling effect.

Modern wall mounted infra-red systems come broadly in two types - those using a high power halogen filament tube and that glows bright red (and with a polished reflector to direct the radiation) and the less severe 'hot surface' heaters. These provide a less concentrated spread of radiation and without any glare. Examples are given below. Where many infrared heaters are used in a hall it is essential to label them clearly so that each one may easily be switched on or off according to user needs. Although a single phase electrical supply can provide 16 to 18kW of power, (240 volts at 70 amps) banks of infra-red heaters are most usually used in halls which have a 3-phase electrical supply.

heaterred500.jpg (23110 bytes)

One of the heaters in Aylesbeare Village Hall near Exeter. These can be individually controlled by switches in the entrance hallway yet provide both hot and cool areas - depending on whether you stand in front of one of the heaters!

The hall was recently 'upgraded' with the aid of a grant and background off-peak electric heaters were installed to supplement the infra-red heaters. These are not ideal - they take up space in an already small hall and whilst they have a 'boost' control the instructions for use leave a little to be desired.

This type of infra red heater is best avoided especially in small halls where people may get quite close to them (and hence feel too warm) and there is the associated problem of glare from the lamps. Contrary to the notices displayed by some hall management committees, this type of heater can of course be used to 'preheat' the building. They do not heat only people!

somersethtr6 500.jpg (79321 bytes)

As an alternative, these 'hot surface' heaters can be used and are more suitable for small halls. They do not glow red and the radiation field is more diffuse - so these is less of a concentrated beam of radiation. People can still 'feel' if they are in front of a heater, but the effect is far less pronounced.

Visually, they look the same whether they are working or not - hence the warning notices - do not touch! Because it is not so immediately obvious which of any of these heaters in a hall are 'on' or 'off' clear labelling is essential. In this hall in Somerset it could not have been done more effectively - the entire hall is very well labelled - from the cutlery drawers, to the oven, to the water stop-tap and to the heaters and lights. It is an example of how things should be done.

somersethtrdoor 500.jpg (82015 bytes)

In the same village hall in Somerset, the banks of infra-red heaters are supplemented by a 2kW 'air curtain' warm air heater located over the entrance doorway. Again this is a good design feature.

Similar heaters are often used above shop doorways - and much misused by staff who leave them running at full power even when the entire shop is sweltering.

In a village hall a heater of this type can be use as an aid to 'preheating' of the hall as well as functioning as an air curtain whenever the door is opened.

somersetsw 500.jpg (132946 bytes)

Every switch is clearly labelled - from the banks of heaters (1 to 7 and with warning notices about the 3-phase power) to ceiling and WC lights.

The kitchen shows a similar degree of careful labelling making its use by new hirers as straightforward and safe as possible.

Windows and doors can all be opened as desired, and the keys for window locks are clearly labelled and easily located.

Maybe one day all village halls will attain the same high standard?

The one poor feature (seen in many village halls) is a 'domestic' type of smoke alarm located on a wall and close to the corner of the room - and it is a type that just bleeps without sending a signal to any outside control room or house. Thus it is almost useless! The most appropriate types of smoke alarms for village halls utilise remote signalling panels so that caretakers (etc) who live in the vicinity receive instant notification of any problem. I'll add more details later of suitable systems - I've already advised a few hall committees.

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