[Experience Music Project]
Experience Music Project
DJC.COM Special Issue © June 15, 2000

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Breathing life and light into EMP


When you look at the curvaceous, irregular shape of Seattle's new Experience Music Project, you may marvel at the architecture or at the ambitious effort to create such a fascinating and unusual museum. But you probably never think about the miles of electrical wires and cabling tucked snugly beneath the fascia, behind walls, and under the floors, providing the energy -- the heartbeat -- that brings EMP to life.
Little space is wasted inside EMP when it comes to mechanical and electrical systems.

Sparling was invited to help create the energy for this phenomenal structure early in the design process. Very little engineering detail existed on paper so the answers to questions like "How will it work?" or "How can we power it?" evolved even as the project began construction.

This was not a stock engineering project, for sure. There was not the usual orderly progression from architectural drawings to electrical and mechanical engineering drawings to construction. Nothing like EMP had ever been done before, so virtually no one on the design and construction team had identical "prior experience."

It turned out to be an organic growing process in which everyone on the design and construction team was learning and creating together. At the same time, we were working elbow to elbow with some of the most creative and talented minds in the architectural, museum design and construction fields. So the pressure to come up with engineering solutions for difficult problems was balanced by the constant sense of excitement and high-level energy of working with gifted and world-renowned artists and builders.

So how do such scientific and exacting professions like electrical engineering and technology consulting mesh with less quantitative and more spontaneously creative professions like those with whom we worked at EMP? We like to refer to the process as "chaotic creativity."

The basic design services that we provided were not unusual in themselves: power sources and electrical layout, audio-video systems and architectural lighting. But EMP did offer some very unusual challenges.

10 pounds in a 5-pound bag

Most electrical and power systems we design for clients usually are laid out in square and rectangular buildings with corners, angles and extra spaces in which to tuck necessary cabling. Not so in EMP. Its unique shape predicated a number of space constraints for the mundane but necessary wires and cables that had to be installed to support the great breadth of technology and interactivity in the museum.

No one knew for sure in the early days exactly how much power would be needed because no one knew for sure exactly what the insides of EMP would house or look like. So our charge was a constantly shifting charge -- to design the museum's power supply and distribution systems, and to make sure there was electricity when and where it was needed. As the exhibit areas, interactive displays and other spaces came to life in architectural drawings, Sparling then was able to determine the actual power needs.

The big problem then became where do you put all of the necessary transformers and other electrical equipment when every space is already dedicated to museum exhibits and activities? This challenge grew more difficult over time as space grew more precious.

Visitors to the museum won't be able to see our ingenious solutions, but throughout the infrastructure -- behind walls, suspended from ceilings and under floors -- are small, angled and irregular spaces where the architects and constructors worked with us to find space for electrical equipment rooms. Truly, there is not a square inch of wasted space in that building.

Let there be light

Candela, Sparling's architectural lighting division, played a key role in designing much of the illumination of the exhibits, theater, educational and administrative spaces, and the exterior site. Challenges cropped up often in the atmospherically controlled exhibit areas where adequate lighting had to be balanced with the need to minimize additional heat production.

Candela solved the problem with fiber optic strips in the enclosed cases that provide excellent illumination, virtually no heat, and that can be easily maintained and repaired. Special effects color lighting was provided by light emitting diode (LED) sources, which are more energy-efficient and longer-lasting than incandescent lighting, and which can be programmed in more than 500 colors.

Hear, see and feel the beat

In a museum focused on music, where auditory and visual histories are an integral part of the exhibits, the delivery of quality audio and video from equipment centers to the exhibit spaces was vital. Our audio/video team's first task was the design of a cable plant that would support the transport of digital audio and video, data and control signals. Such a modular cabling system will enable EMP's staff to update exhibits without interrupting museum activities.

But it also needed to be versatile. Exhibits change from static to interactive and back again; instruments and equipment might need to be moved quickly and easily, sometimes from one side of the museum to the other. Having this flexibility would mean replication of cabling and capacity at numerous points in a building already space-constrained by its shape.

Space may be the final frontier, but for our A/V team, it was the first. Originally, all of the electronic A/V equipment was to be housed in two small rooms downstairs in the museum. We suspected this was not going to be enough room when we heard the aggressive plans for exhibit interactivity and audio-video capabilities. Our suspicions were confirmed when the exhibits and technology team arrived and began laying out the nuts and bolts needed to energize the museum with cutting-edge electronic technology. Thus began a slow but steady growth process for the electronic infrastructure in EMP, which today is housed in 17 spaces throughout the museum, with triple the original space of the two rooms.

We can see that big crinkled wad of blue, red, purple, gold and silver steel and aluminum at the Seattle Center from our offices on Olive Way, and we take great pride in knowing that we were part of the team that brought it to life.

Sometimes during the process, we would remember the words of one of our electrical engineering forefathers, Thomas Edison, who said, "I have not failed; I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Indeed, in pursuing the intellectual challenges of this project, we did find thousands of ways that wouldn't work. But we also found some that would, and, in the process, we became better engineers and technologists, and even better creative thinkers.

Jim Duncan is Sparling's CEO and Jim Redding is the company's EMP project manager.

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