Almost Heaven: M&L Electric Wires Charleston Coliseum

Shutterstock/ Berad
Shutterstock/ Berade

It was the West Virginia scenery that pulled at John Denver’s heartstrings as he wrote the song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Those vistas also inspired the artful, two-and-a-half year, $107 million renovation of the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center.

“The architecture of the building was to be a representation of the West Virginia landscapes,” said Mark Nary, project manager, M&L Electric Co., Elkville, W.Va. “We’re a mountainous state. A lot of the design was to be built around that. The land is rugged, heavily forested, ranging from hilly to mountainous.”

That reality presented challenges for the design team formed by BBL Carlton of Charleston, W.Va., and including ZMM Architects and Engineers, tvsDesign and CMKling + Associates.

“When a city the size of Charleston is going to make an investment of this scale into the coliseum and convention center, it was critical that the design was inspired by the history of Charleston, the Kanawha Valley, and the state of West Virginia,” said Adam Krason, architect and principal of ZMM Architects and Engineers, Charleston, W.Va. “We tried to look back historically and then to unique elements about the state to help inform the aesthetics of the building.”

To achieve this, the team used metal panels of slightly different color shades in a regular pattern on the exterior in varied planes and angles, accented by color-changing LEDs. Their intent was to reflect, or interpret, the cut rock faces visible on the roads connecting their communities and carved through the mountains.

“We pulled that all the way to the inside of the building, where a similar design solution was developed utilizing metal studs, drywall, and lighting,” Krason said.

The team began with a 1959-era complex that sits on the Elk River, yet offers no views of it.

“There was this old facility in a rapidly changing marketplace and to be successful we had to rethink the overall business model,” said Robert Svedberg, the principal architect in charge of the project at tvsDesign, which has offices in Atlanta and Shanghai.

“There were two components to the project: the arena and the convention center. Our first step was to address the arena circulation. The second step was to re-envision the convention center by adding a ballroom, meeting rooms and a prefunction area facing the Elk River to create a very dramatic setting for events,” he said. “Because it was a 50-year-old building, none of the infrastructure of the building made it easy to accomplish.”

One of the first things that had to be done to allow for the expansion was relocating the central plant and central utility.

“The industry has changed so dramatically since that building was developed that we had to replace all the main electrical equipment before any construction could be done,” Svedberg said.

Rick Lee/ Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center
Rick Lee/ Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center

The amount of power needed to run and use the building had changed dramatically, as well.

“The things being exhibited required significant upgrading of capacity from what was originally there. The overall customer experience, including both the type and quality of the lighting and the interior environment, needed to be transformed from an institutional facility to more of a hospitality facility,” Svedberg said.

“Introducing new all LED lighting with a centralized lighting controls system was key to the upgrade, bringing the facility up to modern standards,” said the project’s lighting designer, David Ghatan, CMKling + Associates, Alexandria, Va.

M&L Electric was tasked with the modernization.

“It was a large—for this area—three-year design-build project,” said M&L Electric’s Nary. “Planning the building was a step-by-step process.“ The group went room by room to develop a design for each space that was practical for its intended use, stayed within the design focus, had some wow factor and looked like more than just regular office space.

“The obstacle that we faced in relocating the central plant and central utility location was in trying to temporarily power large parts of the power system while installing the new,” Nary said. “We had several shutdowns to switch from the old power grid to the new.”

Nary explained the effort could not be done from front to back. Partnering with Graybar Electrical Supply and Square D, the group completed the project piecemeal.

“We could start at the far left, get 200 feet in and then we had to stop and go to the far right and go in 200 feet, stop, and finish the middle later,” Nary said.

“If we had a room that was 600 feet wide—but I’m talking hundreds and hundreds of feet wide on the river—you might have systems that have to tie back 300 feet,” Nary said. “We had to temporary that and keep it up and running while they were using it until they released the other phase. That was one of the things we were up against when we were doing the lighting control system—temporary wiring—because we couldn’t get to the part to connect it to the two areas of the building for months, not until that part of the building opened up and we could finish the piping and wiring to tie it in. The impact of that phasing was lessened due to the great coordination between BBL and all the subcontractors who worked well together,” Nary said.

Rick Lee/ Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center
Rick Lee/ Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center

In addition to replacing the electrical equipment and handling all the lighting and power, M&L Electric installed all the AV systems, the IP systems and worked on the Wi-Fi with Advantage Technology of Charleston, a supplier and adviser that provided the wiring and helped with the design. M&L Electric’s work also involved renovation of the interior lobby and interior office area, demolition of the kitchen breakout rooms, an addition of new meeting rooms and a remodel of the meeting spaces.

“We worked with a crew of 17 at the peak,” Nary said.

The project was also dramatically affected by the ongoing schedule of theatrical performances, concerts, art exhibits, banquets and sports events at the venue, which wasn’t interrupted for the construction.

“Basically, if we had a road closed or the side of a building closed down and we thought it was going to take three or four days to do that work, then something happened to hold us up as we got close to our deadline, we had to get the job done anyway, since, for example, 16 buses filled with people would be arriving for a concert,” Nary said.

And the availability of any area could change with a phone call. “We would be working and be notified that the president would be coming in two or three days,” Nary said. “When that happened, the areas where we’d been working for weeks would be cordoned off, and we’d have to get out and work in another part of the building until he left. By the end, it was a great learning experience about how to keep the facility up and running while we were still doing construction work. But it was just very, very hard working around the schedule. But we did it. And it turned out to be a beautiful building.”

It is a handsome building, distinguish by modern, 14-foot column luminaires that feature an LED light in a 50-inch-high white acrylic cylinder with a base of matte silver corrosion-resistant aluminum alloy now line the way to the entrance of the new convention center to create a uniform illumination.

Jagged lines of color-changing LEDs that echo the state’s mountain peaks installed on exterior walls shine nightly and are hidden by day.

Rick Lee/ Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center
Rick Lee/ Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center

“Introducing color-changing into the building fabric allows the facility to be customized to the user or group renting the space, while also theming to sporting, holidays and community engagement, such as breast cancer awareness,” Ghatan said. “The key was to introduce a sustainable system that could integrate with the facility for easy maintenance and future functionality.”

Since the complex now faces the water, guests can arrive by boat. Exterior, energy-efficient LED ceiling fixtures installed along an overhang precisely provide light for the pathways and dock to guarantee a safe environment.

“Now the lighting doesn’t overpower or underpower the space,” said lighting company representative Robert S. Kimball, president of Robert S. Kimball Associates.

The complex is functional and stunning.

“Those beautiful lights shine in in the evening, representing what’s best about West Virginia, which is our landscape, the outdoors, the mountains and the people who are just amazing, good, hard-working people,” Nary said. “We now have a great big building where people can gather and the more people you can get together, the better it is because they’re all great people.”

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