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Studio Design From The Ground Up

By Sarah Petty, Cr.Photog., CPP

It’s so exhilarating for a small business owner to imagine building his very own building, a space with smooth new walls, plumbing that works, windows that are easy to clean, a place for which each monthly payment brings him closer to outright ownership, a place he could sell 20 years down the road. My husband, Joe, owns a small architectural firm, and we have long dreamed of building something together.

We’ve just begun a venture in creating a custom-designed, functional new building to house both our businesses. The two businesses can share a lot of spaces, and even personnel. We’d both love to have a dedicated receptionist to answer the phone and greet clients, but neither of us needs a full-time employee. We plan to share one full-time employee who can help us both stay organized and be a gatekeeper of sorts, while helping us make a professional and consistent first impression with our clients.

We’ve been working for years for the finances to make our dream a reality. The PPA Studio Benchmark Survey showed us that to be profitable, no more than 10 percent of our gross sales should go toward overhead (assuming you manage the other costs of business). So, for example, if your business grosses $200,000 per year, it’s safe to pay out about $1,700 per month ($20,000 per year) for rent, utilities, and other overhead expenses. 

It’s my philosophy that your business should grow only as fast as you can justify financially. You don’t need to take out huge loans to build a building—in fact, I believe the opposite. The Benchmark Survey also shows that home-based studios are generally more profitable than retail studios, a correlation of less overhead expenses. If you understand your financial statements and grow your business as supported by those figures, you’ll have a successful business and sleep soundly at night. Those figures will tell whether or not that success can support building a new studio.

Rendering:Joe Petty; Photo: Andria Crawford-Whitehead

After seven years of renting and with our youngest child happily in kindergarten, we’re ready to take this leap. Had I built four years ago, I’d have built a space that was way too small, and I’d have had too little time to spend with my toddlers at home. As it is, I’ve outgrown my studio twice, and had to pay to build expansions. In the past three years, we’ve built up a secondary location, where we’ve added a large framing department and the facilities for our venture in business and marketing education for photographers ( The revenue from these will finance more space in our building plan, space we didn’t even know we’d need a few years ago.

If you’re thinking of building, look at where you are in the lifecycle of your business. Early on, your business can safely grow quickly, maybe even double every year while maintaining profitability. If you jump into building a fancy studio too early, you could outgrow before it’s even paid for, not to mention feeling unnecessary stress.

If you’re taking possession of an existing space, define and list your minimum requirements, then keep adding elements to the list that would make the space ideal. For example, it’s always nice to have a dedicated sales and projection room, and who wouldn’t want to have a luxurious waiting room? Maybe these things can’t possibly happen in the space or within your budget, but if you define an ideal, you may find a way to get there. Because of the layout of all three of my studios, I’ve never had a dedicated sales room, but we found creative ways to make it work. Bet you can, too.

Before you draw up your building plans, you have to scout for the land to build on. Every design decision is based on the elevation and topography of the site, so it’s counterproductive to start actually paying someone to design your building before you’ve secured the land.

Joe asked me first thing to make a “program” for my proposed studio. That’s where I define exactly what I need in each room. I’ve spent the last year listing every detail. For example, I want the camera room to have a large window facing north so we can shoot with natural light. The room itself needs to be large enough to ensure that with my longest lens, I can photograph a subject full length, and maybe even a small group. The outlets will go in the ceiling rather than the walls, which I’ll be shooting against. The ceilings need to be of a certain height to hold track lighting. I want a particular kind of wood on my floors. We might even design some movable walls so we can have several backgrounds to maximize our space.

We’re still thinking about the design of the production space. It needs to be configured for our production crews to be able to work efficiently. We know that the production space needs to be neutral in color, because we color balance in that space. Because there will be several computers in that space, we want to minimize window glare. We still need to determine where the dressing room(s) will be, and how clients will flow smoothly through the customer experience, from session to presentation. Every week it seems we come up with a new idea.

All of these details need to be defined before the designing begins. The more planning work you do, the more efficiently the designing and building will go. Architects charge based on their time, and even if they quote the project up front, making drastic changes midstream will kick up your bill (unless you marry your architect like I did).

Traffic flow through the studio is a huge design factor. Logically, the dressing room needs to be next to the camera room, and for several reasons, we don’t want clients to walk through the production area. Right now, Joe and I are discussing where to receive deliveries. We get almost daily UPS deliveries from our lab and frame supplier, and it would work nicely to have a side door off the lobby for that purpose. We wouldn’t have the extra traffic in the lobby or unattractive boxes piling up in public spaces.

Our program includes our dream features in case we can think of a way to implement them. These features range from a freight elevator to transport large set furnishings and props from the basement to the camera room as needed, to having a handy recycling shoot in every office, so that all our paper, plastic and aluminum drops magically into the appropriate bin. (In our dream, all those recycled materials magically transport themselves to the recycling facility.)

We want our space to be unlike anything people have seen. We’ve been stockpiling salvaged architectural elements to incorporate with our building. Some of those elements may never make it out of the basement of our home, but we have a lot to choose from.

We fuel our creativity with magazine pictures we clip and save. If we see a cool staircase, stained concrete floors or interesting windows we like, Joe and I add the picture to our collection in what is now a distressed leather binder. Luckily, Joe gets many design magazines for his office. It’s important to look to other industries for inspiration.

Our project is complicated by being built for two businesses to achieve economies of scale. The shared production space has to accommodate both assembling framed art and building architectural models. And there has to be direct access to both of our businesses from the reception area. We’d like to have a comfortable space for our kids, where they can study or play if need be, without disrupting the entire office. We’re looking at the needs of both businesses separately and together.

We’re working on lists of our outdoor needs, too. Because shooting outdoors is important in my business, the building’s outer materials and the landscaping have to be considered, as well as the direction of the sun throughout the day.

Now that our land is chosen and our needs are clearly defined, we’re just starting to sketch the footprint of the building. Drawing on a lightweight tracing paper called bumwad, Joe will keep reworking the space on top of the prior space until he gets a functional layout. Next he’ll start working on a to-scale blueprint, and eventually render the plans on the computer with AutoCAD. For his larger clients—and I hope his wife—he builds scale models of the proposed building out of mat board. This is a good time of year to start the planning and design process. We hope to break ground in the next six months. And then a dream comes true!

Look for more features on studio planning, design and makeovers in the April issue of Professional Photographer!