Technology Consultancy to the California Academy of Sciences

June 17, 2009
ARCHI-TECH AV Awards, 2009 - WINNER: Grand Prize Over $1 Million

The most successful museums combine the “there-and-then” of historical and cultural artifacts with a “here-and-now” experience. When the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences building in 1989, it created the opportunity to rebuild the facility as such a place.

Opening its doors in September 2008, the new, 412,000-square-foot building houses a planetarium, a 4-story rainforest, an aquarium, a natural history museum, a lecture hall/auditorium, a 3-D theater, a Naturalist Center, a retail store, and two restaurants. The project was 10 years and $500 million in the making.

Webinar Series
Each project will become the subject of its own e-Lunch and Learn webinar. Formatted as a virtual panel discussion, hear first-hand from the professionals who created these award-winning projects and learn about the design and technology challenges they overcame.

The webinars for this series are approved by AIA for earning one AIA/CES Learning Unit, and InfoComm for earning one RU unit.

All webinars will take place at 12:00 p.m. Central Time.

Grand Prize Winner, Over $1 Million
California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA

Webinar: Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Grand Prize Winner, Under $1 Million
Eaton Executive Briefing Center, Moon Township, PA

Webinar: Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Comcast Experience, Philadelphia, PA
Webinar: Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Harrah's Resort, Atlantic City, NJ
Webinar: Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nix, Patterson & Roach LLP, Las Colinas, TX
Webinar: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

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Goals to Achieve

It was clear from the very beginning: The new academy would be green and very high-tech. With its 2.5-acre living roof, skylights that automatically vent hot air from the building, and a solar canopy of 60,000 photovoltaic cells, the design was well on its way to LEED Platinum certification.

The entire facility operates at 30-percent less energy consumption than federal code requirements. Achieving this goal started with detailed heat and power calculations for all racks of equipment, a task that became known as “technology heat and power budgeting.”

“Based on the assumption that, like a financial budget, power was not free, all equipment and designs were evaluated against the power budget criteria,” explains Blair Parkin, managing director at Visual Acuity Ltd., Brighton, UK.

Technology was centralized in a few secure, back-of-house rooms, and signals for audio, picture, control, and interactivity were distributed to the auditorium and exhibit spaces via fiber. “By concentrating heat-generating equipment in dedicated rooms, the heat load doesn’t go onto the naturally ventilated public floor, and the use of air-conditioning is minimized to just the smaller volumes of the back-of-house equipment rooms,” says Parkin.

To further reduce energy, operation of AV equipment was carefully scheduled to eliminate unnecessary use. “Anything that can be turned off or put to sleep is,” says Mark Roos, vice president, engineering, BBI Engineering Inc., San Francisco.

Technology enhances the visitor experience while keeping energy consumption in check. In order to do these things, though, all devices had to be carefully monitored and managed; the academy also wanted the system to be easy to maintain. “The philosophy in that museum: Everything that can be controlled or monitored is controlled or monitored,” says Roos.

To do this, the team deployed a software package with scheduling and equipment-monitoring capabilities, and located all equipment for permanent exhibits in racks in control rooms. BBI’s programmers created a custom front end for the system. A Flash-based graphical interface talks to the RMS and shows the entire museum layout, with problem areas highlighted in red or yellow. AV for temporary exhibits is located in cabinets within those respective spaces.

Challenges to Overcome
At the academy, visitors are immersed in multisensory environments where they not only view plants, animals, and history, but also experience them. This is achieved through the perfect marriage of architecture and technology.

Undulating walls in the facility’s Water Planet beg to be touched. “A sweeping curve along the wall swings out and becomes a bench for someone to sit on,” says Tom Hennes, principal, Thinc Design, New York City. The complex geometry of these walls was achieved with the use of CATIA, a high-tech, parametric modeling software used by automotive and aerospace industries. Digital files were sent to automotive fabricators to mill the fiber glass forms “very much like how a car would be made,” explains Hennes.

“One of the greatest AV challenges was actually designing wall surfaces that would be undulating, but that would accept projection to a degree that the image wasn’t unacceptably distorted,” he continues. The Water Planet show uses ceiling-mounted projectors, which carefully avoid shining light on the embedded fish tanks. “It involves synchronous playback of high-definition video material on 10 projectors, which are warped and blended to work with the walls,” explains Roos.

Interactive exhibits called divestations encourage visitors to pick up and examine museum specimens. “The term ‘divestation’ refers to the opportunity for someone to take a deeper dive into the content of the exhibit,” explains Joe MacDonald, principal, Urban A&O, New York City.

By simply moving an acrylic tube containing preserved shark’s teeth or a fish skeleton over a display surface, the embedded RFID technology triggers projectors to reveal new content. 

Preventing the technology from upstaging the content and intruding on the architectural design was a concern. Architects from the Genova, Italy-based Renzo Piano Building Workshop carefully reviewed the aesthetics of all visible equipment. “Large items of equipment on the public floors (e.g. loudspeakers) were positioned and the color and finish selected with the architects and designers to make the technology disappear into the architecture. Special hanging infrastructure was developed for suspending equipment,” explains Parkin.

The design of the facility called for a very open plan, which provides easy wayfinding for patrons and created audio worries for engineers. “Audio is always a problem in museums because people don’t tend to want to build their museums out of little rooms with doors between them,” says Roos. To contain audio so it wasn’t intelligible in adjoining exhibits, two strategies were applied: ceiling-mounted acoustic absorption on the main floor and directional speakers. These focusable loudspeakers, explains Roos, “can be mounted on top of a display – you can adjust the beam angle according to where people are going to be standing.”

The architectural plans placed aquarium tanks out in the middle of the facility, requiring life-support towers to be hidden and measures to prevent humidity from damaging AV systems. These systems were co-located in back-of-house rooms, with precautions taken to protect rack and server rooms from wet and salty areas.

With so much to learn about, see, and do, the California Academy of Sciences is finding favor with new and repeat visitors. According to MacDonald, “There have been 1.7 million visitors since opening. They were expecting about 1.4 million in the first year, so, in 9 months, they’ve exceeded the first year’s expectations by a significant margin.”

Jana J. Madsen is a Cedar Rapids, IA-based freelance writer with nine years of experience in writing about the commercial buildings industry.

Like what you read here? Want to learn more? Sign up for the webinar on Aug. 5 to discover new info about this project.

Credits: The webinar on this article is approved by AIA for earning one AIA/CES Learning Unit, and InfoComm for earning one RU unit.

Presented by:
Blair Parkin, Visual Acuity
Mark Roos, BBI
Tom Hennes, Thinc Design
Martin Howe, Global Immersion
Joe Macdonald, Urban A&O

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