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A Musical Celebration

Aluminum composite material fills acoustic requirements at new music school

Voxman1 Mar18

The University of Iowa School of Music in Iowa City, Iowa, celebrated its 110th anniversary in October 2016 with a new home. Designed by Seattle-based LMN Architects in association with Neumann Monson Architects, Iowa City, the $152 million, 186,000-square-foot Voxman Music Building is designed for resiliency, sustainability and the highest acoustic performance, and has achieved LEED NC Gold certification.

Celebrating musical performance at every turn, the facility embraces a collaborative and exploratory student-driven model of education that treats every space as a performance space. Stephen Van Dyck, AIA, LEED AP, partner and project designer at LMN Architects, says the design goal was two-fold: To build a music school that connected the school back to the city, and to make very high-performance spaces to support music education. “Building a building that was welcoming to the school as a new home,” he says, “but also opening the dialogue between the school and the city was very important.”

Rehearsal room. Photo by Tim Griffith.

Acoustic Isolation and Intimacy

One of the biggest challenges in designing the music school was that the spaces needed to be acoustically isolated. The building is located off a major state thoroughfare, resulting in a lot of ambient noise to contend with. And, coupled with it being vertically stacked six stories high, Van Dyck says the acoustic isolation was a huge challenge to pull off technically.

The rooms also have to sound amazing for the musicians and audiences. To solve this, the designers used the idea of finely tuned acoustic systems, which just happen to be made of metal. “The metal systems we developed for these rooms were really driven by the idea that you need a certain volume of space to allow sound to reverberate well, and for the space to sound full,” Van Dyck explains. “But you also need to counteract that to some degree with the need to bring acoustic intimacy to people when they’re in the spaces.”

The metal panel systems essentially bring early reflections of sound back to the musicians and the audience immediately, so they sense that the instrument is close to them. “You also have the ability for sound to go around these elements and travel through the larger volume of space to give the room a broader, fuller, reverberant sound,” Van Dyck says.

The fire sprinkler system, and the need for the rooms to meet code and life safety requirements, drove how the metal panel systems were developed and assembled. The project features 35,000 square feet of 6-mm, two-sided ALPOLIC aluminum composite material (ACM) from Mitsubishi Chemical Composites America Inc., Chesapeake, Va. The fire-retardant panels came in six finishes, four of which are custom.

Close up of swarms in a rehearsal room. Photo by Tim Griffith.

Rehearsal Rooms

While traditionally a dropped-down grid ceiling system is used to provide acoustics, the designers wanted to take advantage of the significant amount of volume in the rehearsal rooms. “We had this idea of creating a kind of sculpture, or a swarm of elements, that played with the volume of the space,” Van Dyck explains. “The intent was to illuminate to people how large the space was. Making a form that got the most out of that vertical height was really important, and gives you this cool feeling that the room is really tall and contains a lot of space.”

Inspired by photographs of swarming fish where the sunlight comes through the water creating a dapple light effect, Van Dyck says that light had to be an important design element as well, and not just the lights coming down from the ceiling, but bringing lights into the swarm itself. To achieve this effect, the designers used two different types of lights. A series of down lights, or can fixtures, are camouflaged in the swarm, while a series of LED up lights are integrated along the edges of the metal panels to illuminate the height of the room.

The designers added decoy panels that allowed them to integrate more lighting into the room. The decoy panels are significantly perforated and are acoustically transparent, meaning that sound passes through them as opposed to reflecting off of them. “The decoy panels serve a visual effect and a lighting need, but they do not serve any acoustic need,” Van Dyck explains.

To hide the sprinkler heads, the designers kept them at the top of the ceiling and painted white to match. In case of a fire, the metal panels have a reveal that runs the length of the panel to drain water and disperse it through the perforations and seams.

Mark Haab, vice president of operations at Shaffner Heaney Associates Inc., South Bend, Ind., the metal fabricator and installer, explains that the company coordinated the Unistrut grid locations with the MEP plenum space above and lighting below. “Each ACM panel was fabricated from two pieces, bolted together and attached to a hanging bracket,” he notes. “We had to find the center of gravity of each panel and locate this on the bracket so that the parts would hang level when supported by steel cabling suspended from the Unistrut grid. Because the pieces were both solid and perforated, this center of gravity varied between panel types.”

Concert Hall. Photo by Tim Griffith.

Concert Hall

The concert hall features a suspended “theatroacoustic” system, which unifies acoustics, lighting and life-safety requirements into a dramatic, multifunctional architectural expression. The resulting, intricately sculpted element is assembled out of 946 unique, folded-aluminum composite modules that were digitally fabricated from a parametric model.

The theatroacoustic system acts acoustically similarly to the swarms in the rehearsal rooms. However, Van Dyck says its form is much more unified as a single gesture, as opposed to a gesture of multiple pieces that are swarming together.

Additionally, the overall swoop of the form is driven by the desire to project the sound coming from the stage directly to the audience. “That gesture was really important to tie this room together as a single, dramatic statement,” he adds.

Instead of creating an acoustic envelope made up of gypsum and drywall, the designers opted to leave the steel trusses exposed and thicken the structure’s concrete slab. By doing this, they were able to take the savings and come up with the theatroacoustic system that visually conceals all of the trusses in the room.

“[The theatroacoustic system] serves to visually conceal the structural trusses that are above, as well as accommodate all of the fire sprinklers, sound speaker locations, both theatrical lights which are part of the lighting of the stage, as well as the house lights which light where the seats are,” Van Dyck explains. “All of those things are really important parts that drove the form of that piece.”

For the concert hall, Haab explains that the company coordinated the plenum space above the metal panels with the MEP items and its own structural rib hanging system. “Each steel hanging rib was pattern cut, stenciled, fabricated to add hanging bolts, painted, and subsequently delivered to be hung from the metal deck/joints,” he says. “Each of the 946 unique ceiling panels were cut to match the hanging rib bolts.”

Close up of recital hall acoustic wall. Photo by Tim Griffith.

Detailing the Metal

LMN Architects has a three-axis CNC machine in-house that allowed them to play with the ACM, design the system, and ensure that it would work acoustically ahead of signing a fabricator for the project.

Van Dyck explains that the biggest hurdle they had to overcome was the perception that musicians and the audience would have if they knew that metal was used to provide an acoustic response. “Our charge, therefore, was to do our best to disguise it and make it not appear as if it were metal,” he says. “One way we did that was to shy away from any paint that was metallic or reflective in appearance. The paints are all very matte to make it feel like an ambiguous material type.”

Additionally, the designers bent the edges and created a return that gave them an apparent larger thickness than they actually had. This way the panels don’t look like they’re 3/8-inch thick, but appear to be 2 or 3 inches thick. Van Dyck says it’s rare to see any exposed edges of the system, and the core and aluminum is not exposed in many places at all.