Island Innovation: HH Electric

By Susan Casey | Dec 15, 2009




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When the Victorian-style stone buildings of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum opened in 1903, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser newspaper dubbed them “the noblest buildings of Honolulu.” Philanthropist Charles Reed Bishop built the museum in memory of and to house the family heirlooms of his deceased wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last legal heir of the Kamehameha Dynasty.

Today, the Bishop Museum, as it’s commonly called, is the largest museum in Hawaii, as well as one of the state’s most iconic buildings; it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By 2006, it was in need of some sprucing up. A recent $16 million renovation included one of Bishop Museum’s original galleries, Hawaiian Hall, a stately three-story hall with a lofty atrium at its center, which is part of a building complex of five galleries.

“[Originally,] Hawaiian Hall depended on open windows for ventilation as well as lighting of it and the exhibits,” said Dave Kemble, senior exhibit designer, Bishop Museum. “As standards for conservation became more established and we realized how damaging light was, the museum closed off the windows and covered the skylight, leaving ventilation from the windows and a little bit of light.”

To compensate for the lack of natural light, a minimal electrical infrastructure was installed to power fluorescent lights in the display cases in 1967.

So when HH Electric Inc., Honolulu, won the low-bid contract for the two-and-a-half year renovation project, it faced a formidable challenge: installing a more expansive electrical infrastructure and modern equipment in a historic building.

“We needed a lot more power,” Kemble said. “We wanted dimmers, needed ventilation, audiovisual and good exhibit lighting.”

HH won the bid sent out by general contractor Constructors Hawaii Inc. The project manager was Heath Construction Services Inc. (HCS). The design team included Douglas Engineering Pacific Inc., the electrical engineer, and Mason Architects, all companies from Honolulu. But there was wider participation.

“It was a team effort,” said John Fullmer, AIA, vice president, Mason Architects. “We were the architects. Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), a museum design firm in New York, did the exhibit design, and they were in charge of what the requirements were for power, data, ventilation and lighting for the actual exhibits.”

Two other New York companies also were involved: Technical Artistry and Art Preservation Services, as well as another electrical contractor, AA Electric LTd., Honolulu.

“It was a difficult project, but we coordinated with the other contractors and followed their plans. The electrical engineers and the architects are the ones that deserve the credit,” said Herb Hanamoto, owner, HH Electric Ltd. Inc.

The other contractors recognized HH’s challenge.

“Being historic is what created the challenge for HH because they had limited space to run the conduit, had to make sure it was concealed and they couldn’t do much to the structure of the building,” said Kelley Leong, senior electrical engineer, secretary of Douglas Engineering.

“The challenges for HH were pretty significant,” Fullmer said. “They had to be innovative, because we didn’t have the room to run conduit like you do normally. There was no floor space to run things around, so we had to come up with some unusual ways to get power and data to all the cases and to power all the lighting. The floor cavity was only 7-inches deep. And the ceiling was historic, so it couldn’t be cut open. We had to run the main trunk lines in a trough at the edge of the mezzanine floor and fit them under the existing flooring and cut the flooring in a particular way to fit in all the conduit runs. HH then had to fish it from there through the floor to the walls and display cases, so it was sort of backwards. From there, we needed to get power and security into all the existing historic windows, so they had to fish it up through the plaster walls into the jambs and sills. We couldn’t just cut away at them, so there was a lot of fishing things around and from the edge of the mezzanine to the cases of the exterior walls. They had to fish things through and up through the existing plastered walls. It entailed a lot of experimenting.”

HH’s Project Foreman Dean Uyeda, who used a crew ranging from two to eight electricians, said, “The biggest challenge was not to disturb things structurally because the place was old, and we were limited as to where we could drill without having the plaster crumble.”

Case-by-Case Lighting

The original display cases in Hawaiian Hall are made of Acacia koa wood and needed to be retained. They are worth more than the original Bishop Museum buildings.

“Due to the conservation requirements of valuable historic objects, placing lighting fixtures inside display cases is usually not acceptable in museum environments,” said Luka Kito, project manager/lead designer for the Hawaiian Hall project for Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), New York. “One of the concerns is the heat buildup inside cases over a period of time. Typically, this is handled by either providing glass tops to display cases and illuminating case interiors from above, or by using a fiber optic lighting system. In Hawaiian Hall, neither of these solutions was desirable.”

To deal with the challenge, RAA worked with Kyle Chepulis of Technical Artistry, New York.

Chepulis came up with the idea of using LED MR 16s because of their dim light and other properties and of using low-voltage tracks designed for use with incandescent lights.

“[Museum staff] wanted to make sure any lamps used in such condition had closer range of color rendition. Solving that problem was a time-consuming process,” Kito said.

Their solution had to do with reliability.

“Some of the companies whose products we looked at were from overseas,” Chepulis said, “but we opted to go with a U.S. firm because they were able to offer the engineering and support we needed.”

In the end, three different types of light were used. Once installed, the whole set was dimmed down to meet the conservation standards for the items on display—normally about 50 Lux or 5 foot-candles.

Consultant Steve Weintraub of Art Preservation Services, New York,, a specialist in museum conservation and lighting, was concerned about color and placement.

He retrofitted the case interiors, and using Nichia 1 watt LEDs spaced 4 inches apart, manufactured light bars that were engineered for a short throw and with a specific beam spread. Then, he used a series of diffusing lenses to even out the light and shape it into an ellipse and chose an angle that kept all the light within the case.

No off-the-shelf product could have done that,” Weintraub said.

Those at the Bishop are pleased.

“The light is very appropriate for the preservation of our artifacts,” said Betty Kam, vice president for Cultural Collections, Bishop Museum. “The cases are all individually lit. The lighting doesn’t spread outside but if you step up to the case you can see the artifacts. We put a lot of energy towards preservation, especially of items like a feather sash, a feather cloak—symbols of status in the Hawaiian culture and examples of the level of skill and artistry of the people who created them. It’s the largest museum in Hawaii and one of the most important as far as Pacific material. It was established with the possessions of a few Hawaiian royalty and we want to make sure these things are preserved for the next generation.” —SMC

HH also was limited in that the workers could only drill 1-inch holes in certain areas of the floor joists. And because of the limited space and hole size, HH wasn’t able to use -inch flex cable, which would have allowed for more wires; the workers had to run the smaller MC cables.

“We were so limited with space,” Uyeda said. “Our problem was getting from the control point to the location of each light fixture. We barely had room to move. There were areas where we had to crawl.”

I did some of the crawling,” Uyeda said, who is 5 feet 5 inches tall, 160 lbs. “And one of my apprentices, who is skinnier, did the rest.”

Running conduit also was complicated by the fact that HH’s crew had to use a 3-foot drill bit to get through the 18–to–24inch solid rock dividing walls between other galleries in the complex to reach to all the places where electrical power was needed.

“It took some time in getting from one point to another,” Uyeda said.

And in order to install two floor boxes for the electrical power and audio/video (A/V), HH had to hire a subcontractor to form two 4-by-6-foot holes for the directional drilling machine (trenchless), not in dirt but in solid rock ground. One hole had to be formed in the courtyard outside Hawaiian Hall and the other in the display area in the center of Hawaiian Hall. The distance between the two spots—the distance needed to run the power and A/V conduit—was approximately 35 feet. The company hired another subcontractor to do the drilling between those two spots.

Another aspect of the renovation involved installation of A/V for high-tech, interactive multimedia displays, showing images of Hawaiian culture.

“One of the challenges for HH was that our audiovisual room is outside of Hawaiian Hall, though still in the historic gallery building complex,” Kemble said, “so HH had to run [Category] 5 cabling and the electricity feeds up to the attic and across and down to those corner columns and then through the trough that we put in on the mezzanine level on the two floors and under the floor joists. There weren’t any open chases anywhere because they weren’t part of the original building. HH Electric was very good in helping us figure out how to make the linkages we wanted when there wasn’t any obvious route. We enjoyed working with them because, instead of saying it can’t be done, they looked for ways to make it happen. It took creativity. They had to think outside the box to achieve our goals.”

HH Electric also had to deal with a string of change orders. Some potential grants for the project required that contracts be awarded within a certain time frame.

“That meant that a lot of the requirements were not resolved when we got the electrical contractor involved,” Fullmer said, “so HH had to deal with a lot of changes as the exhibit design progressed. It was like, ‘We’re going to need power to this window case now where we didn’t need it before. Or we’re going to need a data line over there or add more light fixtures to illuminate additional hanging displays. The exhibits were only in the concept stage of design when we had to go to bid, plus a new story line rooted in Hawaiian culture was created to tie the artifacts together in a clear narrative, and that called for things to be changed,” Fullmer said. “They had to deal with a constant changing target, so it was a very difficult project from the electrical contractor’s side.”

Renovation of the hall also involved installation of an elevator to meet current accessibility requirements.

“We had to get into the wall of the elevator shaft, and it was a little tricky because we had to be in certain areas of the shaft and the wall,” Uyeda said. “The wall of the elevator shaft was four columns. We had to go in the 8-by-8-inch steel columns that were installed by Constructors Hawaii. We had to take everything—EMT, flex, wires—and fish it up the columns and cut the steel column at points where each conduit needed to be routed to provide power for different applications on the way to the third floor where the control panel was located,” he said.

HH Electric also worked on bringing power to the new air conditioning system which was installed by Oahu Air of Honolulu. Since the building had an existing fire alarm system, HH Electric removed the old system before the company installed a new system, one by Notifier, which it rewired because there wasn’t any plenum cable.

“It was a challenge,” Uyeda said, “because we had to tie the new fire alarm into the fire alarm main control panel, which was not in Hawaiian Hall itself but in Polynesian Hall, the building next to it.”

While standard track and architectural lighting was used to light most of the gallery, Altman and Source Four theatrical lighting, fitted with 150 watt metal halide lamps, was used for the was used for the hanging objects in the hall’s center.

Since there weren’t enough lighting ports in the ceiling to meet all the needs, lights were installed in the skylight. HH worked in the attic, and reached into the skylight to install eight 8-foot T8 fluorescents that will provide light at night. In addition, a catwalk was constructed above the skylight to enable hanging additional lights.

“We opened up the skylight, bounced the light and put in a shield for UV so that a soft light comes in through the skylight now,” Kemble said.

The effect is what the museum was hoping for.

“When you’re outside and it’s bright and the clouds go over, it becomes just a little bit darker,” said Betty Kam, vice president for Cultural Collections, Bishop Museum, “and that’s what happens now in Hawaiian Hall. You can feel the day.”

The August 2009 reopening of Hawaiian Hall was the occasion for many cultural ceremonies and celebrations.

“Until we attended all the celebrations and ceremonies that were staged for the opening, we didn’t realize what a big event the completion of the renovation would be,” said Jody Hanamoto, HH Electric’s vice president. “We’re a smaller company, and it’s one of the larger jobs we’ve gotten. It was a big deal.”

CASEY, author of “Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors” and “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World,” can be reached at [email protected] and

About The Author

CASEY, author of “Women Heroes of the American Revolution,” “Kids Inventing!” and “Women Invent!” can be reached at [email protected] and





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