Movie Magic: Dynalectric Electrifies the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Dynalectric provided the electrical for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
Jill Mazur/Shutterstock/Cherkas

Hollywood, Calif., is the original movie-­making mecca. Sunshine-filled days established it as a place to make films year-round. What better setting to build a museum celebrating the industry? It didn’t happen fast, but it will be worth the wait.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is nearing completion in the landmark Streamline Moderne building that once housed a May Co. department store. The six-story building—instantly recognized by its iconic gold-tiled, cylindrical-shaped corner—is near the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA), George C. Page Museum, the La Brea Tar Pits and the Petersen Automotive Museum. The 1939 building is a keystone feature in an area once populated with theaters that hosted dazzling movie premieres during the golden age of Hollywood.

The Streamline Moderne former department store is an L.A. landmark.
The Streamline Moderne former department store is an L.A. landmark.

In 1994, LACMA acquired the building and converted the 300,000 square feet into exhibition space. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is a few blocks away, acquired the building through a $50 million gift from Cheryl and Haim Saban. Renamed the Saban Building, it will feature exhibitions and programs on the history of the film industry and display artifacts ranging from Judy Garland’s “Wizard of Oz” ruby slippers to the “Jaws” shark mold to the Aries 1B spaceship model from “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its vast collection.

Construction began by demolishing a 1949 addition behind the original store. This was required to make way for a piazza and the Sphere, a circular building constructed of 13,000 tons of concrete, which will be home to the state-of-the-art, 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater. It is topped by the Dolby Family Terrace, a rooftop event space with 360-degree views of the city, the Hollywood Hills and the famed “Hollywood” sign.

In the Geffen Theater, wiring is concealed behind insulation and fabric panels.
In the Geffen Theater, wiring is concealed behind insulation and fabric panels.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano—known for the Centre Pompidou in Paris and London’s Shard—worked on the project with Renzo Piano Building Workshop and global design and architecture firm Gensler as the executive architect.

Dynalectric Los Angeles­—a commercial electrical contractor and a subsidiary of EMCOR Group that provides electrical services and process control systems—worked on multiple contracts in the conversion of the building. Company electricians started during the demolition phase, creating a utility power yard to feed new structures. The third-phase buildout didn’t have complete design documents, and Dynalectric was brought in to work through design issues.

To say that the electrical contractor’s work on the Academy Museum was complicated and included unusual challenges is an understatement. Problems included fall dangers, possible methane gas exposure and the ever-present earthquake threat in Los Angeles.

Earthquake preparedness was a strong consideration in the design of the Sphere, which is seismically isolated and supported by rectangular concrete blocks with rubber isolators above, which allow the building to sway 24 inches. The crew used flexible electrical conduit that could pivot in case of an earthquake.

The accordion gasket helps dampen earthquake movement.
The accordion gasket helps dampen earthquake movement.

“[It] was designed for movement,” said Ernie Caro, project superintendent for Dynalectric Los Angeles.

In between the supportive blocks are cylindrical pillars that appear to support the Sphere, but they are actually a path for electrical and mechanical infrastructure to extend through a hole in the floor to the mechanical room below. Decomposed granite at the base of the pillars appears to be natural flooring but simply conceals the holes.

“We were brought in early, when the building was not fully designed, so we could work through issues with the design team,” Caro said. “The elevator of the Sphere is hung from the building [and] not attached from below, so the elevator can also move 24 inches in any direction in case of an earthquake. That was one of the big design challenges we had to go through because of the quantity of conduits and lines for plumbing and fire sprinklers.”

“We had to allow for both the horizontal and vertical components, too, so things had the ability to stretch vertically 1½ inches and move horizontally 7½ degrees. The fire sprinklers and pipe systems all had to have metraflex loops so that everything could move in any direction. It was one of the biggest obstacles. We had online go-to-meetings twice a week with all the other trades to view the design model on a common screen, using BIM,” he said.

Architect Piano favored an exposed infrastructure look for the project. Structural beams that top the open-air Dolby Family Terrace curve to form the roof structure inset with glass window panels, and the electrical conduits parallel the gradual curve of the structural steel.

“Some of the glass panels will open up and need to be automated, along with the roller-shade system, so we installed the conduit to feed 162 motors, along with 55 light fixtures,” Caro said. “Renzo Piano didn’t want any defined bend and didn’t want it to look like multiple small bends. We probably used 7,000 feet of conduit of multiple sizes, mostly 10 feet long, to feed from power boxes in the floor to all the motors that will open up the windows in the Sphere to the atmosphere and open and close roller shades, depending on the sunlight.”

The Sphere required 13,000 tons of concrete. It is home to the David Geffen Theater and the Dolby Family Terrace. Inset: Electrical conduits parallel the curve of the steel structure.

The Sphere required 13,000 tons of concrete. It is home to the David Geffen Theater and the Dolby Family Terrace. Electrical conduits parallel the curve of the steel structure.

Dynalectric modeled the conduits in BIM, and the crew referred to the models during installation.

“The ceiling was curved and [the crew] had to try to prevent conduit crossovers due to the limited depth of the space while avoiding the other trades’ installations. Our straight conduit had to run around the constant curve. For a radius of the needed degree, the crew had to gradually bend a lot of conduit using a hand bender along the whole length to give it an arch,” Caro said.

To bend the conduit, the crew employed a bender commonly used by muffler shops.

“It’s not really used in buildings, so it was trial-and-error effort to get the radius right. We prefabricated 10-foot lengths that have a fitting attached to them to make them longer as needed to parallel the curved path of the structural cable. Bending that conduit with a gradual radius to parallel the structural steel was a challenge,” Caro said.

“Every conduit comes out the side of the precast below either due east or west and transitions to the dome-curved structure while trying to make it look like it was part of the structure. The terrace also has floor boxes in the heated floor to provide power and teledata services to the space for events. The design is unique, and some of it surprised me. A sphere structure with predominantly radius walls is not something you encounter often in construction,” he said.

At times, the temperature in the confined, glass-enclosed space reached 120°F.

“Above the catwalks in the Geffen theater are the ribbon fabric panels and most of our electrical infrastructure is concealed above that,” Caro said.

“Once the wiring was installed, it was attached to drywall, concealed by black acoustic insulation, and then covered by red fabric panels. After those steps, going back in to make changes was not an option,” he said.

“To mitigate the heat-intense schedule, we created a day and a swing shift with no room for overtime, because it didn’t make sense to put someone through the intense heat for longer periods,” Caro said.

Safety was a major concern for Dynalectric’s crew, which peaked at 87 workers. The company spent a lot of time planning and reviewing the many unique tie-off conditions. Crews wore full body harnesses for most of the high work. For work on catwalks, Dynalectric implemented a hand-tool tether system to prevent any danger from items being dropped.

Adjacent to the new museum on the LACMA grounds are the La Brea Tar Pits, where natural tar has seeped up from the ground for 40,000 years.

The methane, which constantly bubbles to the surface of the tar lake, held up construction of a subway line on its periphery for many years. 

The L.A. Fire Dept. has had to deal with methane percolating up through sidewalks in the area and catching fire. As a result, the city installed collection tanks to drain the tar and devices to alleviate the methane danger.

The La Brea Tar Pits is down the street from the new museum. Special care was required to prevent methane gas, which bubbles to the surface of the tar, from entering the building during construction.

The La Brea Tar Pits is down the street from the new museum. Special care was required to prevent methane gas, which bubbles to the surface of the tar, from entering the building during construction.

“When we excavated for the Ted Mann Theater and the Geffen Theater foundations, we ran into soil contaminated with oil and water sludge,” Caro said. “Part of our work was to seal off conduits to keep methane from coming into them and going into the building through them.”

Dynalectric’s crew pulled the cables through special fittings and then put a compound around the conduits, which sealed off any harmful gases. 

As part of the safety requirements, the job site had to be ventilated and monitored for methane levels. Large fans continually exhausted the air from the lower levels, and sniffers were used multiple times a day. All the trench excavations also required the use of a sniffer prior to entering.

“It was difficult and time-consuming,” Caro said. “After wire was pulled, we had to make sure that everything was good before sealing it, since sealing compound is not easily removed.”

Following multiple delays due to the project’s intricacy, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is scheduled to open this year, providing a comprehensive look  at Hollywood’s movie glamour and glitz with the museum’s stunning design and a treasure trove of cinema memorabilia and unique exhibits. 

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