Triumph at St. Thomas School

Wood Ceilings in a Washington School Provide Lessons on Sound Control and What It Means to Be Green

As green building increasingly becomes the norm, the idea of being green is changing.What began as a way to build more efficiently is now also a mindset. Sustainability is not just about construction. It's about one's lifestyle, values and overall well-being.

With this in mind, the design and construction teams charged with building the St.Thomas School in Medina, WA, had a quite a task.The community wanted their school to meet the stringent standards of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System™. The community also wanted to create spaces where young minds could flourish.

To meet these goals, St.Thomas School features wood throughout the facility.Wood ceilings manufacturer 9Wood, Inc., Springfield, OR, provided the definitive solutions. In the school's "commons area," 9Wood manufactured an impressive radiused ceiling with Red Oak veneered panels and held in place using flexible metal backers. In other areas of the school, the company manufactured panelized linear ceilings, in a "flat" application (3-1/4" face with a 3/4" reveal).

Challenging Requirements

Creating these spaces posed a challenge. "The commons space at St.Thomas have different uses each with conflicting programmatic requirements for the ceiling," says Michael Picard, Project Architect, who was with Bassetti Architects, Seattle, WA, at the time of construction, and currently is with Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, Seattle.

One ceiling requirement was to harvest natural light. This called for a skylight, a hard surface added to space needing some sound attenuation."The space serves as a lunch room and for small study groups, so the ceilings need acoustically absorptive properties," Picard says."But its other function is to act as a theater for presentations and performances, and that use called for an acoustically reflective surfaces to help enliven the 'little voices' during their musicals." Absorbing sound, reflecting sound, transmitting light — St.Thomas School put forth many demands.

To meet them, Picard used sophisticated acoustical and light models to define the shapes and spacing of wood slats. "We chose a slatted ceiling to meet programmatic requirements and maintain a uniform appearance," Picard says. "Its shape was derived from curves needed over the stage to reflect sound towards an audience, but the curve was pulled upward in the middle of the space to allow for daylight."

For the radiused ceilings, the design team specified a 12"-wide repeating wood slat pattern featuring differentwidth boards.The width variance prevents undesirable harmonization of different sound frequencies.The spaces between the slats allow sound to be caught in acoustical absorbers, which drown out ambient noise. Of course, slot diffusers, strip lighting fixtures and an abundance of other ceiling penetrations had to be organized and accounted for during manufacturing and installation.

Coordination and Teamwork

The scale and complexity of the St.Thomas School ceiling project required close coordination between Bassetti Architects, 9Wood, Chicago Metallic Corp., the suspension system provider, and Western Partitions, Inc., Sumner,WA, the installing contractor. "A good working relationship between the players was a key element in completion," says David Jahn of Chicago Metallic. Coordination began with shop drawings."We had three panel types, grid arcs, skylights, projection screens, stage curtains and lighting bays," says Chad Washam of Western Partitions. "Most items were fixed.We couldn't deviate from the design." Adds Schwarz:"We were all fortunate to coordinate closely on this project."

The grid was machine-built, bent and finished in the factory. "With skylights and a visible grid,We needed a clean, smooth-looking design, and we were able to deliver it thanks to everything done by the factory," Jahn says. Chicago Metallic, in fact, supplied a special grid system requiring fewer attachment points than is normal on installations.

"It was the easiest system to install I have ever experienced," says Jeremy Pierce, Acoustical Foreman for Western Partitions.The grid, he says, used half as many drop wires in comparison to standard grid.

Pierce and his crew had to build the curtain track in the field. "I was stressed, just wondering whether the architect would accept it," Pierce says. The architect approved the custom-built curtain track.

In the end, the school district is happy. Most importantly, sustainability will be a hallmark in the lives a generation of Medina, WA, elementary school children."In my opinion," says Schwarz. "This is one of the the best installs I have ever seen."

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