Columbia Showcase & Cabinet Co. Inc. - An Acoustical Journey
August 14, 2011 | 5:34 pm CDT

Columbia Showcase creates a unique, sound-enhancing interior for the new Walt Disney Concert Hall.

While the California sunshine glints halo-like off the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, taking shape as the newest architectural and cultural jewel in downtown Los Angeles, it is not only the sweeping curves of the stainless steel exterior that are sun-kissed. The interior of the startling Frank Gehry building is composed of rich wood panels finished using an environmentally acceptable, UV-curing process.

The $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall began with a $50 million donation from Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian, and has already achieved international recognition. Progressive Architecture Magazine honored the hall for the sculptural power of its form and the fluid procession of its indoor and outdoor spaces.

Columbia Showcase & Cabinet Co. Inc., based in Sun Valley, CA, is producing all of the ceiling panels, wall panels and architectural woodwork for the main auditorium and lobbies. The company produces retail and corporate interiors such as custom cabinets, showcases and architectural millwork from concept drawings through finished production. Subsidiary Architectural Plywood Inc. produces all its veneers. From Nordstrom stores to the Reagan Presidential Library, Columbia Showcase has been part of some extraordinary projects in its 52 years. But the Walt Disney Concert Hall is surely its most dramatic achievement.

The hall is an extraordinary synthesis of acoustical and architectural design. The architect, Gehry, and the acoustician, Minoru Nagata, were instructed by the Walt Disney family to assure that the acoustical quality would equal or surpass the best concert halls in the world. But they had no preconceptions about the specific form of the hall.

“I saw a sculpted space that would be evocative of the music,” Gehry says, “while Minoru Nagata focused on the sound the space would create.”

Eighty-four curved structures, each containing about 80 panels, form the ceiling of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The curved shapes improve the hall's acoustics, adding warmth and resonance to the sounds.  
With that in mind, Gehry and Nagata started the building’s design with the 2,273-seat auditorium itself. Combining Nagata’s symmetrical preferences with Gehry’s curved vision, it came to life. “The seating design is like a boat made of wood that would sit in a plaster box,” Gehry says. “Like a ceremonial barge on which the orchestra and the audience take a journey through music.”

And the journey will be bold and splendid, judging from the spectacular design that Gehry created. The auditorium was designed to achieve both visual and acoustical intimacy, Gehry says. Among the interior’s most distinctive characteristics are the sail-like forms of the wooden walls and cloud-like hardwood ceilings, which suggest a great ship. “The curves of the ceiling and the flow of the interior walls actually improve the acoustics,” Nagata says, “by scattering the sound and producing more reflections, adding warmth and resonance to the sound.” Using another analogy, the hall can be likened to a woodwind instrument, with its interior curvatures contributing to the richness of the sound produced.

“There are approximately 80 panels in a single one of these curved, sail-like ceiling structures, with 84 different structures making up the ceiling,” explains Chuck Hartnell, finishing supervisor at Columbia Showcase. “The ceiling alone comprises about 34,000 square feet of finished panel.” Ten to 14 feet wide, the ceiling structures vary in length from approximately 20 feet to 40 feet.

The panels composing the interior are made up of 4-foot by 8-foot panels, 1/2-inch fire-resistant particleboard, covered with a quarter-cut vertical grain Douglas fir veneer provided by Bohlke Veneers, Inc. of Fairfield, OH.

“We’re applying a 100 percent solids coating so there is almost no VOCs,” says Hartnell. “That’s very important in California, which is a pay-to-pollute state. What’s impressive is the volume that we’re able to put out using this system. We can finish panels for a fraction of the previous cost.” Because of California’s strict VOC regulations, it would have been difficult or perhaps impossible for Columbia Showcase to finish the panels cost-effectively without the UV line purchased from Giardina.

UV-curable coatings are 100 percent solids, cross-linked coatings that cure by brief exposure to intense ultraviolet light. The cure schedules for the coatings are fast — usually less than 5 seconds — allowing finishing lines to be shortened, line speeds increased and products to be immediately handled and packaged. Other advantages of UV coatings include increased hardness and durability compared to conventional coatings. Beginning to catch on in the United States, UV coating is the predominant coating process in Europe.

The product used is Sher-Wood Ultra-Cure UV Topcoat from Sherwin-Williams, a low gloss UV-curable coating designed for the interior wood market. “With excellent toughness, mar resistance and cure response — along with tremendous adhesion and cold check resistance — it was the ideal choice,” Susnis says.

Before settling on the Ultra-Cure coating, Columbia Showcase painstakingly tested it, working closely with Sherwin-Williams. Much of the testing was performed at Sherwin-Williams Wood Finishing Research Laboratory in Greensboro, NC, under the direction of Jeff Bennett, the company’s technical director for UV coatings.

“Rigorous tests were run, both in Greensboro and at Columbia Showcase, because we formulated a very low gloss coating specifically for the Disney hall,” Bennett says. Acoustical tests also were performed to assure that the UV coating process did not impact the panels’ acoustical attributes.

Columbia Showcase decided to install the UV finishing line, investing nearly $500,000 for equipment, installation and other related start-up costs. “We determined the line would not only be useful and cost-effective for the Disney project, but also for future projects,” Hartnell says.

During this time, Sherwin-Williams provided assistance with planning and implementing the finishing line, with the company’s UV-cure service personnel actually operating the line for Columbia Showcase for the first two weeks it was operational.

The Finishing Process
Before the ceiling structures are assembled, the panels are finished on the new UV finishing line, supervised by Hartnell.

The first step in the finishing process is to apply a sealer to seal off pores of the wood and build the grain to assure a more uniform coating. The 4-foot by 8-foot panels enter the Giardina Officine UV Finishing Line where the sealer is applied by rollcoater and B-stage cured to a gel-like stage — not a full cure.

After the panels exit the B-stage cure, they head through a denibber, which sands the panel. Next the panel travels along a 10-foot conveyor to the next rollcoater where the final topcoat is applied and cured with 2-3 seconds of exposure to UV light. The rollcoaters are the key components of the UV finishing line. The same Sher-Wood product is used for both the sealer and the topcoat.

The panels move from beginning to end of the 60-foot-long UV curing line in about two minutes. Upon exiting the UV coating line, the panels are graded and matched so that panels with like grains can be placed adjacent to each other during the assembly of each ceiling structure, to assure uniformity of appearance. Columbia Showcase developed a system for grading the panels after finishing so the true color and grain of the wood could be fully ascertained. A-grade panels, with uniform color from left to right and no barber pulling, are considered premium.

Production of Ceiling Structures and Ceiling
The panels are graded in a staging area where they are matched, and then proceed to a CMS CNC router, purchased in 2000, specifically for producing the ceiling. Columbia Showcase Vice President Joseph Patterson says, “The ceiling consists of over 8,000 unique wood parts, each requiring its own individual CNC program. The shapes are defined by the 3-D computer model supplied by the architect, which in turn are flattened electronically and translated into .dxf files.” The router plots and cuts the holes for sprinklers, rigging ports, houselights, light bridges and other fixtures.

After finishing and milling, Columbia’s craftsmen piece the puzzle back together, attaching the wood to the structural steel frames built by Martin Brothers/Marcowall. The structures are shipped from Columbia Showcase to the construction site in Los Angeles, about 35 minutes away. Upon delivery the panels are flipped, finish face down, hoisted and secured to their final location 60 feet above the floor of the hall. Finally, upon being fitted and connected to each other, 1-1/2 to 2 inches of shotcrete is sprayed onto the backside of the assembled structures to achieve the desired acoustic properties. With the addition of the shotcrete, each ceiling structure weighs approximately 10,000 to 15,000 pounds.

“The engineering and coordination that has gone into this project is like nothing I have ever seen”, Patterson says. “Every detail was put under tremendous scrutiny.”

Patrons and performers of the arts alike are eagerly waiting to experience both visually and acoustically their journey into music at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, as artists and technicians, wood and sound, form and function work together to produce a new resonance.

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