By Kevin Wilcox
A new facility on the Campus of Liberty University can accommodate the most delicate of acoustic instruments or the strongest amplified sounds.
The performance space is isolated from the rest of the building by a 2 in. joint. The use of curved surfaces evokes the lines of musical instruments. © VMDO ARCHITECTS
September 22, 2015—There isn't much in common between the delicate, ethereal tones of woodwind instruments and the driving growl of an electric guitar, yet the new concert hall under construction on the campus of Liberty University is an intimate space that had to be designed to accommodate performances by both.
"Generally, a school will build a concert hall and then a separate space for amplified music. With this hall, they wanted both" says Drew Fleming an architect for VMDO ARCHITECTS, Charlottesville, Virginia, which designed the project. "They have traditional orchestra and then they have a worship-and-praise band program that is one of the largest in the country. We were asked to design the space accordingly so that it could transform to that end."
The concert hall adjoins a new academic wing that houses the university's School of Music to form the Center for Music & the Worship Arts. The academic wing includes 50 practice rooms, 40 teaching studios, common spaces, a recital hall, and two rehearsal rooms.
Working with consultants from the firms Creative Acoustics, of Westport, Connecticut, and Theater Consultants Collaborative, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the team devised an innovative approach in which the audience enters the facility behind the stage area, which is partially revealed through narrow windows, and then walks around the space to enter the seating area.
Inside, gently flowing wooden ceiling panels and surfaces evoke musical instruments and traditional representations of the movement of sound. Hickory wood panels are tightly bonded to large concrete masonry wall units, grouted solid to provide sufficient acoustical mass to reflect low bass notes. Also providing acoustical mass are the thick concrete slabs of the ceiling and risers. "This helps create a dynamic and rich sound in the space," Fleming notes.
The extensive use of hickory wood cladding creates a rich environment for acoustical performances. © VMDO ARCHITECTS
During amplified performances, a series of heavy, lined curtains and sheets can be deployed by a control panel. The curtains and panels shield the wooden surfaces, absorbing some of the louder sounds and minimizing reverberations within the performance space.
But once that challenge was solved, there was still the matter of the trains. "One of the challenges of this location is there are train tracks close by," says Fleming. The busy lines of the Norfolk Southern Railway skirt the campus near the hall. "We were trying our best to mitigate that sound. Eliminating it would be cost prohibitive."
The team pursued several strategies to ensure that the harsh exterior sounds are dampened. The back of the concert hall is a semicircle, with double walls that deflect sound. The exterior wall surfaces of ribbed terra-cotta provide another measure of sound deadening, as does the thick concrete ceiling of the hall.
It was also vital to isolate the concert hall's performance space from the surrounding areas of the building, which contain the lobby, recital room, and mechanical systems. Structural engineering on the project was provided by Fox + Associates, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. The engineering team devised a building-within-a-building approach, the two structures separated by a 2 in. U-shaped joint.
"The structure is two completely separate buildings, with separate gravity and lateral systems," says Clive Fox, P.E., M.ASCE, the founder and a principal of Fox + Associates. "Only the foundations are shared, but the base plates are separate, and the roofs are also separate. This introduced some interesting challenges, but nothing that could not be overcome with a little creative structural thinking."
That creativity began with the foundations. The geotechnical conditions at the site include a layer of fill from previous projects on campus ranging from 12 to 22 ft deep. Rammed aggregate piers were chosen for the foundation to avoid the costly removal of the fill materials. Concrete pilasters in the basement and heavy concrete retaining walls up to the second level of the structure support a structural steel frame that was designed and detailed with 3-D modeling, which greatly aided the construction process, Fox notes.
A request by the university late in the design process to increase the seating capacity in the facility from 1,200 to 1,600 led to several internal reconfigurations, including an expansion of the large, cantilevered balconies and the second-floor gallery.
The second-floor gallery consists of a 27 ft, 6 in. cantilever and a 7 ft, 4 in. back span, Fox explains. "Initially a custom-designed structural space frame was modeled and sized, taking advantage of the circular shape of the gallery," he says. "However, a judgment call was made that the space frame was too labor intensive." Heavier, conventional 30 in. steel beams were selected instead, which simplified both fabrication and erection. "Because of the high ratio of cantilever to back span, the supporting columns are actually in tension at all times, so their connections are appropriately designed," Fox says.
"There are many flying galleries at this level around the concert hall with some unusual solutions," he adds. "We went through several gyrations. Now that they have been built, you don't see the complexity. And once it is sealed up, you really won't."
One of the key structural challenges of the project came from the fast-tracked schedule. The structural designs were completed in advance of the other disciplines to facilitate steel fabrication. This meant the engineering team had to carefully coordinate with the acoustical and theatrical consultants as the latter designed the lighting, speakers, and acoustical panels that hang from the roof trusses.
The Center for Music & the Worship Arts, along with the Student Center, which is under construction now, together with the recently constructed Jerry Falwell Library and Science Building, create an academic quad on campus that had been missing and had been identified by VMDO as key priority during its master planning. "They have green spaces on their campus, but this is a formalized academic quad that was definitely lacking," Fleming says. "The goal [was] to transform their campus into a more pedestrian friendly [environment] and give them a sense of place and unity by providing a strong central core that traverses a series of residential, academic, and athletic precincts."
Both the Student Center and the Concert Hall are scheduled to be complete in 2016.