Recent innovations in custom millwork

July 17, 2019

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[1]
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[2] 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[3] (NKU) in Highland Heights, Kentucky, and men’s basketball locker room at the University of Kentucky[4] (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[5] (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.[6]
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.

Millwork as open-air social stairs

The social stair feature at NKU includes 14 levels of long, winding, 610-mm (24-in.) deep wood seat benches with 330-mm (13-in.) tall solid surface backs and risers.[7]
The social stair feature at NKU includes 14 levels of long, winding, 610-mm (24-in.) deep wood seat benches with 330-mm (13-in.) tall solid surface backs and risers.

The second, and much larger, specialty millwork feature at NKU is an open-air social stair feature. Open-air seating areas have become common inside many educational classroom buildings. This particular social stair feature at NKU is located in the public forum area just inside the entrance to the Health Innovation Center. The stair feature includes 14 levels of long, winding, 610-mm (24-in.) deep wood seat benches with 330-mm (13-in.) tall solid surface backs and risers. Both ends of the social stairs incorporate a stairway to the upper levels.

From a fabrication standpoint, these long and winding wood seat benches and risers were more complicated and involved more work than the atrium feature. Overall, the social stair feature required around 3000 short pieces of tongue-and-groove (T&G) flooring and more than 1200 linear feet of tall solid surface risers and custom-shaped wood nosing.

As was the case with the atrium feature ribs, each individual piece of flooring, length of the solid surface riser, and wood nosing required its own customized geometry, machining, and craftsmanship to accommodate the meandering design of the seats. Each piece was different as they all required a subtle change in the pie-shaped geometry and needed a radius along the front edge to accommodate the curved nosing.

The risers in the social stairs were made of 6 mm (¼ in.) solid-surface material laminated to a 19-mm (¾-in.) kerfed substrate. All of these required heat forming to conform to the geometry of each particular section of seats. To do so, the manufacturer designed and fabricated individual forms for each section of solid surface risers. The solid surface was cut to the correct size and, after being heated in an oven, was removed and draped over the corresponding forms. Once cooled, the solid surface retained the required shape.

NKU’s innovations

Together, these two custom millwork fixtures in NKU’s Health Innovation Center-Founders Hall set a new standard for wood features in commercial construction in at least two ways. The first way is the aforementioned necessity to focus on each element of the wood design as a distinct geometrical entity, a far cry from assembly line production of wood casing. The second way is in the architectural design. As is clear, with innovative designs, the architects blur the line between millwork and furniture precisely because they incorporate patron usage into the design and functionality. The fabricator then actualizes this design, in some cases using specialty steel bracketing hidden within the structure.

University of Kentucky

The new men’s basketball locker room at the University of Kentucky (UKY), Lexington, Kentucky, is in the shape of a basketball. The challenge was to get the wooden locker units to meet at the top so as to achieve the desired circle shape.[8]
The new men’s basketball locker room at the University of Kentucky (UKY), Lexington, Kentucky, is in the shape of a basketball. The challenge was to get the wooden locker units to meet at the top so as to achieve the desired circle shape.

Another innovative design using custom millwork, also at an institution of higher education in the state of Kentucky, is the new men’s basketball locker room at UKY. Historically, this university has been considered a ‘blue blood’ of college basketball, and they wished their new locker room to reflect that identity.

In designing the locker room, therefore, the architects at Sherman Carter Barnhart[9] (Louisville and Lexington) made the shape of a basketball. The walls of the concentric room host the various locker units for each player. An entryway is to the side of the main room.

The challenge presented by this otherwise simple design was in getting the wooden locker units to meet at the top in a way that preserved the perfect circle of the overall room design. To accomplish this goal, the fabricators constructed a model of an elevated concentric circle. The concentric circle was first placed in the room. Each locker was then strategically fixed so as to meet the circle. After installing all the locker units in their appropriate places, the circle was removed, leaving only the lockers arranged in the shape of a basketball.

Conclusion

In their own respective ways, each of these jobs represents approaches in which architects are beginning to use millwork creatively, and going beyond what standard casework companies are able to do. These jobs require fabricators and engineers who have the technical and mathematical ability to bring such innovations to life. Thus they serve as harbingers of unique projects yet to come, and exciting careers in millwork to bring about those projects.

Mark Klingberg is general manager of Morgan Smith Industries in Columbia, Kentucky. He can be reached at mark.klingberg@morgansmithllc.com[10].

Chris Keith is director of research and development at Stala Integrated Assemblies. He can be reached at chris.keith@stalaframing.com[11].

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/IMG_2075.jpg
  2. distinction: http://watchdogpm.com/blog/difference-millwork-casework
  3. Northern Kentucky University: https://www.nku.edu/
  4. University of Kentucky: http://www.uky.edu/UKHome/
  5. CO Architects: https://coarchitects.com/
  6. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/IMG_1993.jpg
  7. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/IMG_2106.jpg
  8. [Image]: https://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Rupp-5.jpg
  9. Sherman Carter Barnhart: https://www.scbarchitects.com/
  10. mark.klingberg@morgansmithllc.com: mailto:mark.klingberg@morgansmithllc.com
  11. chris.keith@stalaframing.com: mailto:chris.keith@stalaframing.com

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