American hardwood used for flooring and panelling at the Music Centre at Strathmore, US
It is common to build an arts centre with the goal of uniting different members of the community. It is unusual, however, for internationally renowned musicians to share state-of-the-art facilities with young students who may be picking up a tuba for the first time. This was the vision the partners of the Music Centre at Strathmore had when constructing the new facility in Baltimore with architects William Rawn Associates.
“We found it was very important with the concert hall to provide an excellent venue for performances and concerts, whether they are symphony concerts or more popular, but we also wanted to ensure our livelihood by making sure that people understood and appreciated music. In trying times for school systems, one of the first things curtailed is visual arts and then music,” says Mark Grabowski, executive vice-president of operations of the Strathmore. Not only does the Music Centre serve as a second home to the Baltimore Symphony and other professional groups, such as the Washington Performing Arts Society and the National Philharmonic, but it also delivers an educational outlet for the Levine School of Music and Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras, among other youth music organisations.
The acousticians suggested the hall be built with as much natural material as possible, which led Strathmore designers to originally specify American yellow birch wood flooring and panelling. “Architects, and more the acousticians, like wood for its resiliency, for its warm sound, as well as for what is termed ‘psycho-acoustics.’ A patron feels that the sound is warmer in a place that has natural wood as opposed to a painted surface,” adds Grabowski.
Project challenges: More than 200
steps built on site
With the materials chosen, Bethesda, Maryland-based general contractor Clark Construction subcontracted the flooring work out to Baltimore-based Master Care Flooring. Lou O’Brien, owner Master Care with his team of 18 men, worked 10-hour days, six to seven days a week, for 12 weeks.
The hardwood flooring work started with preparing the subfloor, which proved to be one of the most difficult parts of the job. “It took almost as much time to get the concrete straight as it did to install the flooring,” says O’Brien. “All the staircases had very tight tolerances for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards, and the concrete people were supposed to have met those standards, but they were long gone by the time we were there, so that became our scope of work.” Because of the tight time schedule, O’Brien’s crew had to prep the floors while the scaffolding was still up. After flattening the concrete subfloor, the Master Care team installed three by four inch CDX plywood with moisture-cure urethane adhesive and mechanical fasteners, and a special sound-dampening subfloor was used on the stage, as the acoustics there were particularly critical.
After the subfloor was finally prepped, the Master Care crew began the hardwood installation. The original design called for stained American yellow birch, but, after seeing the colour of the walls, O’Brien suggested using American red birch instead, as the species colour matched that of the stained yellow birch wall panelling. The designers agreed with O’Brien and chose 3 by 4 and 21 by 4 inch pre-sanded red birch for the concert hall area, and 33 by 32 and 21 by 4-inch maple for the stage. The Education Centre contains first- and second-grade maple and yellow birch.
Originally, the designers wanted each piece of flooring cut to the trim. Instead, O’Brien opted to let it run wild. “To have everything custom-made, it could have been done, but the cost would have been astronomical, and the end result wouldn’t have met their time criteria,” O’Brien says. For this and other problems, O’Brien credits Sue Hains, project manager for the associate architect Bethesda, Maryland-based Grimm + Parker Architects, and the general contractor, Dennis Kuhn, for making decisions and taking responsibility when the work had to vary from the original design.
HIGH-SKILL CUSTOM WORK
O’Brien’s crew then installed the flooring section by section. Since most of these areas required precision cutting and fitting, O’Brien employed more than 10 carpenters. “I’m calling them carpenters, but they were floor installers with a high skill set to do that custom work … we were basically doing cabinetry work at that point, and it had to be flawless,” says O’Brien.
One decision Hains and Kuhn approved was the use of a tool that O’Brien’s friend Steve Thomas of New York-based East Hill Millwork developed for cutting the difficult balcony and stair areas. Affectionately referred to as the ‘Super Saw,’ this tool was a circular saw with rollerskate wheels attached to the bottom. The wheels followed the contour of the concrete, allowing the saw to cut along the radius and greatly reduce the cutting time.
Further complicating the custom cutting, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires floors to have a 21 by 4-inch colour contrast strip at the edge of stairs and other elevation transitions. To accomplish this, O’Brien used maple trim. After the red birch floor was cut to fit, the crew used a router and a special ‘groover’ to insert the trim into the floor. The 11 by 8 and 3 by 4-inch trim, which looked like feature strip, was specially milled to be double-tongued. The workers drove the trim into the groove as if it were a wedge. The trim was tapped into place, then glued and fastened down with trim screws. On the front of the double-tongued strip, O’Brien put a piece of moulding on an endcap that looked like an oversized reducer and had a groove on the back that locked into it. “There was almost 3 by 4 of a mile of trim we had made for the building of that double-tongued starter strip, as we called it,” O’Brien says.
Custom-cutting: Highly-skilled floor
installers did the cabinetry work
While this type of radius work was typical for the balconies, O’Brien faced different challenges in the main seating area, which had to be built along a tightly sloping hill that mimics the shape of the landscape. The flooring underneath the seats ran north to south, while that of the aisles ran east to west, and O’Brien had to ‘meet them up in the middle.’ “It wasn’t a precise cut but it was very close. And then we came back and routed in a 1 by 4 and 11 by 4-inch red birch accent strip that followed the radius of the seats,” he said.
The steps for the Music Centre, which amounted to more than 200 in the Concert Hall, were built on site. In order to make the stairs level and of millwork quality, O’Brien said that each stair could take upward of five hours to complete.
That dedication is evident in the final result, and Grabowski says that those who built the Music Centre can take pride in the craftsmanship of the building. Indeed, future students and performers, as well as the community as whole, will appreciate the Music Centre at Strathmore as a visual and acoustical masterpiece for generations to come.
The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) is the leading international trade association for the US hardwood industry, representing committed exporting US hardwood companies and all the major US hardwood production trade associations. AHEC runs a worldwide programme to promote American hardwoods in over 50 export markets including the ME, concentrating on providing architects, specifiers, designers and end-users with technical information on the range of species, products and sources of supply. In addition, AHEC also produces a full range of technical publications.