September 12, 2007

7 Engineering Wonders: Mechanical — EMP: an experience unlike any other

  • Each run of piping and ductwork is different because of the building’s unique geometry.
    Notkin Mechanical Engineers

    Photo © Timothy Hursley
    An exhaust air plenum over the monorail has controls that adjust fan speeds to compensate for changes in air velocities and pressures caused by passing trains.

    Is it a museum or a rock ’n roll concert venue? For the 3.6 million visitors who’ve passed through the doors, as well as the locals, the answer is different for everyone. There’s no question that Experience Music Project raised the cultural quality index. But the facility continues to raise eyebrows and cause tourist jams on the sidewalk as everyone vies for the perfect shot to take home to family and friends.

    EMP celebrates creativity and innovation in American popular music. Inspired by the music of Jimi Hendrix and other Northwest artists, the 140,000-square-foot structure combines a variety of traditional exhibits, hands-on technology, educational programs and live performances. A significant renovation in 2004 brought the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame into the playful venue at the periphery of Seattle Center.

    Creative design

    EMP provided an opportunity for the design and construction team to express its creativity and innovation as well. Mechanical engineers have few opportunities during their lifetimes to design such a complex facility. From strict heat and humidity tolerances in exhibit areas to extreme variances in crowd sizes in the expansive Sky Church, the mechanical engineering team was challenged to maintain comfort for visitors and strict environmental controls for artifacts.

    Although a new facility, EMP proved to be similar to a renovation project given the evolving design, advancing technology and changing project goals over a five-year period. Computer technology used to power exhibits and operate the facility became more sophisticated, resulting in an increase in cooling loads and mechanical equipment to meet the higher demand. Many exhibit areas were not yet identified, nor were their characteristics known when construction began. Also, several substantial remodels occurred prior to the building opening, but well after construction began.

    Unique opportunities

    Photos © Timothy Hursley
    Mechanical equipment, gas meters and mechanical rooms are hidden between EMP’s shell and skin.

    The irregularly shaped structure provided opportunities to use uncommon spaces to house building infrastructure, similar to the way your grandmother would conceal treasures in her attic. EMP’s concrete shell ranges from 4 inches to 5 feet thick. While most structures follow a grid system that is duplicated throughout a floor or section of a building, each section of EMP’s plans were unique.

    In addition, there was as much as 10 feet of space between the concrete shell and the metal skin. While incorporating insulation on the outside of the concrete shell required creativity in designing the building envelope, the extra space provided opportunities to decentralize mechanical equipment and controls locations to efficiently and cost-effectively serve the facility. These spaces provided areas to stack mechanical equipment, locate gas meters, and position mechanical rooms in garage ceilings without compromising prime exhibit space.

    Because of the facility’s unique geometry, each run of piping and ductwork is different, specifically designed for the extraordinary spaces. And while galvanized ductwork was intentionally exposed in the lobby, reflecting light to create visual excitement, roof drain piping and sprinkler heads were designed to align with the ribs and contours of the building shell without detracting from the building’s aesthetics. A flexible infrastructure that includes stub-outs allows EMP staff to change exhibits and programs, satisfying dynamic high-tech requirements without incurring significant re-design or construction costs. Even the storage area for the Museum Exhibit Guides (personal interactive headsets) and the traveling exhibit received special attention to meet ventilation and fire protection needs.

    Sophisticated systems

    The galleries, performance spaces and multimedia areas placed special demands for optimum flexibility in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. More sophisticated than hospital control systems, these air quality sensors measure 15 different gasses. The environmental control system quickly detects thermal differences in each space, and changes in temperature and ventilation are automatically accommodated based on occupant activities.

    Mechanical systems such as air intakes and exhausts have minimal visual impact on the unique architectural features of the building. The exhaust air plenum over the monorail contains sensitive control devices that adjust fan speeds to compensate for rapidly changing air velocities and air pressures created by trains passing through the gap. This highly visible area is an example of how the architect and engineer teamed to create an attractive and practical solution.

    Even in 1996, energy savings, sustainability and healthy living conditions were considered during design. Despite a technology-driven program, the team used a number of sustainable features. Rather than running energy-consuming equipment, the team took advantage of nature’s cooling by using outside air. And once heat was generated in the building, it was kept inside as long as possible and reused in other areas where needed. Seattle City Light funding supported conservation measures designed to save more than 12 million kilowatt-hours of energy annually.

    So, is it a museum or a rock ’n roll concert venue? Both, we think, with a little cosmos added to create an out-of-this-world experience. It was certainly an engineering experience of a lifetime.

    Sandy Bonderman, PE, partner at Notkin Mechanical Engineers, was the mechanical project manager for Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

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