AV as a science at the Institute of Physics
Building a new home in London took years for the Institute of Physics, but the results show it was worth the wait. Paul Milligan visited the site.
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Undertaking any kind of building work in London is difficult. The city is very densely populated, property prices are some of the highest in the world and road congestion can often bring the city to a standstill. The requirement from the Institute of Physics (IOP), a scientific society whose members range from those at the start of their careers to globally renowned professors and academics, was on paper quite straightforward, to build new headquarters including offices, a public gallery, and a multi-purpose basement space.
Building the 1,566 sq m five-floor HQ in the inner city Kings Cross area presented a series of construction challenges including the demolition of the existing internal structure while retaining most of the original façade, as the property is within a conservation area. Extensive underpinning to the surrounding walls was needed so the basement level could be lowered by 3.5 metres to accommodate the auditoriums and exhibition areas. The initial estimate for the project was around two years, in the end it took five years to complete. If you are now thinking ‘that amount of building work is bound to have impacted on the design and installation of AV within’ then you would be absolutely right. The difficult task of delivering modern AV and IT to a client in this challenging environment fell to independent technology consultants Recursive AV.
Recursive became involved after it was recommended to the client by the Institute of Engineering and Technology, a previous client of Recursive (and InAVation Awards winner 2017 for Best Corporate project). It was initially asked by the IOP to perform a peer review in April 2017 of an integrator’s design. Paul Marshall, senior technology consultant at Recursive explains what happened next; “We reviewed the design, which in itself worked technically, but when we replayed the design back to the client and explained what it was they were getting the client said it wasn’t what they wanted any longer. As we dug further and further into what it was they did want, it became evident that we needed to go back to the drawing board and start again.”
The brief to Recursive was for the new HQ to be accessible, the IOP wanted to open themselves up, to be more welcoming as an institute, and make a conscious shift to be more public and community-focused. So how does technology fit in to all this? “The AV brief was for a modern feel, easy to use, and flexible,” says Marshall. Another difficulty in this project, from an AV perspective, was the different groups to cater for – general public, members, students and staff. “We spent a long time talking with the client about this, and looking at each of the different areas. We knew the meeting room spaces would be used predominantly by staff, but the other areas would be used by all sorts of people,” adds Marshall.
Thoughtful technology impresses before you even enter the building, with a Leyard transparent 6.9mm LED display in the window, which gives information on events or displays physics-based graphics and images. Because it is transparent it doesn’t block sunlight from shining through the big windows into the foyer inside. Once you walk in to the ground floor foyer visitors are met by a 3x3 Planar LCD videowall. Display technology like this is becoming very common in reception areas, but what’s different about this is that it’s interactive. The videowall features a depth sensing camera, touch sensor, and the screen, once activated by movement or direct touch, shows a mathematical equation based on that user’s individual impact on the universe which was designed and coded by Recursive’s in-house custom software team. It’s a clever way of engaging visitors to the building right from the start. Other nice touches on the ground floor include a LiFi system (it transmits data using light) and a cloud chamber (a precursor to the CERN detector which shows cosmic particles passing through it).
The ground floor is also home to a members lounge and three breakout spaces, each featuring a Smart Kapp board. Kate Meehan, the managing director of the IOP explains the purpose of these rooms; “As part of our section 106 (a legal agreement in planning permissions between applicant and local authority) we have three spaces for SMEs in the community. The condition is that the companies have something to do with physics. Ultimately we will rent these rooms out to people.” Downstairs is home to an impressive gallery space and auditorium, which can become one space if the foldable doors are opened in the auditorium.
The gallery space features a 5x5 Planar LCD videowall, which is accompanied by a pair of L-Acoustics Syva loudspeakers, two Panasonic PTZ cameras (for streaming) and an IR emitter for assisted hearing. Again you might say there’s nothing unusual about a large videowall in a gallery space, but the clever part here is that to help with the building’s BREEAM rating (currently rated as ‘excellent’) the power supply for the videowall is housed in the comms rooms. There are no electronics or fans behind the screen, and six DC power cables go in to the vault in the comms rooms. If you look up to the ceiling in the gallery you will find another clever bit of design, an LED light installation in the shape of the Orion’s Belt constellation, which changes in colour. The space will also be used for external digital artists to show their work and initially live feeds will be streamed directly from NASA.
The auditorium is where the bulk of the AV lives, and is home to the biggest transformation from the first plan to completed install. “When we first got involved the auditorium was positioned lengthways, we had two small projectors and two projection screens, because it was divisible down the middle of the room,” says Marshall. “When we said to the IOP you will need repeater screens at the back due to the limited ceiling height and they said they didn’t want them we suggesting rotating the auditorium through 90-degrees which then halved the viewing distance but it made for a very wide viewing experience, we were even able to convince the architect and design team to change the internal ceiling heights throughout the building to improve the viewing experience in all spaces, Because the wall behind the main projection area is divisible and opens out into the gallery area we couldn’t install a traditional fixed screen. The image isn’t particularly tall because of the ceiling height, but would have been worse the other way around because of the distance of the projectors to the screen.”
A creative solution (to not being able to install a fixed screen) was found in the form of a bespoke 11-metre wide motorised front projection screen from Vutec. Because it was built as one piece, this also provided one of the two biggest challenges of the project says Marshall. “It was manufactured in America and sent on a ship to the UK, and then put on a truck to get it to site. Even getting it in the building was difficult. It’s hard to get something of that size in at the right time so it can fit in with the partition panels and other construction works, whilst remaining clean and undamaged. It was spun across the road, we had to wait for a gap in the traffic and then it went through the front door and then lowered over the balcony into the basement with literally millimetres to spare using specialist handling equipment purchased specifically for the job.”
The giant screen is fed by three blended Christie 14K M Series projectors, installed and hidden in the vaults on one side of the room, either side of two large pillars. Custom-made projector stands were designed to sit off the floor slab, rather than being suspended from the ceiling because of vibrations from the road above. Marshall chose lamp models over laser light source because “we knew we would be blending the projectors, even laser lamps degrade over time, so if you get a difference in them with most laser models you can’t replace the lamp, it means a whole new projector.”
An Analog Way Ascender production switcher drives the projection screen and an Analogway Nextstage unit drives the gallery videowall, so the IOP can have multiple layers and PiP's, using the large screen as a single large canvas for content across all projectors. There is also the option to split the auditorium in two via a dividing partition, in which case the large screen is retracted and two ‘regular’ projector screens come down from the ceiling, and are serviced by a projector either side which uses automated lens shift and re-focus. The blending which is carried out in the projectors is also supplemented by the Christie Mystique auto blending system to make it simple for the IOP to recalibrate the system in the future should they need to.
Shifting the orientation of the room, getting the screen in and then fed by projectors around two concrete pillars means this wasn’t your average auditorium install and many questioned the complexities during the construction phase says Marshall. “It’s been one of those projects, it started off quite small and then we have got more and more involved in it. It’s been very hard work at times, as a lot of projects are, but it’s also been fascinating.”
Front of house audio in the auditorium is handled again by the L-Acoustics Kiva system with floor mounted subs for LF reinforcement. Acoustic rafts with acoustically transparent cloth and cutouts in the ceiling are fitted with QSC ultra low profile ceiling speakers and Shure MXA ceiling array microphones hidden behind the cloth. AVB, in the form of Biamp TesiraLux, pushes networked audio and video around the building alongside more traditional Dante. Seven Panasonic HD PTZ cameras fitted around the auditorium produce video feeds for the AVB system and Extron SMP352 streaming device.
The auditorium and gallery space is home to internal and external events, some of which are streamed out to the World. So ease of use is paramount says Marshall. “Everyone here wants it to be dead simple, so the balance we have to find is between giving them the technology they need so that they can hire this space out for guest events in the future, but also make sure its members and staff can use it easily.” To that end there are two modes of theatre operation, the first is via a simple height-adjustable lectern and the second, if the event is bigger in scale, can be run via a tech desk by an in-house AV tech at the back of the room.
Between the ground floor and the third floor are two floors of office space. The top floor features five meeting rooms, again built with flexibility in mind, as some have foldable walls. Each room has video conferencing built in, and is designed so interoperability isn’t ever an issue. “Every room has soft codec, so if you are using Skype or WebEx on your laptop you can dial in. Because of the mix of members, age range and how they work, we have resident PCs which also have Skype, so you can have a more traditionally VC setup if you want to come into a room and use what’s in that room, or you can bring your own,” says Marshall. A range of Philips flat panels, ranging in size from 55-in to 98-in provide the visuals in each room, and there are Yamaha soundbars to prove audio for video conferences in smaller huddle spaces and Barco ClickShare provides wireless presentation. Very little, if any scenario here hasn’t been imagined and catered for. Another clever aspect of the meetings rooms is that they can be used, via the Tersira Lux, Shure microphones and ClearOne PTZ cameras, to work as two-way overflow rooms for particularly popular conferences in the auditorium. All control is the building is run via Crestron.
The other major challenge in the project was getting enough power and access points in the right places says Marshall. “The building is all exposed concrete so access points were difficult. We had to plan out before they poured the concrete where all the containment was, because the cables are in the floor above and drop down. We weren’t allowed to lay conduit afterwards, because when you pour it you use water to cool the drill-bit and the water stains the concrete. So we had to plot it all out beforehand. Because we got involved in the project quite late, we only had a week to do it before the concrete went in. it was a bit hairy.”
The project has taken five years to complete with Recursive involved for nearly two years, so it has been a long process to get to this point. Throughout the project the attention to detail and amount of planning it must have taken is clear for all to see. Everywhere you look the very best AV brands are working to provide the best outcome for the client. We are used to hearing integrators and consultants having to work creatively to work around tight budgets. This project however shows if you buy the best you get the best. “When we described everything in our design back to the client we had potentially doubled their previous budget from the initial integrator plan which had been value engineered. When we showed them how we could make the building look and perform they went with it, and this is reflected in the final results,” says Marshall. It certainly is.
Allen & Heath 48-channel digital mixer
Ampetronic induction loops
Biamp TesiraLux, Tesira Forte
Chief Monitor carts
Clearone wireless receivers
L-Acoustics Syva and Kiva II loudspeakers, LA4X-CE amplifier
Sennheiser MobileConnect sound induction system
Shure ceiling array microphones
QSC two-way low-profile ceiling speakers
Yamaha YAS-105B, CS-700 soundbars, XMV8140D amplifier
Analog Way Ascender switcher
Aten 2-port sharing switch
Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Studio Pro 2, Web Presenter
Cabletime MediaStar IPTV
Christie Mystique, HD14K-M projectors
Clearone PTZ cameras
Crestron 7-in touchscreen, CP3 control processor
Extron XTP II Crosspoint matrix switcher
Leyard CLM series LED display
NEC LCD monitors
Panasonic HD PTZ cameras
Philips 55-in, 98-in 4K LFD LED displays
Planar LX55HDX Clarity Matrix LCD videowalls panels
Smart Kapp boards
Vutec 11-metre motorised screen