Updated: Sep 23, 2019
Rooftop style stages, also known as Ground-Support Rooftops or Load-Bearing Rooftops, are structures assembled over a stage to provide shade for performers, and more importantly, a means of hanging sound, lighting, and video equipment high above the stage for maximum performance and impact. For decades, rooftops were the gold standard in the industry, but today, rooftops are outdated, cumbersome, and for the event planner- a substantial risk! This short discussion will give you the knowledge you need to know in order to make the best decisions for your next event.
First- Let's start with the obvious elephant in the room- google "stage collapse" and you will find no shortage of rooftop collapses from all size events all over the world. The media calls these stage collapses, but almost always, it is actually the rooftop that collapses. It is unfortunate that in this day and age, rooftop collapses are happening at an alarming rate. While there are a myriad of reasons as to why they collapse, the fact remains, they collapse. And when they do, unsuspecting festival organizers soon learn how they were at risk.
All rooftop designs are based around an engineers set of drawings, showing how custom made precision pieces of the rooftop are assembled and properly tethered. While simple in concept, the practical implementation of rooftops becomes much more diluted. When the various parts of the rooftop arrive on your jobsite, how can you be sure that the hundreds of individual parts are the actual factory specified parts? As parts become worn, damaged, or lost, many rooftop owners choose to purchase replacement parts that are "similar" from other manufacturers, or even worse, repair or self-fabricate the defective parts. How do you, as the event organizer, know that these parts meet the design specification as intended by the original engineer? And if the parts are not labeled and referenced on the drawing- how can you make sense of any of it? And do you really have the time to oversee that all of these parts are correct and assembled in the correct order and manner? The problem gets even worse. Consider the labor putting all of these pieces together. Have they been factory trained and certified to build the structure? Are they able to show proof? And let's take a look at those critical guy wires that attach to the structure and reach into your festival space around the stage attaching to temporary ballast. Are they properly tensioned, at the correct angle, to an appropriate ballast? If you cannot answer all of these questions with confident answers, you may be found negligent in court when disaster strikes.
Unfortunately, rooftop issues do not end there. Once your rooftop is assembled and flown in the air there will be new concerns. Because rooftops are structures, assembled from pieces, by humans, relying on external ballast, their performance in various weather conditions can be difficult, if not impossible, to predict. As a general rule, rooftops must be lowered when wind conditions reach 35MPH. They must also be lowered when heavy rain or lightening are present. As I type this blog this morning at the breakfast table enjoying my coffee, the window is open and is a beautiful sunny Texas morning, with a temp of 78 degrees and wind gusts of... oh no... winds are at 15MPH gusting to 35! Time to put the coffee down and lower the rooftop. Of course, to lower the rooftop there are some things that need to be done first...
Lowering the rooftop takes time, and brings your festival stage to a screeching halt. Since the rooftop cannot be moved during high winds, you must anticipate the approach of winds and take action before they arrive. If the rooftop has flown speakers on it, they will likely need to be brought in first, taking additional time. If the rooftop has video wall on it, that too will need to come in early. In fact, it is not uncommon for the entire process to bring the rooftop in to take 30 minutes to an hour before the high winds hit. How good are you at predicting Texas winds an hour out? And once the weather threat has diminished, the process to raise the roof again can take just as long. And even though you are not sure if the storm will hold together, or slide to the east, if you fail to take action well in advance and prepare your rooftop for safety, you may be found negligent.
Rooftops can bring your entire festival to a halt- and that is the best case scenario. They can also land you free publicity on CNN and the internet for life.
So what are the alternatives? How do I alleviate being found negligent as an event producer? Do I really need to understand all of this voodoo or can I please get back to marketing my event, selling tickets, and appeasing my sponsors? The short answer is- Mobile Stages.
Mobile Stages, just like rooftops, rise high into the air, providing a means of securing sound, lighting, and video equipment. But, unlike rooftops, mobile stages are different by design and how they are implemented. When a mobile stage shows up, ask the technician to see their Factory Certified Credentials. This is proof that they have been trained by the manufacturer to build the stage correctly. Make sure the credentials contain the name of the stage manufacturer and model of the stage. Some companies are sneaky and tell you their stage technicians are certified- but the program is an in-house developed program- not the manufacturers safety program.
Mobile stages are already assembled for the most part, with extensions and accessories that are keyed in such a way that the stage cannot be built incorrectly. It is nearly impossible to put the wrong part in the wrong place. For this reason, if the stage technician is factory certified, and they are simply opening up the stage and attaching keyed accessories with specific fit, you can rest assured that the fully constructed stage meets the intent of the engineers original drawing and calculations- and because the mobile stage is self ballasted and does not require those unsightly guys wires hanging off the sides, you can predict with far more certainty how the stage will perform under windy conditions. In fact, some mobile stages can withstand winds up to 115MPH! Now I realize that with winds in excess of 100MPH you have probably already stopped the band and advised patrons to seek cover- but isn't it nice to know that on a gorgeous morning like this one, with winds only occasionally gusting to 35MPH, that a band could be performing on your mobile stage right now, while you clutch your beer and funnel cake? The difference between rooftops and mobile stages is literally the difference between selling food and beverage and shutting your festival down.
Now there are certain applications where a mobile stage won't work and the rooftop is your only option. Sometimes there are terrain or access issues to the stage site, or the stage size is enormous (greater than 70x56 not including soundwings) and a rooftop is your only option. When that happens, make sure you get those engineering drawings, check every part, inspect every credential, and watch like a hawk over the entire process. And be prepared to stop the show well in advance. You don't want your festival to be the most recent picture on google for "Stage Collapse".
One last bit of wisdom- to help you better compare rooftop quotes and mobile stage quotes. Sometimes the rooftop number will appear much lower than the mobile stage number on a quote. Be sure to factor in the hidden costs of a rooftop style stage. There will be a rooftop number, and also a stage number. Typically a rooftop stage will require a larger number of stagehands, considerably more time, and possibly even a forklift, a rigger, and additional trucks to deliver to the jobsite. Once you are able to accurately determine the actual cost of a rooftop, you will find there is little price parity between the two options.
Mobile stages are safer, cleaner, faster, predictable, affordable, and can mitigate your risk in the event of a tragedy. If you have ditched your rotary phone, the home land line, and your floppy disk drive, but not your rooftop, perhaps the time has come?