Sound Decisions

A New Music Building Hit All The Right Notes Because Of Stakeholder Harmony




When a show-stopping flood destroyed the University of Iowa's music building, students, faculty and administrators saw an opportunity to create a new home that met performance, rehearsal and instructional needs. The US$189 million Voxman Music Building replacement project in Iowa City, Iowa, USA achieved that objective because the company in charge of design and project management, LMN Architects, understood the value of gathering feedback from all music department stakeholders.


Voxman Music Building, Iowa City, Iowa, USA

Throughout the three-year design phase, the project team held meetings every few months with the school's user group of faculty and students. Those meetings helped the team understand and develop clear requirements for how the building would serve as an educational facility and performance space for faculty and students, as well as a top-notch concert venue for the residents of Iowa City.

“The stakeholder involvement helped us define the project's criteria and find solutions so the building could do what it needed to do,” says Stephen Van Dyck, partner and project designer, LMN Architects, Seattle, Washington, USA.

—Stephen Van Dyck, LMN Architects, Seattle, Washington, USA

In the end, Mr. Van Dyck's team completed the six-year project nearly US$9 million under budget. It achieved cost savings during all phases as it worked to deliver a six-floor facility that covers 184,000 square feet (17,000 square meters) and features a 700-seat concert hall, a 200-seat recital hall, 65 rehearsal rooms, 58 faculty studios and a music library. Everything was completed precisely how the music department imagined.

“The building delivered in a spectacular way and even surpassed the expectations we had at the project's outset,” says David Gier, director, school of music, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA. “The project team heard us and understood our needs and delivered an innovative, beautiful building.”


—David Gier, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA




During the feedback phase, the LMN team learned that each rehearsal and performance space would be used by an array of musicians—a solo violinist, a jazz combo, a string quartet and so on—and that each musical style has different acoustic requirements. But building a dedicated room for each musical need wasn't an option. Instead, the team created performance spaces where musicians could customize—or tune—acoustics to their unique needs. By installing a system of pleated fabric banners in each room's ceiling, the team delivered a low-cost solution that wouldn't dramatically alter the aesthetics.

Musicians use a touchpad system to adjust the banners into various configurations and lengths. For example, extending the fabric banner reduces reverberation—something a loud jazz ensemble would want.

“The project team could have designed generic spaces that would have covered most of our needs, but because they were so particular in understanding our program, they delivered spaces that serve all of our very different needs,” Mr. Gier says.

On Tempo

2008: A flood wipes out the University of Iowa music department's building.

2010: The design phase for a new music building begins.

2011: The team starts designing the concert hall's 946-piece sculptural ceiling.

2012: The team tests the acoustics and aesthetics of elements that would improve the sound in public spaces and rehearsal rooms.

2013: The construction phase begins.

2014: The project team temporarily adjusts work schedules to compensate for weather-related construction delays.

2015: Construction reaches halfway point with all concrete and steel structure in place.

2016: The Voxman Music Building opens.


Wall of Sound

Music department administrators were clear: Concert halls and rehearsal rooms would be the primary performance spaces. But after listening closely to students and faculty, the project team also concluded that musicians likely would end up practicing and performing in public spaces, such as the lobby. So the team chose to modify the exposed concrete walls in those areas to create an ideal acoustic environment for such performances.

Covering the concrete with a material such as drywall would have led to higher costs, so the team investigated other options. The team settled on embedding pieces of inexpensive, recycled felt into the concrete walls. They consulted with an acoustician to conduct tests, inserting felt into a 4-foot-by-8-foot (1.2-meter-by-2.4-meter) concrete wall. Those tests confirmed that felt met both the acoustic and aesthetic requirements, while also revealing that the team could use less felt than originally planned for.


“The felt absorbs sound while also giving the cold concrete a soft, warm feel,” Mr. Van Dyck says. “And it enabled the public spaces to become places of serendipitous performance.”


Crowning Achievement

The signature feature of the concert hall is a lightweight decorative ceiling. To save money and time, the design team created and tested its own geometric prototypes rather than hiring a third-party specialist. But finding a contractor that could fabricate the final complex design—including its 946 pieces of aluminum—required extra effort.

The team made a video and showed it to contractors to clearly communicate the ceiling's design and outline how the ceiling would need to be assembled. The video included the team's one-third-scale mock-up of the ceiling and a time-lapse illustration of construction. It ultimately helped convince a fabricator from the U.S. state of Indiana that construction would be relatively easy. The contractor “realized it's not as complicated as it looks at first and that he could use our digital files and model,” says Sam Miller, partner and project manager, LMN Architects, Seattle, Washington, USA.




Stephen Van Dyck, partner and project designer, LMN Architects, Seattle, Washington, USA

Experience: 16 years

Career lesson learned: “You have to make sure that contractors understand the ideas behind the design. This helps save costs and achieve great results.”

Project stress reliever: “My children. I had no kids when the project started. When it closed, I had two kids, and I took both of them to the opening concerts.”

Suspended Effects

Origami-like acoustic reflectors hang like kites from the 40-foot (12.2-meter) ceilings of rehearsal rooms. They're designed to absorb sound while helping the rooms retain their vast dimensions and natural light. The alternative would have been to install a sound-dampening dropped ceiling. “We didn't want the rehearsal rooms to feel smaller with a grid overhead,” Mr. Van Dyck says. “So instead, we celebrated the height.”

But creating the right balance between aesthetic flair and acoustic impact was a challenge. The team needed enough reflectors to create a visual dazzle, but not so many that it would deaden sound too much. So the team fabricated some reflectors with closed surfaces, while others have punctured surfaces that are merely decorative or only hold lighting.

Orchestrating Resources

The project team needed to complete construction to give faculty and staff enough time to move into the new building before the 2016 school year began. But that requirement was in jeopardy from the beginning due to a high demand for the city's contractors. Several other local construction projects also were underway because of flood damage, including a new children's hospital and two other university facilities that needed to be rebuilt. “Available labor and cost escalation due to a shortage of labor were real concerns,” Mr. Miller says.


—Sam Miller, LMN Architects, Seattle, Washington, USA


Construction of the lower-level student common area

The team realized it had to offer contractors much more than steady work and competitive pay to attract them to the Voxman project. “So we produced a video to sell people on this project and on the meaning of it,” Mr. Van Dyck says. “The video said a little about the design process, but it was mostly about how important this project would be for the community.”

The team also used the video as part of the onboarding process for the contractors it hired, which helped ensure that the design vision carried into execution. In the end, the efforts helped minimize labor-related delays and allowed the team to complete the project just two months behind schedule—and in just enough time to allow staff and faculty to move into the new facility at the start of the semester. PM



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