Recently, Cornish College of the Arts underwent a remarkable transition, moving five of its seven departments into extensive new facilities located in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. The Performance Production Department, offering BFAs in lighting, scenic, costume, and sound design, technical direction, and stage management, was among those making the move.
One of the most exciting aspects of the move was the transformation of the Sons of Norway Hall, a historic fixture of the Seattle landscape since 1903, into the Ned and Kayla Skinner Theatre in the Raisbeck Performance Hall. The structure has seen many uses in its 101 years, and the Seattle Landmarks Board was anxious to see that the renovation was thoughtfully carried out both inside and out. All of us at Cornish were equally concerned, but it was a priority to make sure the building became a viable performance and rehearsal space. Luckily, the designers and engineers with Mahlum Architects and our fabulous builders with Zion Construction were entirely up to the job.
A major concern was meeting the lighting needs of this “black box” space, which needed to be a flexible performance space and to function as a teaching lab for undergraduate lighting designers. Associate professor Roberta Russell, head of our lighting design program, set out a number of design factors: a minimum of 186 dimmers; ease of routing DMX; the ability to quickly set up the lighting console in a number of locations; quick turnaround for shows; and the ability to safely hang and focus with an absolute minimum of ladder work. We would initially be using our existing ETC Obsession 600 console, but Prof. Russell wanted to be sure the dimming system we purchased would benefit from newer equipment using both DMX and Ethernet for control.
Several obstacles related to the dimmers and distribution presented themselves immediately. Our mechanical contractor was concerned about the heat produced by 186 dimmers and their associated load wiring. Because of the mechanical noise produced by multiple dimmer racks, their placement would require careful consideration. The Landmarks Board wanted to limit conduit penetrations of the historic interior walls, and of course, the labor involved in pulling 186 load circuits from whatever remote basement location we might carve out was considerable. In fact, we were hoping to create dressing rooms by expanding the existing basement space. Locating multiple dimmer racks in or near those dressing rooms would mean gobbling up more and more of the usable space, to say nothing of the impact on air conditioning and ventilation.
Mac Perkins from Pacific Northwest Theatre Associates (PNTA) suggested that we look into the Entertainment Technology Intelligent Raceway dimmers. Simultaneously, our electrical contractor suggested Lightolier as a company that produced IGBT (Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor) dimmers. As it turns out, Entertainment Technology and Lightolier are both part of the Genlyte Thomas group of companies.
As Paul Nordhelm from Lightolier explained it to me, the Intelligent Raceway system seemed too good to be true — dimmers are distributed along the lighting pipes in the grid, controlled by DMX and/or Ethernet, contain no fans, no chokes, and eliminate all of the wiring that a traditional system needs to get from the dimmer rack out to the grid circuits. Of course, this meant that we had to run three-phase power up to the grid, but we needed only five wires feeding 20 Amp three-phase to each six dimmers, as opposed to 18 load wires running from a dimmer rack to the same six circuits. This required conduit space to pull 155 wires with the distributed system, versus 558 wires with a traditional system.
Obviously, eliminating the installation of so much conduit and the pulling of 558 wires from a distant dimmer rack location to the grid reduced labor costs. The deciding factor turned out to be temperature. With dimmers distributed throughout the room, there is no concentrated heat loading in any one spot. There is so much airflow around each dimmer that the heat from the dimmers effectively “disappears” from the ventilation calculations. In this case, that made the difference between needing coolers or not, and that made an enormous difference in the size and cost of the air-handling gear. In fact, it made so much difference that it effectively paid for the dimmers in the reduction of cost in the ventilation system. Suddenly, the bean-counters were arguing for the more sophisticated Intelligent Raceway system right along with us!
To realize ladder-free accessibility, a complex catwalk system was proposed, but the steeply sloped roofline made much of the grid unreachable from the cats. In addition, access to the cats would be difficult and would further reduce usable space. Because the pipe grid could be hung tight to the existing wooden trusswork at a height of 19' from the deck, we decided that relatively inexpensive scissor-lifts would provide quick and easily maneuverable access to the entire grid, saving the cost of the catwalk installation while actually giving superior flexibility. Zion Construction agreed to contribute to the cost of the lift purchase as they would not need to rent lifts for the renovation. This allowed us to buy two 16” working height lifts, which have proven to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
So, how does it all work? I had the chance to find out when I stepped in to do the lighting design for the first show myself, figuring that it would be a good way to keep an eye on the new space. The answer is that it works extremely well. Other than a couple of faulty dimmer modules that were quickly replaced and some minor cases of wiring that worked loose during transport (quickly fixed), the Intelligent Raceway system worked flawlessly from the initial turn on.
One “small” feature made a huge difference — each dimmer has a “focus” button allowing you to hang an instrument, plug it in, and rough focus as you hang. The distributed dimmers reduced our cable usage to a minimum, which meant less stopping to repair cable and less time spent hanging long cable runs. Combined with the scissor-lifts, which can be safely driven along under the pipe while working at height, the new system significantly reduced the hang time and reduced subsequent focus time, as virtually all the instruments were rough-focused as they were hung.
The system is totally silent; there are no fans; there is virtually no filament noise from the lamps; and we experienced no noise in the sound system from the lights. For the sound system, we had requested an isolated technical power feed to the booth with a dedicated panel. Indeed, there is a panel in the booth labeled “SND” in big letters, and all the sound wiring in the theatre terminates in that panel. Imagine my surprise, however, to discover that the electricians decided this would also be an appropriate panel to feed power to the houselight dimmers (also fan-less Lightolier IGBT dimmers), located immediately adjacent to the sound panel! I can hear folks out there gasping, but believe it or not, this has presented no problem. I simply cannot detect any noise being injected into the sound system (I'm also a sound designer, so I'm picky).
I think the words of my student master electrician, spoken after the first day of the hang, sum up the experience: “Everything about this space is just awesome.” Happily, by strike night, she had no particular reason to revise this opinion!
Dave Tosti-Lane is professor and chair of the Performance Production Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA. A lighting and sound designer, he is the chair of the Pacific Northwest Audio Engineering Society and the associate editor for sound for TD&T, the journal of the USITT. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org