December 27, 2018
by Lee Magin
In the world of sports arenas, conference centers, and other large-scale, high-use spaces, designing with end-user experience in mind is everything. Incorporating innovation into these entertainment hubs is crucial in order to meet the demands of the large and diverse groups of people frequenting them with the high expectation of being wowed by stunning looks and cutting-edge technological features.
When retrofitting existing arenas, the challenge of designing with innovation often means rethinking old structural parts into new elements that make impactful architectural statements. A ceiling, for example, can be so much more than just the overlooked space overhead. The right ceiling design can transform an otherwise flat, functional surface into something sculptural and stylish, helping elevate a facility to new levels of visual appeal. In the case of the recently redesigned Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, one of the most visually striking elements of its new look is a one-of-a-kind, design-forward ceiling combining clean lines, modern aesthetics, and subtle wayfinding cues.
Nassau Coliseum opened in 1972 and has since hosted entertainers like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, and Madonna. It has also served as home ice for the New York Islanders, home court for the New York Nets, and home base for dozens of other pro sporting events. After 40-plus years of steady use as a concert and sports venue, however, the aging building showed a need for major upgrades to its construction, aesthetics, and amenities to meet the demands of modern events. A plan to demolish and rebuild the 38,648-m2 (416,000-sf) arena, which rests on the site of a former Air Force base, was rejected by voters in a 2011 referendum, so the facility’s management pursued a redesign of the existing structure.
The 18-month, $165-million renovation project overhauled the coliseum’s former spartan looks with a sophisticated sense of style and state-of-the-art upgrades giving event attendees a fresh arena experience. Construction ran from August 2015 to April 2017, with the planning phase spanning two years leading up to the renovation.
San Francisco design firm, Gensler, led Nassau Coliseum’s interior renovation, with the goal of creating an iconic new look that relied on the integrity of the building’s existing infrastructure, respected its rich history as a destination for a diverse array of large-scale events, and offered attendees a more modern environment whether they are singing along to Billy Joel, watching two teams face off, or networking at a business convention.
For Nassau Coliseum attendees, a large part of the experience is the activity occurring on the venue’s concourse—the retail environment running around the perimeter of the interior bowl. Designers sought to declutter and open up that area with a cleaner, more organized visual flow, all while working within the building’s existing footprint. That meant incorporating clear, high-performance glass around the perimeter allowing natural light to penetrate the arena’s outer ring, more open vomitoria acting as connections from concourse to bowl, and one of the marquee features of the new concourse: a custom ceiling design adding a lively sense of motion and energy overhead.
The ceiling is a feat of both design and engineering. It is a structure of peaked rafters suspended by aircraft cable from the plenum above and soffits on either side, hanging at gradually varying heights and apexes. The gradually increasing angles of the beams create a ‘ridge line’ that moves from side to side, giving the ceiling an undulating, wave-like effect. That visual energy also comes with a purpose—it is a subtle wayfinding cue helping point attendees directionally around the concourse.
“The rafters had different compound cuts and angles allowing them to angle back and forth,” explained Hunter Pope, architectural sales manager for the manufacturer of the concourse ceiling components. “This allows you to follow the ridge line around the space and guides where you walk.”
The rafters are constructed of large, lightweight extruded aluminum beams powder coated with a wood-grain finish to look like actual timbers. While being light enough to support with aircraft cable, they also offer the full-finish look of wood to give the ceiling an atmosphere of warmth, particularly when illuminated by the soft recessed accent lighting in the soffits.
The ceiling’s look also offers a visual counterpoint to the building’s exterior. An intricate system of approximately 4700 aluminum ‘fins’ bent at gradually increasing angles presents a metallic wave effect surrounding Nassau Coliseum’s exterior. Once inside, coliseum visitors get a subtle continuation of that flowing design theme via the concourse ceiling.
The coliseum’s old, off-white stucco ceiling was more of a functional component than a design statement. While it lacked aesthetic appeal before the redesign, it became a critical piece of the visual field in the new version: the original ceiling is pitched at an extreme angle from the center outward and is still visible above the new ceiling’s rafters, working in visual tandem with the side-to-side ‘movement’ of the beams. It also serves as the plenum from which the new rafters are suspended.
The large scale of the ceiling, compounded by the complications of working within the confines of the existing structure, presented significant engineering challenges. The intricacy of its design only elevated the difficulty.
The ceiling comprises approximately 1828 m (6000 ft) of custom-engineered elements: 200 rafters set 1.8 m (6 ft) apart at 24 unique angles, mounted with 1200 brackets. Each rafter is created from two beams of varying sizes. The longer of the two ranges in size from approximately 3.8 to 4.7 m (12 ½ to 15 ½ ft), while the shorter falls between 1.2 and 2.9 m (4 and 9 ½ ft). They meet at angles ranging from 132 to 157 degrees.
Suspending the beams from the existing plenum and soffits forced the engineering team to reckon with complicated angles—and lots of them.
“Overall, the biggest challenges were involved in the engineering of the angles, lengths of beams, and weight that was attached to the ceiling or resting on the bulkhead,” said Pope. “Having 20 to 30 angles means you have 40 to 50 unique cuts to make.”
The plenum slopes upward from the outer edge, while the soffits on each side of the corridor slope downward. With the coliseum’s ovular layout, those angles run perpendicular to the long curvature of the structure’s perimeter. This meant an abundance of custom cuts were required to ensure each beam fit flush against one soffit and within a tolerance of 0.8 mm (31.4 mils) for the center joint. To mitigate this, the project team selected a product made of extruded aluminum, a highly durable material allowing for precise angle cuts.
There were also suspension challenges. To ensure fire resistance, the design called for minimal penetrations through the fire barrier to the structure—only four or five penetrations per beam. To prevent the rafters from physically swaying back and forth on the aircraft cable (the perceived movement lies in the construction alone) the design team specified alignment brackets to attach the beams on either side at the soffits.
From concept to reality
With so many variables involved in the ceiling’s design, it was essential for components to be fabricated with precision, schematics to be drawn with detail, and installation to be carried out with accuracy.
Pope and his team worked hand-in-hand with Gensler’s designers to develop detailed computer-aided design (CAD) models and to test specific beams and suspension assemblies for fit and coordination to achieve the seamless effect the design firm visualized before moving on to the installation. Once one rafter was tested and working in place in the model, the team was able to repeat the same basic calculations and process for the rest. While the rafters’ sizes and angles varied widely, the same basic process could be applied to cut and align each one.
“Our focus is on the installers and helping them meet the architect’s design intent as easily as possible,” said Pope. “That is true of any installation, but especially one of this size and level of detail.”
The testing process also helped streamline the original architectural design. Throughout manufacturing, the team found it could reduce the number of cuts required without negatively impacting the integrity of the design or its durability over the long run. The original design for the ceiling called for 40 angles per coliseum quadrant. Through tweaks in the calculations and plans, that number was reduced to 15 angles per quadrant, ultimately reducing the difficulty for the installers.
“We tweaked the design by consolidating the angles, and found we could maintain the visual effect of the changing peak height, but reduce the complexity of both production and installation,” explained Pope. “Repeating beam angles per quadrant created the opportunity to reuse engineering calculations and use the same beam-hanging process for the installers.”
This approach also reduced the amount of custom parts the manufacturer had to provide, which aided in controlling lead times and ensured installers could work to a tighter schedule.
Once test fitting was complete, manufacturers and subcontractors collaborated throughout extensive layout and engineering stages, as well as on precision fabrication of the components.
Richard Meyer, a subcontractor who worked on the installation, said the team excelled at providing drawings that offered “a nice guide to putting it all together. I do not think anyone’s really done that type of system before… there was definitely a lot of designing involved in this custom work. The installation went very fast.”
By reducing the number of angles and beams, making precision cuts, giving diagrams on how to seam the beams together properly with the brackets, and identifying placement of hanger points, the engineering team supplied the installers with everything they needed to simplify an otherwise complicated installation job.
Due to the in-depth planning, efficient engineering, and detailed guidelines, the installation phase went quickly and smoothly. Pope recalls only two phone calls back and forth between his office and the subcontractors once installation began.
“When the beams came together, it was pristine,” he said. “From a product development mockup stage, we were able to do a lot on the front end in order to make sure the beams came together and looked sharp.”
The ‘vertical ceiling’
By following the ceiling around the curving concourse and tracing the gently undulating ridge line above, one will eventually arrive at a stairwell and escalator. Above the stairwell hangs one of the signature elements of the space: a decorative shelf wall, or ‘vertical ceiling,’ which continues the beam’s visual lines from one level of the concourse to another.
The configuration of the wall required a different approach from the rest of the ceiling.
“We had to design, test, and engineer all the calculations to make sure the shelf beams were stable and would hold up,” Pope explained.
Hanging at a 15-degree angle, the shelf wall is constructed of the same wood-finished aluminum beams that comprise the rest of the ceiling. Each beam is connected to visible black steel rods providing structural support. The 12 steel brackets on which the shelf wall is mounted (six on the bottom and six on the top) had to be custom designed and engineered and are each 12.7 mm (½ in.) thick.
The result is a striking visual anchor piece greeting and guiding event attendees as they descend the stairs or escalator.
Innovation and admiration
The success of the redesign transformed a familiar but outdated venue into a destination able to deliver first-class programming for guests and artists alike. The new ceiling is one piece of that success. Behind the scenes, the planning and engineering teams mitigated significant challenges in the installation process. However, what end users see is a new design paying homage to the coliseum’s history by preserving the interior architecture while injecting a new sense of energy and bringing a beloved old building back to life.
Lee Magin is a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) integration specialist and project drawing team lead for Hunter Douglas Ceilings and Walls. He graduated from Southern Polytechnic State University with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and is currently pursuing another in mechanical engineering. Magin was raised in the construction industry and has actively participated in building design for 15 years. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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