Philadelphia Freedom

Jan. 1, 2009

A gift to the City of Brotherly Love, Comcast Center merges a modern visage with the latest technology.

By C.C. Sullivan 
What do you get when you mix modern style, green thinking, and cutting-edge display and audio technology? In Philadelphia, you get the most prominent new building in 100 years - and a place for the public to enjoy, both inside and out.

Comcast Center is architect Robert A.M. Stern's first major office tower, and, at 57 stories, Philadelphia's tallest. The building, developed by Liberty Property Trust largely for its lead tenant (the hometown cable giant), boasts a huge lobby LED display, triple-story sky atriums, and LEED certification, along with its namesake tenant's interiors full of A/V and media systems. Key eco-features include a double-skin glass curtainwall with sunscreens and louvers, radiant heating, thermal extraction, and displacement ventilation.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Inga Saffron proclaimed this skyscraper as "the tallest between New York [City] and Chicago, and the talk of Philadelphia." And Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Chairman Ralph Roberts - a father-and-son team - were very involved in the design, looking for something "spectacular" that would be both a destination and an expression appropriate to the city. "We discussed how it would look by day and night, and [the] scale and character of the lobby," Stern adds.

The lobby, dubbed the "winter garden," came to be a monumental new civic space, reaching 110 feet tall. Above, the 1.4 million-square-foot tower offers floorplates ranging between 23,000 and 28,000 square feet, centering on a heavily fortified concrete central core. The structural design was completed in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, and is intended to provide as much physical protection as possible from similar impacts. Yet, the fully glazed exterior appears light and delicate. Stern describes the 975-foot-high tower as a "faceted obelisk, clad in silvery high-performance glass with ultra-clear, low-iron glass at the building's corners and crown." For occupants, that means enjoying 360-degree, floor-to-ceiling views of the surrounding cityscape.

Conveniently, the office property is centrally located directly atop the concourse and underground tracks of Suburban Station, Philadelphia's primary commuter rail gateway. The flow of rush-hour travelers animates Comcast Center's south-facing, half-acre plaza, an elegant and minimalist urban space, as well as the building's public winter garden.

In the Comcast Center's winter garden, The Comcast Experience video installation, as well as the Humanity in Motion sculpture overhead, help animate the grand and must-see space.

A Public Screen
Most visitors pause in the winter garden, a grand space often flooded with daylight, for two reasons beyond the architecture itself. High overhead, the sculpture Humanity in Motion by Jonathan Borofsky draws the eye, its stainless-steel beams bearing colorful human figures. An even bigger attraction is The Comcast Experience, a high-definition video installation by David Niles of New York City's Niles Creative Group. The video is displayed on an 85-foot-wide, surface-mounted black LED array boasting some of the industry's highest levels of indoor brightness and contrast.

To make the screen work as well as it does was no easy task. First, the project team had to adapt the underlying technology to the architecture, says Guy Russell, director of operations at Barco in Sacramento, CA, which developed and installed the display's LED technology and mounting structure, as well as the front-end processing equipment in the control room."The building's concrete core, which the display attaches to, was already complete, and another big constraint was how far out it could hang from the wall because we needed air-conditioning ducts and electronics and cabling behind it," Russell recalls. With only about 2 feet from the LED array to the thick concrete behind, Barco's team had to plan for front-access servicing through panels in the LED mounting system. That, combined with the client's desire for a seamless, flat array that could disappear into the architecture through a chameleon-like effect of the surrounding wood paneling, demanded careful mechanical engineering. The solution employs frame openings with tiles bearing nine LED modules each, in a black package, attached by magnet. Odd-shaped frames were fashioned to wrap around the lobby's high-speed elevator bays, which extend into the bottom of the screen.

According to Russell, the black LED package had to be super-bright with a very high contrast ratio because of the level of ambient daylight and direct sunlight expected in the fully glazed, south-facing lobby. "Usually only outdoor products can handle that amount of light, but these are meant to be seen from farther away, typically with a resolution of 10 to 12 millimeters," says Russell. "That drove Liberty Property Trust and Comcast to the higher pixel count so the display wouldn't be washed out or have less richness of colors."

Art, Not Ads
The underlying technology and 4-millimeter resolution were crucial for the next step: creating artistic, ever-changing entertainment to animate the winter garden all year long.

"Comcast had the desire to do something kinetic in the lobby, an idea that came from Brian Roberts, and that's where I came in," says Niles, who had previously worked with Liberty Property Trust to create a promotional film touting the real estate project. While the idea of a screen was discussed, the project team was concerned about its impact on the architecture and how it could appeal to its audience of commuters - many of whom would be viewing the screen for an average of 30 seconds, twice a day. "The viewers are people going to their own destinations, so it's not a place where you can scream at people to stop and watch," Niles explains.

Before even considering what to show on the screen, Niles recommended a novel content-delivery system that would offer continually changing imagery with little maintenance and no ongoing programming. Using a cast of screen actors meant to suggest Comcast employees, along with what he considers "timeless and appropriate" imagery (Busby Berkeley movie clips, for example, and NASA space photography), Niles created a large number of families of design elements that combine according to a proprietary algorithm. Most impressively, the system has been running 18 hours a day since early June 2008 with zero human intervention, yielding as many as 700,000 unique scenarios through mid-November of last year.

The actors are always displayed at approximately a one-to-one scale, like the Borofsky figures perched on the beam sculpture high overhead, for good reason: "To make it work, so that intellectually the visitor can suspend disbelief, we needed to create a photorealistic environment, a 10-million-pixel moving picture for super high-resolution images," says Niles. That also explains why the screen demanded super-high resolution and contrast - so that the imagery would be lifelike and absorbing. It works, too. Some visitors have confused the screen actors for live performers dangling in front of the screen.

The structure's dynamic façade system optimizes daylight and views while also modulating daily and seasonal thermal performance.

Green Giant

Like the display technology hidden behind the exciting lobby imagery, the building systems that make Comcast Center sustainable are unseen but highly effective. The winter garden, for example, benefits from radiant heating, thermal extraction, and displacement ventilation, which combine for unusually exceptional energy performance in such a grand (and open) space. Other environmentally sensitive features are more tangible, such as the winter garden's double-skin glass curtainwall with sunscreens and louvers. The dynamic façade system optimizes daylight and views while also modulating daily and seasonal thermal performance.

Upstairs, the office floors feature ceiling heights of between 13 and 17 feet - unusual for an office building - which improve ventilation and help bring daylight and impressive views into as much of the workplace as possible. Mechanical and electrical systems are zoned for separate controls on each floor to reduce electrical draw. Recycled and natural materials (such as the cork floors in Stern's sky atriums, carpet, and low-VOC paints) were specified wherever possible. The open-plan interiors and glass-walled private offices, designed by Karen Daroff, principal of Philadelphia's Daroff Design, with Keith Rosen of Gensler's New York City office, also incorporate best practices in sustainability.

Designed to achieve a Silver certification in the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC's) LEED for Core & Shell (LEED-CS) green rating system, the building incorporates numerous features that improve its indoor environmental quality (IEQ); yet, these IEQ features are unlikely to earn LEED credits. For example, the 3-story sky atriums provide inspiring and healthy respite for Comcast's interactive division and other employees. Linear pendant planters drape ivy into the air overhead, adding a natural appeal to the bright spaces.

Another IEQ feature is Comcast's extensive soundmasking system, which enhances comfort and productivity throughout 24 floors of offices, meeting areas, and common spaces. "It achieves its purpose without being identifiable, and adds privacy in otherwise open areas," says Mark Alspach, project manager at New York City-based Shen, Milsom & Wilke, which designed all of the technology for the project, including the acoustics, telecommunications, security, and AV systems.

IP-based Soundmasking
Unlike many soundmasking techniques in the recent past, the system for Comcast is IP-based, using Internet-Protocol technology to network all locations where it is used. Typically, the masking noise is controlled by simply wiring a distributed speaker system to a central amplifier and sound system. This is a straightforward system to install, but it is also hard to tune for optimal functioning.

Instead, Shen, Milsom & Wilke recommended a more costly (but far more effective) approach that enables more adjustable points, to ensure the system delivers enough masking to dull background noise "without overdoing it," says Alspach. "For Comcast, we used a network connection for each speaker, so it can be tuned far more discretely to each area. [Now,] we can adjust the frequencies and amplitude at each connection, as well as just how loud it needs to be to achieve its purpose without being identifiable as a sound source in the area," he explains.

As a result, employees and visitors enjoy an architectural environment that is highly integrated with audiovisual components, instead of background noise or other interruptions. Employees encounter Comcast programming on televisions behind reception desks, in the chow line at the company cafeteria, and seemingly around every corner. "Some of the interiors have one of the largest available flat panels, a 103-inch Panasonic, which is used in some of the Comcast University rooms," says Alspach, alluding to the employee education facility. "The projections are high-definition on 16:9-type screens, for the most part."

Alspach adds that the architects and interior designers attempted to integrate the video and audio systems as much as possible into the interior architectural elements. "That's another hidden technology story here: how all the big players were able to coordinate to achieve the end-result," he notes.

As an example, Alspach points to an elegant interior staircase of thick, structural glass (created to connect several executive floors at the top of the building), which wraps around a gracefully detailed video wall. "A combination of structural and aesthetic concerns required us to coordinate this very precise glass stair with a large, seamless display of stitched-together plasma screens with very thin mullions," he explains. "In spite of the large and inflexible materials used for the stair, which the German manufacturer said were ‘fit to the millimeter,' we were able to coordinate all the ventilation, power, and signal needs [by] working closely with the interior architect, Daroff Design."

Comcast Center's half-acre plaza, an elegant and minimalist urban space, offers a welcome respite to building occupants and visitors.

No Name in Lights?
Experts in architectural and AV technology point to Comcast Center as an example of how a variety of relatively new building and display systems can contribute to a spectacular, meaningful environment. "Architects are seeing opportunities like this and integrating the technology like bricks and mortar into their buildings. It's like a new palette of materials to play with," says Niles.

Because of its prominence and novelty, the LED screen in the winter garden is perhaps the most heralded of the building's advances. In addition to positive reviews of The Comcast Experience locally and around the world, Niles says that seeing about 100 visitors in the lobby with big smiles on their faces is ample reward for his efforts. "And the hardest audience is one that's not paying," he quips.

Barco's Russell adds that the Comcast Center team deserves credit for taking the high road of creating art in a public place. "For all the time and energy spent to build something of this order of magnitude, we would usually expect it to be used for some sort of advertising or branding. Because of the fact that they did not use it that way, it's really a gift to the city. In the end, Comcast gets more out of it by not saying the name ‘Comcast,'" he explains.

Perhaps it's better not to put one's name up in lights, says Russell - as long as you own the lights.

C.C. Sullivan ([email protected]) is a communications consultant and author specializing in architecture, design, and construction technology.

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