Producing excellence at the Royal Society

Same Wise of Arup Acoustics uses a recent example to highlight the importance of good independent consulting early in a project’s life to ensure a happy ending.

The Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) is one of the most eminent organisations in the medical profession. Key functions are bringing those professionals together to share knowledge and provision of facilities for continuing medical education. Arup Acoustics (AAc) and Arup Venue Consulting (AVC) were approached by MS Architects to review plans for a new scheme and assist in both the planning and technical facilities design for a refurbished and reorganised set of lecture theatres and meeting rooms.

At that point RSM had a nicely spacious lecture theatre with comfortable seats, good sightlines, and acceptable acoustics, but an aging audio visual installation that was, by then, in need of replacement. Other meeting spaces were scattered throughout the building and were difficult to find and use in a cohesive way for larger conferences with plenary and subsidiary meetings.

In addition, the RSM library was mostly stored in archived form due to space limitations, and also difficult to access. Meeting spaces for the Fellows of the society needed improvement. In a word, reorganisation of the building was desirable. This had led to a project whose goal was to completely revamp the ground floor and parts of the first floor of the building, while at the same time keeping the building open and in service to avoid losing bookings.

The complex nature of the construction process led to the need for a skilled project manager, which was provided by Arup Project Management. On his appointment it soon became clear that there were potential pitfalls in the architect’s plans, so it was suggested that we were appointed. The exemplar problem was the proposed location of the main 400 seat lecture theatre, which was to be sandwiched between the immovable main plant room below and RSM’s in-house hotel accommodation above. Certainly not an auspicious start to preventing acoustical noise control problems.

Arup Venue Consulting’s first task therefore was to review the process that lead to the new design layout and see if it really was the best or only alternative. Our review in fact confirmed the architect’s recommendations. The new lecture theatre location was on the ground floor just off the heartland of an extended main foyer and proposed atrium informal meeting space. Thus the position linked together registration, presentation spaces and coffee breaks into a unified and comprehensible zone. In a proposed next phase of works, smaller breakout rooms would be added around the perimeter of the atrium, and the already popular restaurant would be refurbished and rearranged as well. There were lots of other benefits to other RSM services, which we won’t go into here. But, this still left the issues of acoustics and auditorium design, both of which threatened the quality of what was to be the landmark space in the redeveloped building.

Plant rooms can be particularly noisy. This one had reciprocating chillers (very noisy), large gas-fired boilers, large pumps to send chilled and heated water throughout the building, and air handlers. All of the pipes and ductwork were firmly attached to the ceilings above, which had the unfortunate second function of being the structural floor of the lecture theatre. Thus both airborne noise and structure borne vibration had to be addressed. None of this plant equipment was to be moved or upgraded. Suffice to say, considerable effort went into getting vibration mounts installed to eliminate the direct attachment to the lecture theatre floor, and some equipment was overhauled to replace bearings that were nearing the end of their service life. M&E consultants Zisman Bowyer worked with us on this and the next major issue on our agenda. It became clear that sound insulation between this structural floor and the proposed raked floor for the new auditorium would be required. Measures were taken in the design of the auditorium floor.

At the time AAc and AVC started on the project, the plans for air distribution through the building were already in place. Since the lecture theatre was right in the middle of the complex, the easiest route for all of these air ducts was through that prime space. Potential height within the auditorium was severely limited by major building structural elements. Working with the architect, it became clear that the air ducts would cause the auditorium ceiling to be 300mm to 500mm lower than otherwise necessary and this made all the difference toward achieving practical usability and elegance on completion. In addition, the ducts were a noise risk. AVC became the irritant in the design process for a while, while the importance of this was demonstrated. Finally, we attended a client presentation, armed with a visualisation of the room with the ceiling pushed up as high as possible and another as the room would be with the ductwork passing through. At the meeting, we used the words “letterbox effect” in describing conditions at the rear of the proposed space while showing the appropriate image. This got client attention and a solution was demanded. The tide turned and a search for an alternative duct route commenced in earnest. This was achieved and the project continued forward.

This highlights the unseen value that a fully skilled independent consultant brings to a project. Get things right and no-one knows or cares that you have been there. Get them wrong and insoluble problems remain for decades.

AVC was asked to work with the architect to optimise the seating arrangements and sightlines, develop the control room space, and plan the integration of the specialist lighting, projection, ancillary displays and sound system into this challenging ceiling and compact stage zone. We were also to specify the audio visual systems for tender, detailed design and installation by a specialist audio visual contractor/integrator. The audio visual story is also one of cooperation and challenge in problem-solving.

The systems included three Sanyo XP46, 4100 lumen, 1230x1024 native projectors located in the ceiling near the front of the room. These allowed either a larger central image or a pair of side-by-side images to be shown. Room height did not permit these to be placed in the control room due to possible obstruction by the audience near the rear of the room. Acousically designed enclosures limited the noise from the projectors.

The client wanted to hide the screen on the upstage wall during some events, but headroom and the desire for an excellent image eliminated the possibility of a roll-down screen. There was also no space for a conventional drape to be retracted. Instead a Triple-E Chain Track based solution was adopted. This allowed a flat drape to be driven around in front of or behind the stretched screen. This flat drape also allowed for adjustable screen side masking with preset controls.

AVC is very keen on aiding people with disability to fully participate in venue activities. The Building Regulations now increasingly enforce this, but we have striven to provide facilities for wheelchair users to present lectures for many years. Clients sometimes resist this with the statement that no-one in a wheelchair ever gives a lecture. Of course, if facilities make it difficult, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. To achieve access, we worked with the architect to develop an entrance ramp on one side of the room that allowed direct entry to stage, wheelchair seating zone and a direct route to coffee without assistance. A motorised raise-lower mechanism was developed for the lectern. We did not achieve access to the control room, but also felt that a wheelchair user would be unable to fulfil a technician role for other reasons in this building.

Interaction was a key requirement for presentations in this space. Changing work rules in medicine also made it increasingly difficult for young doctors to travel to meetings, so distance conferencing facilities based on Tandberg codecs were developed. This implied the ability to amplify both presenters and audience members without leaving their seats and to quickly display them to the rest of the audience. The ability to enable voting was also requested. Working with manufacturer IML, a system was developed where 300 individual handheld microphone / voting units could be stored at the seats in holders that charged up their batteries, eliminating the need to collect them for recharge or the have a wire tether. These same holders also updated the seat position to the handheld units so that the units could be interchanged and yet still know where they were in the room. When the “talk” button was pressed, audio and seat position were simultaneously transmitted to the base station. This enabled one of six cameras to be quickly and automatically panned into a preset zone containing the seat of the audience member holding the unit.

Control was by AMX, with touch screens in the control room and at the lectern, backup up by wall-mounted or front panel controls so that a show could continue not matter what. A Yamaha PM1D was operated both manually and controlled by the system, supported by a Soundweb-based mixing and processing. A comprehensive range of audio and image sources allowed almost any incoming media to be shown without conversion.

The cabling infrastructure for the whole site was designed and installed with the main lecture theatre to avoid disruption to the building as further break-out rooms were completed.

Video South Medical Television, who had a long-standing relationship with the client, successfully integrated all of the AV and lighting control systems, working closely with AVC and the architect.

When people talk to us about this project, they remark on the beauty of the space, the great flexibility and power of the AV systems, the remarkable acoustics, etc. All of these are vital parts of the work that we contributed to. But my response is “the most important thing we did on this project was to push the ceiling up, and it was worth every penny of our fee, even if we had accomplished nothing else”.

When you add up the contributions of the whole team, from client (who provided adequate funding to fulfil the vision), through design team to contractors, you get what they deliver. If any part of this had been mediocre or absent, the result could have been predictably average or worst. RSM got an excellent result.

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