A team of experts sweats out the smallest details to create superior acoustics for OSU's Arts and Education Complex

By MIKE McINALLY

We usually think about the work of architects in terms of how the buildings they design look.

But for the designers of the Oregon State University Arts and Education Complex, another question was just as important: How will the building sound?

The facility, now under construction on the southeast corner of OSU’s Corvallis campus, will include the Lynne Hallstrom Detrick Concert Hall and a black box theater. The acoustics need to be terrific in both of those spaces.

And not just in there: The 49,000-square-foot building also will include a greenroom/classroom, a gallery, multiple areas to display artwork and a lobby area designed for flexibility. The sound needs to be good in those spaces as well.

That requires attention to details, from the biggest ones – how to deal with the rumble of the trains that occasionally roll through across the street – to the very smallest, including selecting lights for the concert hall that generate the least amount of sound possible.

AEC theatre sideview

Dave Otte of Holst Architecture in Portland, the firm that’s handling the architectural work for the project, understands how even the smallest detail can make a big difference in fine-tuning how a building sounds: “Every decision you make, from what you make the walls out of to how thick the walls are, how they’re shaped, where there’s void and where there’s solid, what types of instruments or voices are you expecting to have playing in the space, is the space supposed to be flexible or specific for a certain type of acoustics – all of these things play into every single little decision down to the specification of what kind of wood paneling you’re using, the shaping of the ceiling, how you balance natural acoustics versus amplified sound. There’s a definite science to it.”

Architects do get some training in acoustics, Otte said. But Otte and his colleagues at Holst knew from the start that they needed world-class acousticians as partners on the project – especially since one of the goals was to create a concert hall that boasts what he called “the most acoustically pure space in the state of Oregon.”

Otte turned to Russell Cooper of Jaffe Holden, a nationally known architectural consulting and acoustic design firm. Jaffe Holden’s portfolio includes projects at the Seattle Opera House, the Terrace Theater at The Kennedy Center, The Hollywood Bowl and the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

Cooper brought another qualification to the job: He’s a musician who earned a double major at the University of Hartford in percussion performance and engineering acoustics. He’s played timpani with the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut since 1981. (Jaffe Holden designed the acoustical performance and details of the Norwalk Concert Hall.)

That experience performing music gives Cooper the language to speak to musicians like Dr. Steven Zielke, OSU’s Patricia Valian Reser professor of music and director of choral studies, who’s been involved with the development of the Arts and Education Complex since the beginning.

“With Steve, I can talk music to him,” Cooper said. “And he can then have the confidence that someone of his ilk is talking to him and understands his concerns.”

Zielke appreciated that: “It was really important to me that Jaffe Holden understood how to create beautiful sound, quality of sound – and that has to do with materials.”

Early on, Cooper identified one potential trouble spot for the concert hall’s acoustics: Initial plans called for it to include windows. Cooper pointed out the train tracks across the street. “I love windows too,” he said. “But if you don’t want to hear the train, you can’t put in windows.”

Modeling the sound

Among the tools Cooper and Jaffe Holden prepared for the project was a modeling presentation – essentially using computers to show how different sorts of sound – even down to the music made by different instruments – would travel from the concert hall’s stage to listeners, regardless of where they were sitting in the 500-seat facility.

Zielke wanted a concert hall that would work for as many different types of sound as possible. But, as Cooper explained, it’s impossible to create a space that is equally accommodating for every type of sound – from, say, speech, all the way to the thunderous sounds of an organ. “The limits of variability are real,” Zielke said.

But you can build in a certain amount of variability: The concert hall will have features such as adjustable banners and curtains that can adjust the amount of reverberation in the room – the more reverb in a space, the “wetter” or “more live” it is, in the lingo of acousticians. (Samples of “wet” and “dry” acoustics can be found at the bottom of this story, in the AEC Concert Hall Auralizations.)

AEC acoustics animation
Among the computerized models prepared by Jaffe Holden for the concert hall was this one, showing how sound will flow from the stage and throughout the hall.

The concert hall, Zielke said, will be “a wonderful place for choirs. I think it’s going to be a wonderful place for bands.”

Cooper and his team aren’t just designing the acoustics for the concert hall, though – they’re also working on the building’s black box theater, its greenroom/classroom and its lobby area, which includes space in which to display artwork. Each of those offers a fresh set of challenges.

For the theater space, which is intended to be configured in a variety of ways for productions, rehearsals and teaching, Cooper and colleagues faced different challenges, but one constant: “It still has to be quiet,” he said, “the same level of quiet as the concert hall.”

But since the focus in the theater space often will be on the spoken word, it skews to what acousticians call a “dry area,” with less reverberation so that speakers can be understood easily. And since seating in the black box can be in a variety of configurations – and speakers can be potentially anywhere in the space – the goal is to create what Cooper called an “omnidirectional soundscape.” The black box will feature sound panels on the walls and ceiling “to help control the sound to make it nice and natural-sounding and even-sounding.”

Acoustical options are more limited in the gallery space.

Cooper noted that some art galleries are “really, really reflective” in terms of sound, and so when a busload of students arrives on a field trip, “it’s just cacophony.” But designers have fewer options in a gallery space about where to locate sound treatments – “because all the art has to go on the wall. And you can’t put anything on the floor. That leaves one surface: the ceiling. So we just make sure that the treatment up there is sufficient to control the sound.”

As the Arts and Education Complex takes shape, Cooper, Otte and their colleagues plan to keep a close eye on the construction: “We’ll start to make site visits as the building gets enclosed,” Cooper said. “And as steel and ductwork start going in, we’ll start inspecting walls and penetrations and intersections, because the other part of our job is to make sure that what’s drawn gets built correctly.”

Added Otte: “Construction administration for us is just as important as the design phase.”

When OSU officials and others initially started thinking about the Arts and Education Complex, they were aiming big: First plans called for a building with more than 100,000 square feet. It soon become clear that – in part because of the particular care that had to go into designing and constructing the building’s acoustics – the $70 million budget wouldn’t accommodate a facility of that size. Adjustments, some of them painful, were necessary.

But, Zielke said, cuts to the concert hall were “off the table for the most part. … I would get nervous because we’re all talking about making budget cuts, and I’m panicking.” Zielke said Otte would offer encouragement: “He said, ‘Trust me, the acoustics are the most expensive part of this room and it’s the only part we’re never allowed to consider when we’re looking for cuts.’”

Added Julie Drolet of OSU, the project manager: “We kept the acoustic design at the highest level possible.”

Zielke said a big boost for the project came from Larry Rodgers, the dean of OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, who emphasized from the start that “we’re going to build a world-class facility in terms of beauty and quality of sound.”

Added Peter Betjemann, the Patricia Valian Reser director of arts and education for the College of Liberal Arts: “Acoustically, every seat has received the same consideration: Jaffe Holden’s models demonstrate that there’s not a bad seat in this house. This isn’t just a physical or engineering fact. It’s an instance of our mission to create an arts space based on accessibility for all. Every patron will enjoy a remarkable experience in a hall that stresses the intimacy of the connection between performers and listeners.”

The final result, Zielke said, will be “huge. This is a big deal for us. It’s the most important advance in the arts at Oregon State in 150 years.”


AEC Recital Hall Auralizations

These auralizations were created by Jaffe Holden to simulate the experience of sounds in the AEC Recital Hall.