Wired for Everything

Everyone and everything is working harder these days, and that includes presentation spaces. With costs that can run $500 per square foot, schools smartly demand more for their money. They need rooms that can host it all: from games and graduations to conventions and concerts to trade shows and fundraisers. Thankfully, up-to-the-minute audio/visual equipment delivers; allowing rooms and buildings that multitask with ease.

While multitasking/multipurpose spaces have always been a part of K–12 facilities, they are becoming more and more prevalent in higher education settings. “The smaller universities are trying to maximize their investment, but I find the larger ones have the resources for dedicated specialties rooms,” says Jamie Knoop, CTS, AVI-SPL. “Despite that, almost all spaces have at least two requirements, such as lectures and panel discussions or lectures and entertainment.”

When a Project Evolves, So Do the A/V Requirements
Sometimes a project starts one way and ends up another, such as Campbell University’s John W. Pope, Jr. Convocation Center. “The project began as a simple convocation center with sports as a secondary issue,” recalls Steve Thorburn, PE, CTS-D, CTS-I, principal consultant for Thorburn Associates. But as the job progressed the program for the building grew. “Some people on the client side thought of it only as a sporting venue, others only as a gymnasium. Every time we had a meeting someone would add more requirements.”

In the end, Campbell University got a 106,000-sq.-ft., multi-use building which houses a host of sports-related facilities along with the 15,360-sq.-ft. arena. The arena is the heart of the facility and supports a variety of events, including basketball and volleyball games, gymnastics competitions, conferences, and trade shows, as well as concerts, dinners, and graduation ceremonies. The arena seats more than 3,000 for sporting events, and more than 5,000 for staged events.

While designing a multi-use facility like this has an array of standard challenges — such as lighting, acoustics, and sightlines — the real challenge is keeping costs down. “A/V technology has progressed to a point that I rarely find myself faced with a challenge that I can’t overcome with the proper equipment,” says Knoop.

Thorburn agrees. “I gave the clients at Campbell a working design with everything they asked for,” he says. “But they had a bit of sticker shock when they saw the costs.”

The Cost of Flexibility
“The more flexible a room is, the more it’s going to cost up front,” continues Tim Schnabel, director of education programs for higher education, Extron Electronics. “Guest speakers may bring their own equipment or want to run a presentation from their computer. That requires a lot of different inputs and outputs.”

The project at Campbell University used a variety of different audio input sources. For example, court sports use a microphone and CD/MP3 input at the announcers’ table. A coach’s practice table contains a microphone and CD/MP3 inputs, while a lockable wall box holds a handheld microphone and input for music. For stage events, eight microphone inputs with remote volume controls are available. A 16-channel automatic mixer is used when a sound technician is unavailable.

The plus side, however, justifies the cost. “The advantages are the economies of scale,” explains Knoop. “Instead of building out three different spaces and outfitting them with three different systems, you can allocate one room and share resources. The same audio DSP that EQs the ceiling speakers for voice reinforcement during lectures can be the same DSP that EQs the front speakers for live performances or the surround channels on movie night.”

Thorburn used a main loudspeaker system consisting of an exploded central cluster design with overhead court and stage end loudspeakers in Campbell University’s new arena project. The overhead court loudspeakers can be muted for court sports like basketball or volleyball or activated for events like gymnastics or concerts where people on the court need to hear the audio. “We installed the bare bones of a concert system,” he says.

Thorburn also had to balance sound to accommodate different-sized crowds. “Sometimes there are only 20 to 30 people in here using it as a gymnasium or practice space,” he says. “It’s easy to get swallowed up in the volume of the space. Also, if you make the space quiet enough for a convocation or a conference then the space might be too quiet for sports. You lose out on the crowd roaring for the home team.”

Making Easy Use of a Complex System
While it takes a technical professional to create these audio scenarios, it doesn’t require an advanced degree to run it. “It’s as easy as flipping a switch or running an iPad app,” says Thorburn.

Knoop agrees. “If properly designed it should be very simple,” he explains. “An instructor walks into the auditorium and touches the touch panel to wake it up. The touch panel asks if the room should be setup for a movie, live event, panel discussion, or classroom lecture. If the instructor chooses lecture, then the projector turns on, screen drops, audio system routes the wireless mic to the ceiling speakers, and the audio from the laptop is routed to the front speakers. A panel discussion might require someone to bring out a dozen or so microphones and plug them into a floor box, but that doesn’t take long. Turning them on, equalizing, and routing them to the correct speakers is a touch of a button. If one of the mics needs to be louder you simply push the volume up on that mic’s button.”

However, this doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an on-campus expert handy. “There’s always special training involved. Generally there’s a point person on the campus who’s responsible for the A/V system,” continues Knoop. “That person needs to know how things are installed on a technical level. Then there’s the instructor who just needs to be shown what the capabilities are and how to operate the touch panels. We design these systems to be very simple for the end user.”