An All-Star Cast

Staff Electric joins team that fulfills artistic vision:

In 1928, the Capitol Theatre opened in Madison, Wisconsin; with Spanish décor, the theater seated 2,500 people and hosted stars such as Maurice Chevalier, Mae West and Al Jolson. As vaudeville waned and television and movie complexes multiplied, the theater declined. The area underwent renovation in the 1970s, adding the Isthmus Playhouse, the Madison Art Museum, and the Madison Civic Center.

It wasn’t until 1998, however, that local businessman W. Jerome Frautschi established the Overture Foundation to develop a cultural arts district for downtown Madison and solve the space needs of the city’s major arts organizations. By the time construction began in 2001, Frautschi had donated $205 million to build a state-of-the-art facility that includes a new 577,000-square-foot Overture Hall for the Performing Arts, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the renovated Capitol Theatre.

With the lofty goals of preserving these historic structures and integrating them with the new Overture Hall, choosing an architect was not difficult. Cesar Pelli is an international architectural star who has designed a host of magnificent buildings, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lampur, the second-tallest buildings in the world. The foundation chose Madison-based JH Findorff & Son, Inc., which was established in 1890 and has an extensive portfolio to its credit, to be the project’s general contractor.

In 2000, JH Findorff invited Staff Electric Co., Inc., Madison, to provide the $20 million project’s electrical and low-voltage systems. The company was preselected by the general contractor based on the two companies’ existing relationship and Staff’s design-assist experience and budgeting capabilities.

“We’ve worked with Findorff for more than 30 years on large new construction and renovation projects in the commercial, institutional, governmental and healthcare markets,” said Michael Lochmann, Staff’s president. Staff has also worked on a long-term basis with other members of the team, including the local architects Potter Lawson, Inc. and Flad & Associates, the engineering consultant, Affiliated Engineers, Inc., the mechanical contractor, General Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., and the plumbing and fire protection contractor, Hooper Corp.

“Everyone worked as a team from the project’s initial conception, through budgeting, design development, the construction document phases and the project’s completion,” said Tim Richards, Staff’s executive vice president and senior project manager.

An ambitious design The Overture Hall was a case study in design-assist construction, according to Tim Morgan, vice president and Staff’s Madison branch manager. The process began with budgeting a year before the project broke ground. Since the original drawings only demonstrated the scope of the concept, but had no architectural detail or design, Staff worked closely with Guy Wilson, project electrical engineer for Affiliated Engineers, on a daily basis to develop the construction drawings and bridge the gap between the conceptual design and the construction methods and materials that would be used at the site.

“The architectural and engineering team defined the size of the spaces, how the building would appear and what the special elements would be,” Richards said. Since the construction schedule dictated that the hall’s electrical infrastructure would be incorporated into the building just prior to the completion of the design drawings, the phrase “just-in-time-design” was coined by the team to describe the process. Once the scope of the building and its elements were defined, Staff continued to work with the team to determine the types of equipment and systems needed and value-engineered the design for the most cost-effective electrical products and systems that would fulfill the owner’s vision. Equipment and lighting manufacturers also worked with Staff to ensure that the custom equipment and lighting would perform properly, meet the conceptual requirements and fit into the designed spaces.

“Acoustics, theatrical lighting and eliminating vibrations were major influences in the design,” Richards said.

The project was scheduled to be completed April 2006, and Staff Electric met its deadline with a peak crew of 66 and an average crew of 30, which worked a total of 228,000 man-hours. The company was responsible for installing the power distribution and backup power systems, the lighting and lighting control systems, and the security and fire alarm systems.

Power was brought into the hall from the utility transformer located in the basement vault to two 3,000-amp switchboards. From there, power was carried to 38 distribution switchboards and then distributed to 140 panelboards. Electricians then ran electrical wiring to the numerous receptacles, outlets, motors, equipment, switches and general and theatrical illumination fixtures. In addition, a 750 kW generator was installed in the basement and connected to the switchboards through three automatic transfer switches (ATSs). “The emergency backup system is programmed to bypass dimmer circuits and fully illuminate the facility in case of a power outage,” said Keith Watts, assistant project manager.

The hall’s security system consists of door controls for entrances and exits, 21 monitors installed in the main security control room so staff can view activity though strategically located CCTV security cameras, and approximately 20 card readers installed at entrances to control access to the building during off-hours and to limit access to non-public places to authorized personnel only. Security devices were wired with twisted pair cable and terminated at the main security and fire command center.

More intense is the building’s fire alarm system, with 750 alarm and initiating devices, including strobes, speaker strobes, voice evacuation system, heat and smoke detectors, beam detectors for detecting smoke in the 80-ft.-high rotunda, duct detectors and fire shutters, and tamper and flow switches. The devices were wired with Mapnet cable and terminated at multiple transponder panels installed throughout the building.

“The transponder panels were then integrated so that they can communicate with each other and are joined at the main fire alarm control panel to provide both localized and overall control,” said Steve Dulin, superintendent.

However, the general illumination and theatrical lighting system is what really shines. Staff installed 7,000 fixtures ranging from LEDs, incandescent tube lighting and side-emitting fiber optics, to decorative wall sconces, chandeliers and fluorescent and incandescent lighting for offices and back-of-house spaces.

“The 500 LED lights in the rotunda are capable of setting 225 scenes in more than 1 million colors,” Richards said. A total of six dimming systems control most of the lighting through a computer program and light levels are controlled through the use of laptop computers. “All the dimming racks are integrated with each other, communicate over the Ethernet and react to each other’s program commands, allowing personnel to control each dimming system separately or as a single unit,” he added.

Up to the challenge “Every aspect of this project, from space considerations to isolating sound and vibration, was a challenge,” Morgan said. The hundreds of conduits that run from the more than 2,000 architectural dimmers located in small closets at intermediate levels of the 130-ft.-high performance hall had to be hidden from view and isolated both acoustically and from any vibration. “The 700 conduits were separated into large groups of as many as 300 conduits, which were all run behind the ceilings and under the floors,” he said. Flexible conduit and caulking were used to ensure that the conduit would not vibrate during performances and distract the audience.

Another intriguing challenge was incorporating the many types of specialty lighting into the design. For example, the ceiling, walls and other surfaces in the performance hall are rounded, requiring Staff Electric to design general illumination fixtures that could be installed regardless of the degree of slope to the surface. “Working closely with the lighting manufacturer allowed us to design a sort of ‘one-type-fits-all’ fixture that incorporated the Italian glass diffuser chosen by the Foundation,” Richards said.

But the biggest challenge, according to Morgan, was that the electrical design would often be completed after the rough-in stage, requiring it to accommodate a variety of final possibilities. “Considerable planning was necessary during the rough-in to ensure that any final design that might follow could be successfully installed.”

In the end, the team met all of the project deadlines without the need for overtime and with complex systems that worked perfectly the first time. “Each team member had the work force, expertise and experience necessary to achieve all of the project’s deadlines and goals,” Lochmann said, demonstrating how developing proper skills and fostering high levels of cooperation and respect contributes to effective coordination and successful project completion.     EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or by e-mail at






About the Author

Darlene Bremer

Freelance Writer
Darlene Bremer, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributed frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR until the end of 2015.

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