Recent innovations in custom millwork

by Mark Klingberg and Chris Keith

The atrium of the Health Innovation Center and Founders Hall at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) in Highland Heights, Kentucky, consists of multiple semicircle-shaped couches that are affixed to the floor and arranged to form an ‘S’ shape. Images courtesy Stala Integrated Assemblies
The atrium of the Health Innovation Center and Founders Hall at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) in Highland Heights, Kentucky, consists of multiple semicircle-shaped couches that are affixed to the floor and arranged to form an ‘S’ shape.
Images courtesy Stala Integrated Assemblies

Among carpentry specialists in commercial construction, the distinction between casework and millwork resides in the custom-made nature of the latter. Although one would not say casework amounts to ‘making boxes,’ it is nevertheless the case that some recent innovative millwork projects have amplified the distinction between assembly line carpentry fixtures and custom-made ones.

This article highlights two such projects in the southeast and in commercial and light commercial construction: the Health Innovation Center and Founders Hall at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) in Highland Heights, Kentucky, and men’s basketball locker room at the University of Kentucky (UKY) in Lexington, Kentucky. Together, they highlight some creative design advances in the custom millwork industry, offering glimpses of potential applications in the future.

Northern Kentucky University

Founded in 1968, NKU is young in comparison with many state universities. It has seen rapid growth since the 1980s, and boasts of an enrollment of around 14,500. This growth resulted in several new construction projects on campus. One of the most impressive projects is the new Health Innovation Center, which considerably expanded an existing structure, the Founders Hall.

Designed by CO Architects (Los Angeles, California), the new Health Innovation Center-Founders Hall building is 20,160 m2 (217,000 sf) and features 20 classrooms, 168 offices, and 4181 m2 (45,000 sf) of medical simulation teachings labs and research space. The atrium for this new building is a key part of its innovative design and showcases two separate millwork fixtures: a seating area and a social stair feature.

Millwork, steel, and geometry

More than 100 custom wood ‘ribs’ rise straight up immediately behind the large half-circle upholstered seats and gradually start to roll in and converge overhead toward a center point.
More than 100 custom wood ‘ribs’ rise straight up immediately behind the large half-circle upholstered seats and gradually start to roll in and converge overhead toward a center point.

The first, and perhaps most interesting, custom feature in the NKU atrium is a seating area consisting of multiple semicircle-shaped large couches, affixed to the floor and arranged in such a way that, from an aerial view, the whole set up is an ‘S’ shape. The light fixtures hanging above this seating area mimic the layout of the couches, following its S shape.

Immediately behind the large half-circle upholstered seats are 108 custom wood ‘ribs’ rising straight up and then gradually starting to roll in and converge overhead toward a center point. The shortest rib on the far left starts out at only 1219 mm (48 in.) tall. However, as one starts to move to the right, the wall of ribs rapidly rise up and further roll over in a distinctive and beautiful spiral shape. The last rib on the right, the 108th one, is almost 4 m (12 ft) tall and rolls almost horizontal as it reaches up and far over the upholstered seating below. The overall appearance and effect is of a cozy cocoon—an ideal place for students looking for a secluded space to study or relax within a busy building.

The smaller upholstered seating area, opposite the large half-circle feature, includes 45 wood ribs along the inside radius of the seating. Each of those ribs mimics the other taller ribs across the circle and gradually rises to meet the next.

Looking at these two features, it quickly becomes evident each rib required several subtle and incremental geometrical changes. As each of the two walls of ribs rise up, each rib was required to be an exact and minuscule amount taller (and thus longer), and have a tighter radius than the preceding one. Each rib required its own geometry and precise machining and craftsmanship.

Another challenge was to ensure the integrity of the rib structure (i.e. to make sure it would not lean over). As a solution, the manufacturers designed custom steel brackets hidden within the wall and upholstered seating frames. This specialty steel bracket meshed seamlessly with the extant design of the seating area and thus was hidden from view.

Additionally, to provide accent lighting on the feature, the architect designed a recessed light-emitting diode (LED) luminaire trough around the perimeter of the feature. The light trough is located just above the backs of the upholstered seats and follows the same spiral shape and rise of the wood ribs.

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