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Acoustic Excellence with Concrete Masonry

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Acoustic Excellence with Concrete Masonry
Architect: Jones Studio, Phoenix, AZ
Block Producer: Superlite Block, Phoenix, AZ
General Contractor: Layton Construction Company
Masonry Contractor: M.A.G Construction, Gilbert, AZ
General Contractor: Layton Construction Company, Phoenix, AZ
Acoustical & A/V Consultant: McKay Conant Hoover, Scottsdale, AZ
Photo Credit:Timmerman Photography
The new home for the new Mesa Community College Performing Arts Center (PAC) embodies not only the cultural fabric of music, musicians and performers, but also a building fabric where art and architecture become one.
The music department at Mesa Community College has a long and established tradition of preparing outstanding musicians and producing celebrated musical performances. Their collective dream was to create a nurturing, educational, and comfortable environment for students that fostered creativity and collaboration and they wanted to do it in a derelict, five-theater movie house adjacent to campus.
The old movie house was purchased by the Community College in hopes of utilizing its single largest theater by repurposing it into a new performance hall.  “The tall sectional dimension typical of a movie theater proved to be perfect for the back of house program elements as well as the
performance classrooms. But it was unrealistic to try and squeeze a 450 seat performance hall into the space, as well,” said Architect Brian Farling, Principal of Jones Studio on Tempe, AZ.
This essential piece of the program required that a new structure be constructed directly adjacent to the old building. The central location of the existing movie house lobby was maintained as the hub for all program pieces including the new performance hall.  The main entry to the new PAC is an exterior courtyard carved out from what was originally one of the small movie theaters.  While it was indeed in disrepair, the old building’s exterior wall material had held up well. “We removed the roof deck, sandblasted the old building’s masonry walls, added trees and a tiered flexible performance space to create a multipurpose entry courtyard,” Farling said.

The new section was devoted to the performance areas. “We established a program consisting of the 450 seat theater designed, both acoustically and theatrically, to accommodate a broad range of musical performances, he said.

The back of house spaces that support the theater include a scene shop, green room, make up room, dressing rooms and costume production area.  The designers were able to craft a collection of performance spaces, including instrumental, percussion and choral, plus music practice spaces, impromptu performance opportunities, faculty offices and a lobby space for the theater.

The general contractor was a part of the team from the earliest phases of design, which greatly enhanced project delivery, according to Farling, allowing materials, systems and ideas to be tested against cost for feasibility.  “The idea of utilizing the intrinsic material characteristics of concrete masonry units for the main performance hall’s interior proved valuable as a local masonry contractor embraced the unusual geometries we proposed. The cost effective nature and considerable possibilities of this interior strategy inspired a similar material application for the exterior wall design, establishing masonry as an important design element,” he said.

The new structure has two separate enclosure shells and a steel frame, which defines the new performance hall. The exterior shell is a composition of exposed concrete masonry and raked, unpainted cement stucco over metal stud framing. The interior shell consists of an exposed concrete masonry enclosure that serves as the primary acoustic volume of the hall

The overall theme of the project references its desert location where a rainstorm is a cause for celebration.  With this in mind, the form of the new 19,500 square foot performance hall building emphasizes the rain by sloping the entire roof to a single point – directing the water to a corner of the structure that opens up

Concrete masonry is an important material for the PAC, as the two shells are shaped and detailed expressively to achieve independent acoustical goals. The north and east exterior walls of the hall are arranged with a running bond pattern and are sloped and folded to both emphasize the “waterfall” downspout at the northwest corner and point to the vertical marquee sign marking the main entry courtyard.  The dynamic folded masonry wall slopes away from the sign, lifting it up and emphasizing its presence. The slope is 2° off the horizon and was achieved by carefully cutting the stem courses of the masonry at the footing.

This “marquee” wall is also folded through an offset coursing detail that slips each block a maximum of 5/8 in (.03 m ) off center from the one below, according to the architect.  The line of the fold ascends diagonally across the north elevation and has no offset.  As the wall splays out in either direction, the offset goes from zero to 5/8 in (.03 m), creating the fold. The grey 8x8x16-inch (.20x.20x.41-meter) concrete masonry unit changes to a charcoal colored unit at this diagonal, and as the two tones blend together, the line culminates with the marquee sign.

The interior acoustic shell is a progression of masonry types.  From the standard grey 8x8x16-inch (.20x.20x.41-meter) block that changes to charcoal on the exterior shell, the interior utilizes the same charcoal coloration, but with a smooth, polished, ground face.

This acoustical masonry shell has many jobs to accomplish: sound distribution, interior structure, a durable finish and a comfortable, visually rich interior.  The hard and dense nature of a solid grouted masonry provides an excellent surface for the reflection of sound.  Sidewalls of the hall are scalloped in plan, a series of convex curves designed to spray sound waves evenly across the audience chamber. Contrasting with the exterior detailing, the interior walls use a stacked bond arrangement – also with an offset coursing detail of 5/8 in (.02 m) from the unit below.

This surface variation provided a method to create bumps, or nodes, on the wall surfaces that aid in distributing sound evenly.  Near the stage at the front are the largest concrete masonry nodes. Along the sidewalls the nodes change from a module of five masonry units wide by five units tall, all the way down to a single 8x8x16 offsetting in and out to create smaller nodes. This variation in size allows for the smoother surfaces of the larger nodes along the front sidewalls to provide greater reflections early on that improve the sound clarity.  The smaller bumps along the rear sidewalls provide more diffuse reflections to enhance sound envelopment.

In all, the variations in block, the bumped out nodes that aid in sound distribution, and a hard-surface sound-reflectivity all add up to a building volume that enhances and distributes sound in a close to perfect manner. Concrete masonry is the material that makes that possible.

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