Electrifying Integ Ration

With CSE's emphasis on integrated engineering, it's no surprise we'd take note of a building as integrated as Cleveland's recently renovated Idea Center at Playhouse Square. Constructed as a furniture showroom in 1912, the structure brings together both radio and television broadcast capabilities, along with live performance space and the ability to capture video from performances in the surrou...

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Writer December 1, 2006

With CSE’s emphasis on integrated engineering, it’s no surprise we’d take note of a building as integrated as Cleveland’s recently renovated Idea Center at Playhouse Square. Constructed as a furniture showroom in 1912, the structure brings together both radio and television broadcast capabilities, along with live performance space and the ability to capture video from performances in the surrounding theater district. And, if you’d just like some standard, high-performance office space, you can have that, too.

Cleveland-based A/E firm Westlake Reed Leskosky (WRL) took on the task of designing a three-story, 90,000-sq.-ft. tenant suite shared by the city’s public radio and public television broadcasters, which, together, are known as “ideastream.” Additionally, the space also houses the Playhouse Square Foundation, a not-for-profit group that manages several area theaters and produces educational programming for area schools. WRL’s ARC-award-winning electrical design not only had to ensure power supplies sufficient to meet electricity-intensive operations for all three groups, it also had to be flexible enough to enable easy space reconfiguration without posing an interference risk to incoming or outgoing broadcast signals.

Finally, though historic-preservation guidelines may not have had the same impact on electrical designers as was felt by architects and mechanical-system planners, engineers did have to be mindful that the owners were seeking historic-preservation tax credits. Period design isn’t the only historic aspect of the landmarked structure—the building also played an important role in pop-music history as the site where famed DJ Alan Freed first coined the phrase “rock and roll,” while working for radio station WJW, which once called the building home.

Bringing things together

Initially, the project’s three partners were seeking separate spaces, each designed to meet their respective medium’s unique needs. However, when WRL designers began analyzing actual requirements, they discovered enough overlap to make shared occupancy feasible. In the end, these efforts cut overall space needs by 25%, to 90,000 sq. ft., from an initially planned 120,000 sq. ft.

“By sharing the spaces, we saved an incredible amount of square footage,” says Jason Adolf, AIA, LEED AP, a WRL associate principal and director of the firm’s Washington, D.C. studio. “By merging the programs and the infrastructure, we were able to combine them into one space, instead of two.”

Bringing all three organizations together required a lot of planning, and more than a few meetings, according to Adolf. WRL began the effort by analyzing the daily activities of the three groups, separate from the building in which those activities took place. Designers then defined the functional space necessary to support those activities, along with needed infrastructure, before identifying what spaces could be merged.

“Once that was identified, the space programming could begin,” Adolf says. “Then it was a matter of convincing everyone that it could work, which was probably the most challenging part of the process.”

A showcase space

The facility’s new Studio Theater exemplifies both the challenges and the benefits of the combined approach. All three occupants required a theater space—the two broadcasters wanted studio space for recording original programming, while the Playhouse Square Foundation wanted live performance space, complete with seating. On the surface this seems like a simple affair, until one begins investigating the often conflicting requirements raised in radio, television and live performance.

“It was very complicated,” Adolf says. “Theatrical lighting systems are very different from broadcast lighting systems. The sound systems tend to be different, [as is] the way the space is used. There really isn’t a precursor for this space.”

The finished design, a basic, black box, includes retractable seating for 300. Engineers incorporated two parallel rigging systems for lighting, and, though the control booth serves both live and broadcast functions, it features two separate lighting boards. Additionally, according to electrical engineer John Hummel, only about 10% of the power-distribution system is shared.

The theater’s location, cantilevered over an existing electric-utility vault, meant engineers also had to ensure adequate mitigation for potential electromagnetic interference (EMI). This was accomplished through the use of welded steel plates in floors, walls and ceilings to maintain emissions to below 5 miligauss. Additionally, harmonic-mitigating transformers were specified for the dimming systems to protect against harmonics created by these non-linear loads.

“Their signal is their product,” Hummel says. “We had to protect that.”

Added protection

And that signal required protection throughout ideastream’s three floors, as additional broadcast studios are scattered throughout the facility. The equipment in these rooms all connects back to a central core Technical Center. Power-distribution designers had to be mindful of the risks EMI posed to these transmissions, as well. A study by consultants at Vitatech Engineering determined that a minimum of six feet of clearance would be required between the feeder bus running up both ends of the building and any communications cabling running to or from the studios. A signal reference grid installed under the raised-flooring areas provides additional signal-interference mitigation.

High ceilings enabled a combination of raised access flooring and overhead cable tray, making flexible distribution easier. Flexibility was crucial, as the three different clients shared spaces that might host meetings, classes or even small productions. Multiple—and often movable—power and data connections were required in these rooms to enable easy reconfiguration, enabled by power “whips” located under the raised flooring.

Beefing up backup

Because the public radio station also serves as a regional emergency-broadcast operator, backup power also was a crucial element of the design. The importance of this aspect of the project became even clearer following the August 2003 blackout, which knocked out Cleveland’s power, along with that in much of the eastern United States. Following this event, designers revisited their already finalized plans and doubled their generator fuel capacity to ensure operation up to 24 hours.

However, finding room for twice the amount of generator fuel proved problematic. Because design was nearly complete, moving any one piece of the plan meant everything else had to be moved.

“We had to reorganize the way the [studio theater] space worked, which also influenced the shielding,” says Hummel. “The heartache of it was that the space I needed for the fuel storage was the space I wanted for my UPS.”

That UPS, a 225-kW unit with 12 minutes of battery backup, is crucial to protecting what’s known as the Technical Center, a 90-server-rack, climate-controlled area that serves as the brains of the facility. All radio and television signals pass through the Technical Center, and are then available for editing, broadcasting or later use. Programming stored in the Technical Center also can be broadcast to public schools throughout the state, and specialized programs are available for blind and deaf patrons, as well.

“The mission of ideastream is to catch any activity one time, and be able to disseminate it in many ways,” Adolf says.

LEED recognition

Designers also hoped to incorporate sustainability into the facility’s overall planning, along with technological sophistication, and their efforts have been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council. The project was a pilot participant in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) effort intended to bring green-building concepts to leased-space interior renovations, earning one of Ohio’s first LEED-Commercial Interiors silver certifications.