First published in Harker News Online on Nov. 8, 2017

Along with the beautiful Patil Theater in Rothschild Performing Arts Center, there are rehearsal rooms, practice rooms and a top-flight scene shop. These rooms support the Harker Conservatory, which graduates between 35-50 certificate students each year, along with the 350-400 non-certificate students participating in performing arts each day. Moving day in February will be the culmination of years of dreaming and hard work.

Laura Lang-Ree, performing arts chair, noted, “We have been involved in design meetings for years, going on on-site visits at other performing arts centers and giving our input as to what works and what does not work.” She can’t choose just one favorite feature, she said, but is enthralled by the view from center stage, the professional fly system, the view from the balconies and, finally, “my amazing, expansive classroom – all the light and space. I think about teaching in there every day,” she said.

Lang-Ree had some performance-specific goals that the new building and equipment will achieve. “The ability to do technical elements like never before,” she said, “to build on site, fly sets, teach unrestricted with the space and sound benefits.”  

Its all about the package. The rehearsal rooms alone are enchanting, Lang-Ree noted, “creating a large space for students to rehearse their music with great sound, and the dressing rooms will be spacious and well-lit – a director’s dream!”

Read on for the extraordinary features that will make the building a wonderful home for Harker performers and productions for decades to come!

The Scene Shop
The scene shop includes doors almost 10 feet wide that go to the ceiling so scenery can be moved directly to the stage. After working in a remodeled cafeteria for the last decade, Paul Vallerga, Harker’s scenery master, is delighted with his new shop.  “I had quite a bit of input,” Vallerga said. “The most important things I recommended were adequate storage and construction space, proper ventilation, and an adequate station for dealing with paint.

Vallerga noted the main features of the new shop are space and a wide variety of tools for construction and painting. “One interesting feature will be a paint frame,” he said. “This is a wooden frame on one wall on which we can hang backdrops or other scenic units to be finished and/or painted. We will install stage lighting at this frame in order to duplicate the show lighting.”

Vallerga noted the salient points for a good scene shop. “Flexibility and access are the key things. A good shop, like this one, has enough space to assemble and work on fairly large complex units before loading them onstage.

“Probably the most interesting thing here is the fly system. This a counterweighted system of battens which will allow the storage and movement of overhead equipment. I’ve twice attended seminars on the safe use of stage rigging and am looking forward to teaching students about it.” Vallerga noted he is pretty excited to get his hands on the new shop. “I’m actually going to have to remember how to do things I’ve never been able to do at Blackford,” he said. .

Rehearsal and Practice Rooms
A room is just a room, unless it is fitted out by acoustical experts, in which case there is a lot going on behind the walls, ceilings and floors. Building out ultra quiet rooms took a collaborative effort between Kevin Hart Architecture, Studio Bondy Architecture, Charles M. Salter Associates and The Shalleck Collaborative (see last month’s story).

Architects and acoustical consultants like different things, said Jason Duty, vice president of Charles M. Salter Associates, Inc., consultants to the architects for acoustical matters. Architects tend to like symmetry, but, “acoustically, if we could lay out the rooms, the rooms would have more random placement of panels,” Duty said. “The two worlds have to agree. When you get to design with a guy like Kevin, we show him what we are thinking of and they show us what they are thinking of, and we go back and forth until we find the right combination to satisfy both worlds,” Duty said.

Left/Right and Up/Down AcousticsAcoustical consultants look at the two dimensions of left and right and up and down to plan their sound reduction strategy. Left and right sound management is about isolating adjacent rooms on the same floor by insulating and spacing out the walls. The new building has two floors of rehearsal and practice rooms and the same methods were used on both sets of rooms. All the rooms have fiberglass insulation in the stud cavities of the sheet rock walls, and the sheet rock is up to three layers thick on each side of the walls of rehearsal and practice rooms – that cuts down a lot of sound.

Practice rooms, the small rooms for individuals or small groups, can be constructed to one of two plans, either limited isolation so the teachers can hear students practicing, or more isolation but with a sound-rated window or windowed door, so teachers can glance into see how students are doing. Harker chose the second type and will have sound-rated doors with windows for the practice rooms.

The practice rooms themselves are stand-alone rooms inside the huge, empty space, called a “tunnel,” about 20 feet wide, between the big rooms. So there is a rehearsal room on either side of the building and practice rooms are built as separate structures in the tunnel, between the big rooms, thus insulating the practice room walls from rehearsal walls with air space.

That spacing reduces transmitted sound so the practice rooms and rehearsal rooms can be used at the same time. Even the placement of the practice rooms between the larger rehearsal rooms creates more air space between the large rehearsal rooms, contributing to the sound control between the large rooms, which are expected to have a larger volume of noise.

The tunnel construction also allows for the mechanical distribution of heating and electricity to the big rooms: ducts and electrical wiring come down from the roof above the tunnels. “That makes the architects happy,” said Duty, “as the rehearsal rooms are nice and clean.”

Up and Down Sound Isolation
Up and down sound reduction – sound transmitted through ceilings or floors – addresses two types of sound transmission: airborne sound and impact sound. Airborne sound would include a power saw in the scene shop or music in the big rehearsal room. Impact sound are the vibrations transmitted though solid objects by activities like walking, dancing and certain musical instruments that are supported on the floor. Acoustical reduction is measured in decibels and to reduce noise from above or below, architects can just thicken the cement floor; but going from a 3-inch-thick floor to a 6-inch-thick floor only adds about five decibels of sound reduction; going from 6 to 12 inches of concrete still only adds about another five decibels of sound reduction. A better answer is to use air space and layers of sheeting below the concrete lid, Duty noted.

In a small room, like the practice rooms, designers can use standard 2×4 framing to support the  sheet rock ceiling, as is done in normal construction of entryways and bathrooms in condominiums; they hang a false ceiling just below the actual ceiling, leaving an  air space.

But, noted Duty, “a dropped gypsum board (drywall) is very challenging in the big rooms. The next nicest thing to do is to use spring isolators that provide a resilient connection to the underside of the floor deck to give both airborne and impact isolation between the floors,” so Duty went with the spring isolators for the four large rehearsal rooms.

To further reduce impact noise, room floors on the second floor will also be “floating” on isolators a few inches above the cement deck. Again, the team could have used just thicker floors, but decided on a wood, floating floor, which uses neoprene “pucks” to support the raised floor, isolating it from the cement subfloor. Fiberglass insulation will be fitted between the neoprene isolators, plywood layered on top followed by the finished wood floor.

This method “helps a lot with impact, but even a little with airborne noise,” noted Duty, “So if a subwoofer is sitting on the floor it has a lot more to go through to disturb the lower rooms.” Duty noted installing the floor isolation is like moving a vibrating cell phone from a table, where the whole tabletop becomes a sounding board, to a couch, where the vibration is almost totally deadened.

Along with controlling excess sound, the flooring design in the big rehearsal room has another important but hidden feature, said Duty. “It was designed by Shalleck Collaborative (who designed the theater components of the building) to be basically a representation of what the stage was supposed to be like: dance should feel the same on (both) floors … pretty typical in rehearsal spaces so lifts and jumps feel the same,” he said.

Windows Are Important
Duty noted the design team has carefully addressed noise coming in and out of the windows. Architects like big glass, he said, “but sound guys see it as a big reflective surface. The adjacent walls typically perform better than the glass. We had to do a big study both on the noise coming out and how far away property lines are, and how much noise from Highway 280 will come into the room. The sound ‘exposure’ drives the glass/window selection,” he said.

Sound Transmission Class (STC) standards are used to choose the proper windows. “Assemblies are likely to be double pane,” said Duty. “The STC covers the whole assembly: the frame and how the glass sits in the frame. If air can get though, so can sound.”

The windows are preconfigured by manufacturers. Designers then choose the appropriate window system. “We just order the correct STC ratings and they show us assemblies that meet those ratings,” said Duty. “The architects pick what they like the look of in terms of finishes.”

Intraroom Acoustics

Aside from isolating the rooms from each other and the outside, attention is given to controlling the sound inside the rooms. “The larger rooms are where it gets interesting,” said Duty. “When people are in a room you can hear the person next to you, but what every conductor battles with is, musicians on either side of the room have to hear each other playing so the left-right ensemble becomes a challenge in the rehearsal rooms,” he said.

The acoustical consultants look at the volume of space (cubic footage), not loudness. “First, there has to be enough square footage so musicians are not sitting on top of each other,” Duty said. “Then you plan to have the room behave itself, with no weird echoes or excessive reverberance, but large enough to provide reasonable reverberance.”

On stage in the Patil Theater, surrounded by orchestra shells, the sound has somewhere to go: out into the audience. In the rehearsal room sound hits the wall behind the conductor. “We have to try to deaden the sound so it is not a mess to stand in all day long, while still having participants hear each other to properly rehearse,” said Duty. Rather than just use absorptive ceiling panels in the rehearsal rooms, the team will install pyramid diffusers on the ceiling, which helps send sound across the room.

Sticking to the Building Codes
One early challenge that drew all they players together was fitting in the layers of ceiling and floor isolation along with the heating and cooling machinery on the roof to stay below the maximum height allowed. 

Duty, Shalleck reps, Kevin Hart and Studio Bondy reps all gathered in front of a whiteboard to hammer out the height requirement. The group had to get internal dimensions right. That took huge coordination to make everything fit. The group had to track every three-quarter-inch thick piece of drywall or ceiling panel to ensure it all fit in the building code height limitations. “That’s what makes these fun,” said Duty. “There are certain things about these types of projects that make them different than standard office buildings – you have to take a lot more care with all the different pieces.”

The mechanical system provided another challenge to the team. “It sits on the roof so we had to worry about that sound coming into the rehearsal rooms as well as disturbing neighbors,” said Duty.

The Quiet HVAC System
The heating and cooling system in the RPAC is specially designed to keep noise to a minimum. The actual machinery for the HVAC system sits on the roof, above the practice area, on isolators to separate it from the building structure and to place it as far from the performance area as possible. The machinery on the roof is screened off both for aesthetic purposes and to shield the sound from neighbors.

The auditorium’s mechanical room is located beneath the lobby. Conditioned air is supplied overhead via a series of ducts that travel from that basement room, through the rear curved walls and up to the underside of the roof of the Patil Theater.

One huge sound reduction factor is that the returns, the big vents that suck “used” air back out of the auditorium to re-heat or re-cool, is not a big noisy vent. Instead, about 250 8-inch return vents have been drilled through the main cement deck — one under nearly every seat and the sheer number and spread of the return vents will ensure there is no rushing of air to disturb the audience or performers.

The Rothschild Performing Art Center will open in February 2018. Watch for information on opening ceremonies!


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