How to Execute a Flawless Live Event

Pentegra was fortunate to partner with Catalyst Schools to plan and provide an audio and video solution for their newly remodeled auditorium. The beautiful space was perfect for in-person performances and presentations until the disruptions of 2020 caused many cancellations. Determined to move forward with the timely hosting of The Symposium on Racial Reconciliation, Catalyst again reached out to Pentegra to transform an on-site presentation into a virtual live event. Many organizations across the country are faced with the same challenges – the desire to share important experiences but lacking the knowledge to successfully execute a live presentation on a virtual platform. A good audio-visual partner will be able to tackle the technical challenges. An exceptional partner looks beyond the technology to help transform a traditional event into a vivid and memorable experience. Here is how your virtual event can be as successful as Catalyst’s was.

Step 1: Focus on the Event’s PurposeLive Event Presentation

While proper lighting and sound quality are essential for a live event, the primary focus should be on the purpose of the event. Why is your organization hosting the event? Who are you trying to reach and what do you hope that your audience learns by participating? What needs to be shared, and in what formats, to deliver the message? Answering these key questions will drive the discussions on the technology needed to achieve the goals.

Step 2: Plan, Prepare, and Rehearse

An event that flows flawlessly does not happen by accident. To pull off a show-stopping event, your organization must:

Plan

• Identify the size and location of the event
• Identify presenters and determine if they will be on-location or joining virtually
• Confirm the types of presentation content that will be included, and their sources
• Determine which platform, such as Facebook Live, to use for your remote audience
• Decide if the event will be available to view after the live streaming

Prepare

• Ensure cameras, lighting, and microphone needs are addressed for all presenters to ensure an optimal visual and auditory experience for your audience
• Develop a presentation agenda and a detailed timeline for the stage management team to ensure the transition from one presenter to the next is seamless
• Determine logistical details for on-location presenters and select the remote video conferencing solution for remote presenters
• Blend different presentation components such as slides, videos, and audio into one cohesive presentation. Identify who will run the presentation during the event
• Check camera shots and white balance for optimal online viewing
• Check and verify that the host/facilitator’s online connection is more than adequate and stable
• Create filler content to have as needed if a presenter loses connectivity, or gets through their content ahead of schedule
• Ensure the live streaming platform can record the event for future use

Rehearse

• Perform a dry run with your video conferencing and live streaming platforms to ensure both connect smoothly
• Check to be sure that videos play without lag
• Play through audio cues to ensure presenters know when to start and stop
• Remind presenters of the importance of silencing background noise to reduce interruptions
• Practice using the tools available with the online platform, such as muting participants, polls, and recording
• If you can, simulate potential issues so you practice how to resolve them quickly

No event takes place without a hitch but being prepared and planning for issues in advance will allow your team to quickly mitigate issues to maintain an event that flows seamlessly for your audience. And when in doubt, be prepared to troubleshoot on the fly.

Step 3: Advance Troubleshooting

While some issues may arise that you may not have had the foresight to plan for, some common problems can be avoided with a bit of advance troubleshooting.

• One day before the event, test network speeds at various times throughout the day to ensure adequate bandwidth
• Before the event starts, replace and test microphone batteries to ensure every mic is functioning at peak levels
• Have teammates log in to a test environment.
• Avoid interference on microphones by making sure you are on the clearest frequency possible
• Check sound levels before going live to make sure the virtual audience will not have to strain to hear valuable content

In today’s remote environment, connecting with audiences can be more challenging than we’ve all become accustomed to. Hosting a live-streamed event does not have to be daunting; planning and practice are key. Finding a valuable partner to help create a well thought out plan can make all the difference in creating an engaging, memorable experience that fills the void created by the decrease in face-to-face communication.

If you have a live event on the horizon and need assistance, contact our team now.

By Tyler Kurland, Sales Engineer

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How AV Teams Can Benefit From Fewer People Being In The Office Right Now

Use this time wisely.

During this time when all are concerned about keeping our families and colleagues safe , the current situation creates an unexpected opportunity. With many teams working remotely, it is much easier to complete onsite tasks that are ordinarily difficult to schedule.

For organizations that in normal times use conference rooms, collaborative meeting spaces, or large-scale visualization systems all day, every day, now is the ideal time to consider upgrades and reconfiguration of both software and hardware assets. It’s also a time to consider training and troubleshooting so that when people return to the office, everyone will be immediately productive.

Here are three recommended activities to consider pursuing during this imposed down-time.

1.     Standardization

audio visual systems in a training room

Some companies are using the break in everyday onsite activities to standardize their AV set-ups and simplify the systems used. Over time, it is easy to add AV equipment piecemeal and end up with an odd mixture of configurations and equipment. Whether it is speaker phones, projectors, or fully integrated videoconferencing systems, standardizing makes teams more efficient when it comes to use and maintenance.

It means that employees know what to expect when they are setting up for a meeting, and when maintenance is required, it can be efficiently performed across all systems. Standardization eliminates last minute surprises and nerve-wracking situations when a meeting is about to start, and the equipment is unfamiliar.

A major energy company is using the time during the pandemic to standardize its AV equipment and set Zoom as its regular videoconferencing application. It is standardizing video conferencing equipment so that each room is consistent with the others. While the equipment is less frequently used, the company is also using the time to create documentation and training materials to help first time or infrequent users with starting Zoom calls or accessing projectors and displays.

2.     Upgrades

For organizations with advanced AV systems or visualization laboratories, now is a great time to refresh and upgrade equipment. In ordinary times it can be very disruptive for installers to get access to video walls and control centers that are critical to designers, researchers and managers. So now is a unique opportunity and a good time to review the status of AV system components including displays, projectors, speaker and microphone systems, controllers, motion trackers and more.

A university had an upgrade scheduled before the pandemic began, but having the facility shut down gave the integrator two months straight without interruption to get the job done right. The team ran into some unexpected challenges, which would have caused difficulty in normal times when scheduled events could have been impacted.

Displays

Older LCD Panel Arrays and rear projection cube wall displays are typically being upgraded with Direct View LEDs. LEDs improve brightness, color accuracy, and provide continuous, seamless imagery. They have a very shallow profile that enables a broad range of mounting options and they are ideal for areas with significant ambient light because of their brightness and their less reflective surface.

For organizations considering total cost of ownership, LED displays are robust, reliable, and their long lifespan contributes to better value. It is a good time to consider upgrading to LED display systems while rooms are in disuse and now, because they are becoming more widely adopted, cost for high-end Direct View LEDs is coming down.

Projectors

Projector technology also continues to advance with more lumens, higher resolutions, and faster frame rates. Now is a good time to evaluate current projector performance and consider how an upgrade might enable more dramatic presentations and better decision making. For immersive display systems, the latest projectors are fast enough to enable multiple tracked viewpoints within a virtual environment.

3.     Preventive Maintenance

For companies that don’t have dedicated AV support, sometimes conference rooms and visualization spaces are left alone for long periods of time without any regular maintenance. It’s a good time for fine tuning things like color balancing and alignment. With fewer people working onsite, less busy IT teams can run AV equipment through its paces and troubleshoot issues before they disrupt business as employees return to the office. The functionality verification process reveals if there are faults or problems and they can be resolved while the rooms are not in demand so that when teams return to the office AV systems are at their best and downtime is reduced.

Organizations that move forward with standardization, upgrades, or preventive maintenance projects during slowdowns or shutdowns will reap the benefits when collaborative spaces are once again in demand.. Having the latest equipment tested and up and running will improve productivity and bring long term value to the organizations that have the insight to use this time wisely.

If your AV equipment needs a checkup or the AV system could use an upgrade, contact our team now.

 

 

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Measuring the Value of Technology-enabled Meeting Rooms  

In a previous post, we talked about the questions and considerations to help effectively plan meeting rooms that enable collaboration.  Goals and expectations for room and technology utilization should be considered before planning begins. Knowing what success will look like is imperative. Establishing how you will monitor and measure that success is equally as important, especially as investment may be required to configure new rooms for back to work and hybrid scenarios. Progress reporting on metrics allows for any necessary alterations or improvements after implementation.

Meeting room with multiple people and display with results data

Establish Metrics When Planning

Metrics should be established based on what is meaningful to the organization, along with knowing how the organization assesses return on investment. A few examples include:

  • Correlating the number and frequency of meetings to the results generated
  • Availability and up-time of technology, as meeting delays can be costly
  • Utilization rate of meeting rooms, because space is valuable once metrics are decided, the next step is to set benchmarks for each. You might have to look at past projects to set some starting figures.  Then, begin monitoring.  It’s best to be proactive in gathering results rather than waiting for anecdotal feedback. This being said, anecdotal feedback can be very helpful because it often provides insight into intangible value that can’t be measured.

Some tangible measures that can be tracked to determine whether or not collaboration spaces are adding value include:

The number and frequency of meetings

  • What is the room utilization rate?
  • How many meetings take place in each meeting room?
  • Are users favoring particular rooms that have specific technology?
  • If you implement new meeting room technology, does the utilization of these spaces increase?
  • If you have some meeting rooms without technology, has their use declined dramatically?

For real-time statistics, room scheduling systems can track activity and frequency based on user IDs.  If you don’t have scheduling technology, setting up an online booking system or a simple survey may reveal new meeting patterns. Space utilization is an important metric because empty rooms don’t add value.

Development efficiencies

  • How long did it take to complete a project or get a new product to market in the past?
    • If employees start using collaborative spaces and technology, are projects being completed more rapidly?
  • Have some development costs or rework costs been avoided because more cross-department collaboration is catching possible issues sooner?

Reduction in development time can be measured in part by the salaries of those involved and the time spent on the project.  

Reduction in the number of iterations and tests

  • How many prototypes are required to get to a final result?
  • How much money is being spent on testing, trials, or external evaluations?

This metric focuses on the hard costs of these activities. If better collaboration can speed development through less iteration, there are real savings to be realized on prototypes or other testing.  This is hopefully a straightforward calculation of savings.

User satisfaction

Many consider satisfaction to be an intangible measure.  However, there are many ways to administer regular surveys that can include satisfaction scales and comment boxes.

  • What are users saying about the functionality of the meeting rooms?
  • Are user voicing complaints or sharing accolades, and is one or the other increasing?
  • Similar to the usage questions, why are rooms being booked or avoided?

Technology and spaces that are easy to use, designed to the task, and are comfortable will generate positive results. Consider surveys that ask about and grade user acceptance ease of use and overall satisfaction.  Ask for recommendations for improvement and accomplishments resulting from collaborative discussions.

Measure Then Improve

Monitor results regularly, especially user feedback, so improvements can be made. It’s also good to map data trends over time to demonstrate the impact meeting spaces have. Even if you started with uncertain benchmarks, looking at the results on a rolling basis will establish firmer ground over time. Consider space utilization as an example. If your rooms were in use 50% of their available time, you might want to set 75% as a goal. If after three months the average utilization only grows to 60%, questions can be asked. You may discover there wasn’t enough training to make users confident, or there are missing features/capabilities that caused users not to return as frequently, or at all.

At the end, when meeting rooms facilitate collaboration sessions that become part of an organization’s culture, there should be noticeable and measurable productivity gains. The important thing is the up-front work to consider what metrics will be measured and gathered. If you are planning new meeting spaces, establishing success factors should be done first to inform how those spaces should be designed to help achieve desired goals. To some, this may sound a bit circular, or “chicken-and-egg.”  If skepticism exists, try the approach on some pilot rooms before making a major investment.  Realizing positive results fuels future improvements.

 

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Planning Technology-Enabled Collaboration Rooms

Collaboration is, essentially, a group of people coming together to get the most from their combined analytical and creative energies. Time and again collaboration proves to be one of the most significant ways to solve business challenges.  Today, the meetings themselves can be a challenge given the increase in remote workers and changes necessary for others returning to offices.  The balance of live and remote engagement must be considered even more. Meeting and collaborationroom with projection and flat panel and seating in a large U shape

Often collaboration occurs in teams within individual departments during design reviews, production analysis, and planning, or presentation planning. When collaboration involves two or more departments, the value realized can increase exponentially. Diverse teams can bring very diverse types of content that need to be effectively shared. For example, sharing CAD design concepts between engineering and manufacturing teams can optimize a product for smooth production and after-sale service. Reviewing end-to-end workflows in large spreadsheets or visual diagrams provides insight on the impact one group’s work has on another’s. Cross-functional collaboration such as this not only improves workflow and time and cost savings, it also boosts satisfaction of engaged participants.

Designing Collaborative Spaces for Users’ Workflow

Enabling effective collaboration requires an investment in meeting spaces and technology appropriate to the tasks. Given the shift to remote workforces, more meetings require technology to facilitate discussion.  Most organizations are overwhelmed with digital communications, data, and images. The use of printed handouts or huddling around one computer never was ideal for a collaborative environment, and they are definitely not effective tools now that so many people are working remotely or even separated in meeting spaces. Connecting remote teammates is especially difficult without thoughtfully designed distance collaboration tools, including both hardware and software.

As many people do return to work, there needs to be an effective balance with in-office and remote meetings. Ultimately, the displays and collaboration tools in the room should suit the user content and objectives. The type or number of large-screen displays in a meeting room is only one of many technology decisions to be made. Audio, connectivity, software, and other tools are key to enabling productive sessions and remote connections. A review of sample use cases, workflows, and user profiles could lead to the standardization of room designs based on recurring work, teams, and their data requirements.

Define Success Up Front

Start your planning with the end in mind to guide design. How will you know the investment in collaboration technology was successful? Will you be measuring space utilization rates? Are you trying to increase the number of cross-functional meetings? Do you need to support a growing, globally dispersed workforce? Do you want more engaged users who are building a culture of collaboration?  How to measure success is a topic unto itself, but knowing what success looks like will guide space design and technology choices.

Questions and Considerations in Design:

With so many component options and platforms available, ensuring seamless integration of all equipment is critical. Involve an AV design specialist as early in the process as possible. This is especially important with new construction to ensure the interplay of space, sound, visuals, and structure is considered up front to avoid costly rework later. An experienced designer should be asking questions such as:

  • Are you planning spaces for new construction or renovating an existing space?
    • If existing, does the layout or structure create any limitations for running network cables necessary or added electrical connections?
    • If new construction of multiple spaces, is there an opportunity to standardize room sizes and technology based upon the work being conducted in them?
  • Is user content mostly spreadsheets, documents, and PowerPoint slides, or is it more complex 2D/3D data and photo-realistic rendering?
    • If the content is complex, at what scale should it be viewed to enable effective review and reduce time-to-insight?
  • How many different user applications/software packages must be open at one time?
  • Will users want to share content from their devices? If so, will the sources be a mix of laptops and hand-held devices?
  • What codec (Cisco, Polycom etc) is in place or required for remote participants?
  • Will there need to be a primary presenter and podium in the space?
  • How is the seating arranged as this will affect microphone placements.
  • How many and what types of audio sources will be in the space?
  • Will multi-point remote collaboration be necessary and, if so, between how many locations?
  • What network bandwidth is available for sharing complex data remotely?
  • What interaction capabilities do remote participants expect?
  • What level of security is required?
  • What technical support plan is necessary to ensure systems are maintained and available to expectations?
  • When users experience a problem or have a question, what support structure is in place to minimize meeting delays?
  • How long does the technology need to last?
    • Does your company have a regular refresh cycle or do you need systems to last as long as possible?

Regardless of how long collaboration technology needs to last, understanding workflow and expected use cases is a critical first step.  Effectively designed spaces and appropriate, simplified tools will be highly utilized and generate measurable return.  Establishing metrics to gauge success also needs to be done at the beginning, though measures and benchmarks can be updated as experience increases.  Regular monitoring of use and performance data will provide timely insight into needed system modifications or user training. When the time comes to plan the next set of technology upgrades, justification for investment is much easier with data that proves the payoff.

Read the follow up post Measuring the ROI of Technology-Enabled Meeting Rooms

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Audio visual technician checking cables on the back of a large array of LCD panelsWhether you have complex audio visual systems with multiple screens and projectors, or a more simple set up, you’ve decided to invest in creating functional meeting spaces that meet your needs. Supporting your investment over time is an important consideration. Proactive system maintenance can discover issues before they become serious problems. This reduces IT burden, system downtime, and user frustration because users experience reliable and well-performing audiovisual (AV) systems.

1. Prevent an outage

A small issue that goes unchecked can become a big problem that may shut down your system. With regular maintenance, a professional team performs a full check of your system – even the elements that are not used regularly, to ensure everything is working together as it should. This allows your team to focus on your business without concerns about your AV technology slowing them down.

2. Extend the life of your equipment

When a professional services team monitors all components of your system, issues can be identified and resolved immediately to ensure the maximum life expectancy of the system. This is similar to the regular maintenance recommended for an automobile because it extends the life and performance of the vehicle. An AV system works much the same way and will benefit from regular proactive maintenance.

3. Create a technology road map

Every piece of technology has a scheduled end of life. Regular maintenance will identify the pieces that need to be replaced, before they fail at the wrong time. This allows you to plan and budget for new components well in advance.

4. Get more from your service agreement

Proactive maintenance is a great way to get the most out of your contract because it includes regular checks or often an on-site team member. Regular interaction creates a more engaged process and expands the team member’s knowledge of your systems. The regular checks ensure that the system is always working at peak performance rather than responding reactively to service tickets.

If the agreement includes an on-site team member, this makes support for end-users more accessible and convenient.

5. Maintain your inventory

Part of proactive maintenance includes monitoring an inventory of supplies and spare parts. Ordering can take place when supplies are low – avoiding shortages that may cause system downtime.

 

Through regimented proactive maintenance, Pentegra’s technicians will reduce incidents from the start. As a result, you experience more efficient and effective working sessions. We schedule maintenance activities around your meetings, staying non-obtrusive. Talk to us today about how proactive maintenance can save you time and money.

 

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Corporate meeting and video conference room with four chairs and one LCD display panel on the wall with video camera and microphone

Prioritizing Needs for Audio Visual Collaboration Upon Return to Work

While some organizations are starting a returning to work program, all employees may not be returning at the same time so some remain remote. Even those returning to work may not be returning to prior meeting routines. Regardless of location status, many people have become very familiar with video conferencing platforms over the last few months. It’s likely that this form of collaboration will be required for the foreseeable future. However, not every organization has the same tools available in all locations. How do you keep large teams collaborating locally and remotely upon return to work?

If you are planning to deploy collaboration rooms in the near future, there may be some critical factors to consider before you get back to business as usual. Keeping staff safe is always going to be top priority. A phased approach when coming back to work ensures social distancing measures are followed. In addition, travel may be restricted, making video conferencing even more essential. These new working conditions may come with pressure to implement solutions quickly to maintain high levels of productivity.

Audio

Integrating AV with video conferencing platforms in your meeting rooms can improve collaboration activities. When choosing a solution for a collaborative meeting room, the main focus should be on audio. Having clear, intelligible audio allows teams to communicate most effectively. There are a few options to consider especially if you have budget constraints.

  • Speaker and microphone placement are critical; speaker and microphone coverage areas should be mapped out in advance to ensure everyone will be able to hear local and remote presenters from any location in the room.
  • Implement simple acoustic treatments and reduce noise reflection.
  • Invest in a system with Acoustic Echo Cancelling (AEC) capabilities.
  • Remove any unnecessary, noisy electronics from the room

Sharing Content

Another important factor to consider with collaboration solutions is the ability to share presentations and data effectively. The main sharing enablers are displays and the user interface. The display doesn’t need to be fancy. Almost any monitor or TV will allow teammates to share their content.  But if your data is highly detailed, the size and resolution of the display become factors to consider.

User experience needs to be intuitive enough for any user to boot up and begin a presentation. Most people working from home have been using remote collaboration services. Choose a user experience which operates similar to those products to help meetings get started on-time and reduce calls for support.

Camera

Selecting the right camera is the next technology consideration. Although face-to-face interaction is important, budgets may dictate tough investment choices. In these cases, video cameras can be categorized as “nice to have”. Depending upon the intent, successful meetings can result from sharing verbal and written information, not necessarily seeing each other.

 

Prioritizing your conference room needs can be difficult, especially in a time of uncertainty. Remember, audio should be the main focus. Finding a solution that fits your organization’s specific needs will be key. Getting a head start on planning now will increase your collaborative success upon return to work.

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Pentegra Systems was proud to partner with Mortenson Construction and Meade Electric on the Welsh-Ryan Arena Renovation project at Northwestern University.  The renovation included seating upgrades, wider concourses, new restrooms, new lighting, state-of-the-art audio and video capabilities, lobby expansion and new locker rooms.  Pentegra Systems worked closely with Meade Electric to design and install various sound systems throughout the arena.  Pentegra also contributed to the broadcast system infrastructure and supplied TVs and video walls all over the arena.  Below is a video tour of the new arena produced by the Northwestern University Athletic Department.  The renovations began in 2016 and was completed in time for the 2018 – 2019 basketball season.

 

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Pentegra Systems began the audiovisual infrastructure installation for the new flexible theater at “The Yard at Navy Pier” for Chicago Shakespeare Theater in Spring of 2016. This system included video distribution equipment, a technical intercom and paging sound systems and socket outlet panels. Additionally, Pentegra Systems provided the necessary audiovisual equipment racks, connections and cabling to bring the Shakespeare Theater’s AV infrastructure to life. Take a look at this time-lapse video of The Yard’s construction at Navy Pier courtesy of Bulley & Andrews’ YouTube channel. “The Yard” has officially opened for its first week of shows just this week.

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Below is an article written by Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune about the restoration of Oak Park’s historic Unity Temple. Blair gives a great summary of the Unity Temple restoration project and a brief history of the temple itself. Pentegra Systems began an audiovisual, security and data network design build installation at the historic Unity Temple in Oak Park, IL last year. To find out more about the integrated solution Pentegra Systems installed at Unity Temple, head on over to our Unity Temple Success Story page.

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Frank Lloyd Wright was never one to fret about meeting deadlines, sticking to budgets or roofs that leaked. So there is something fitting about the delayed, but altogether triumphant, restoration of Wright’s Unity Temple, the Oak Park landmark that is the finest public building of Wright’s Chicago years and home to one of the most beautiful rooms in America.

Instead of finishing on schedule last fall, the $25 million project is wrapping up just in time for the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birthday, June 8. The building’s Unitarian Universalist congregation will return for services June 11. A formal ribbon-cutting and open house are scheduled for June 17. It’s as though Wright himself had willed the timing to demonstrate afresh his genius at the very moment when public attention will be riveted on his legacy.

For decades, scholars and critics have remarked upon the striking contrast between Unity Temple’s exterior and interior: The former, made of exposed concrete, is monumental, monochromatic and seemingly impenetrable. The latter, a skylit room with multiple seating tiers, is grand yet human-scaled, enlivened by a rich palette of earth-toned colors, and as airy as the concrete cube is heavy.

Yet the restoration breaks down this dichotomy, revealing a strong aesthetic connection between the radically severe exterior and the warm, intimate interior — a new unity, if you will, for Unity Temple. The key step involves the return of robust interior finishes that once wove a thread of nature-inspired continuity between inside and outside. Without them, we now know, Unity Temple was simply not whole.

The practically-minded will be delighted to know that the restoration also delivers creature comforts like air conditioning that will prevent the heavenly interior from turning hellishly hot come summer. The exterior is even said to be leak-free. We’ll have to see about that, given Wright’s infamous track record of leaky flat-roofed buildings that forced their occupants to haul out drip buckets for what they referred to as “one-bucket,” “two-bucket” and “three-bucket” rains.

Success, it’s often said, has many fathers, and so it is with here: A team of consultants led by Chicago’s Harboe Architects has lavished exacting care on every aspect of this project, from the restoration of jewel-like art glass to the recreation of textured plaster walls. This high level of quality was made possible by $10 million lead grant from Chicago’s Alphawood Foundation, $1.75 million from the congregation and the rest from private donors.

Yet there’s a catch, as there always seems to be with Wright, who frequently lived beyond his means: The nonprofit that spearheaded the project, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, still must raise roughly half the project’s budget. For now, a bridge loan covers those costs. The restoration itself offers the best advertisement for foundations and individuals to make up the balance.

From the first, financial constraints have shaped Unity Temple, which sits amid Oak Park’s thriving downtown at 875 Lake St. After the congregation’s Gothic Revival church burned in 1905, its leaders asked Wright, who was born into a Unitarian family in 1867, to design a new building on a prominent site along Lake Street’s noisy streetcar line. The budget, a mere $45,000, did not allow for expensive materials or elaborate ornament. So Wright, ever the innovator, fashioned his design from inexpensive poured-in-place concrete.

Victorians accustomed to embroidered surfaces must have been shocked by the monolithic abstraction of the completed 1908 building: A high-walled house of worship along Lake Street, joined by a foyer to a social hall and classroom building called Unity House. The passages to, and through, the sanctuary were equally radical. A circuitous route — the classic Wright trope known as the “path of discovery” — led from Lake Street to the entrance on a quiet side street. Inside, more turns took the worshipper from dark, tightly-confined ground-floor spaces that Wright labeled “cloisters” on upward and into the sanctuary’s spectacular explosion of space and light.

It was — and is — an extraordinary gathering place, in which space flows freely, liberated from the convention of the box. Yet there’s a profound sense of order and repose, as if one had come upon a light-dappled glade. The intimacy is palpable, courtesy of tiered balconies which ensure that no seat is more than 45 feet from the pulpit. Sunlight filters down from a grid of skylights, creating an effect that Wright compared to a “happy cloudless day.” Instead of turning its back on the minister to exit, congregation members pass through doors cut into walls on either side of the pulpit. In theory, at least, one enters as an individual and leaves as a member of a community

“Unity Temple is where you will find the first real expression of the idea that the space within the building is the reality of that building,” Wright remarked in 1952, seven years before his death.

But like many Wright buildings, Unity Temple challenged the patience and finances of its occupants. Even after a 1973 renovation covered the failing original exterior with a layer of “shotcrete,” a pneumatically-applied concrete, cracks and chipping persisted. Naturally, the building’s many roofs leaked. Seepage from the building’s internal drains, which were concealed in interior columns, weakened its concrete bones. When a large chunk of the ceiling fell in the middle of the night nine years ago, “it was a wake-up call about the instability of the building,” recalled the Rev. Alan Taylor, Unity Temple’s senior minister.

The restoration team has done meticulous work, beginning with the exterior, where portions of the 1973 shotcrete have been removed and replaced with new swaths of the material. Along with new roofs, restored art glass and enlarged internal drains, the new shotcrete is supposed to create that rarest of conditions in a Wright building — a structure that doesn’t leak like a sieve. “The system is good. It’s been tested,” said Gunny Harboe of Harboe Architects, who worked on the project with colleague Bob Score. (The building’s sagging eaves were fixed in 2002.)

Replacing the shotcrete also presented an aesthetic challenge. Unity Temple’s exterior is not a simple flat gray but a richly-textured aggregate of cement, sand and pebbles that range in color from white to brown to flint. Getting the right blend was like finding the elusive mix for a perfect cocktail. Contractors had to do some spots two or three times before the work was pronounced satisfactory.

The outcome largely avoids the pitfalls of a patchwork, although close inspection reveals slight variations in color. Yet time, weathering and the curing of the shotcrete should eventually blur those distinctions. And it will be no great sin if some of them remain. Unity Temple’s exterior has always had a certain mottled look. One of Wright’s prime tenets was to build “in the nature of materials,” which meant respecting their inherent properties. New in-ground night lighting will showcase the handsomely refurbished exterior and its decorative concrete columns.

The real revelations, though, are inside, where all interior surfaces have been returned to their 1908 appearance. That may not sound dramatic but it’s a major shift when you realize that multiple coats of paint, even modern latex paint, had been slathered onto the original walls. That rendered them flat and textureless, which was not what Wright intended.

Drawing on historic photographs and microscopic paint analysis, the architects and Philadelphia’s Building Conservation Associates re-created three types of textured plaster walls (rough, semi-rough and smooth) and Wright’s earth-toned color palette (pale yellow, green and brown). Contractors applied glazes over the plaster, giving them their color and a luminous sheen appropriate to a sacred space. The outcome is subtle but striking, especially within the sanctuary.

From the skylight to the ground floor, the freshly-remodeled interior walls have a new sense of texture and motion, restoring a lost layer of visual richness. Just as important, the interior now engages in a quiet but unmistakable dialogue with the building’s textured-concrete exterior. Inside and outside are opposites yet part of the same whole, a yin-yang relationship that makes tangible Wright’s elusive gospel of an “organic architecture.”

“No one’s seen it that way in a long time,” Harboe said.

To their credit, the team of designers has addressed a host of practical issues without aesthetic sacrifice.

Shallow trenches were dug in the concrete walls, then covered with plaster, to allow for the rewiring of electrical fixtures. LEDs were installed beneath the sanctuary’s skylights to give worshippers in the top seating tiers improved lighting as they read from prayer books. Mechanical systems were deftly inserted in the four hollow columns that support the building. Geothermal wells — nine of them, descending 500 feet beneath the front lawn — will provide the air conditioning the building has long lacked. New theater lights will improve Unity Temple’s ability to host performances.

A comparable assortment of formal and functional improvements are being made to Unity House, though they were not complete when I toured last week.

What a change has transpired since 2000, when the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (now Landmarks Illinois) placed the deteriorating Unity Temple on its annual list of the state’s most endangered structures! Today, Unity Temple is a landmark renewed, an enduring statement of Wright’s genius and a vivid reminder that his brilliance extended far beyond the Prairie Style houses for which he is best known. There can be no better way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth than to see and experience this revived masterpiece.

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Please visit www.pentegrasystems.com for all of your audio and video needs or give us a call at (630) 941-6000 for more information.

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In the Spring of 2016, Pentegra Systems began installation of the Audio and Video infrastructure for the new flexible theater at “The Yard at Navy Pier” for Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Pentegra Systems provided video distribution equipment, a technical intercom and paging sound systems and socket outlet panels. Additionally, Pentegra Systems provided the necessary AV equipment racks, connections and cabling to bring the Shakespeare Theater’s AV infrastructure to life. Preparing to open in the Fall of 2017, “The Yard” is indeed taking shape as explained in the article below recently featured in the Chicago Tribune by the Tribune’s Chris Jones.

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The Yard is Taking Shape

Chicago Shakespeare’s new space will offer seating flexibility

AV Infrastructure The Yard at Navy Pier Shakespeare Theater

Criss Henderson, left, executive director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, artistic director Barbara Gaines and production director Chris Plevin tour The Yard on Navy Pier. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune photos) The new indoor theater, under construction in the former Skyline Stage space, is scheduled to open this fall.

AV Infrastructure The Yard at Navy Pier Shakespeare Theater

If you measure a theater by the size, scope and versatility of its physical buildings, then there can be no reasonable doubt that Chicago Shakespeare Theater has just vaulted to the summit of Chicago theater companies.

The game-changer for CST, a long-established company that first took up residence on Navy Pier in 1999, is the impending opening of The Yard, a new, flexible, indoor theater built for about $35 million in the guts of the defunct Skyline Stage, a brutalist, wind-swept, ill-sized outdoor venue that found popular programming increasingly elusive as competition grew, and that no one will miss.

The only thing that worked about Skyline Stage was its white, tentlike roof, which has been retained for The Yard, even though the canvas now will sit atop an indoor theater, not rows of seats exposed on a promontory. That decision served several useful functions: it saved time and money; it dealt with the challenge of building a theater atop a parking garage (Navy Pier was not about to give up its parking revenue); it allowed for some visual continuity; and it forestalled any arguments of the effect of a new exterior on the oft-vociferous residents of Lake Point Tower, who overlook The Yard. CST was able to tell them that what they see from their windows was not going to change — at least until the theater adds to the color of the view by using the roof as a surface for artistic projection.

The first production in The Yard (the Chicago firm of Adrian Smith +Gordon Gill is the architect of record) won’t actually be until the fall, and the programming therein is light for the first season, but some 500 supporters and benefactors of Chicago Shakespeare will get their first look inside the new theater June 9 when they watch Jessie Mueller and Heather Headley, both Broadway stars with strong connections to Chicago, shake the dust off the construction site.

Executive Director Criss Henderson said that $35 million already has been raised (Navy Pier kicked in $15 million), though the theater still has about $7 million to go as part of a $55 million campaign, also designed to ramp up programming. The Yard, Henderson said, will become the new home of the theater’s extensive educational and family programing, and, of course, for a variety of other work. Interestingly, he said he still sees the existing Courtyard Theater as the flagship venue on this growing campus.

For years, arts professionals in Chicago have been bemoaning the lack of a venue with roughly 1,000 seats, a capacity that falls below Broadway in Chicago’s major touring houses downtown (and the 1,525-seat Harris Theater for Music and Dance) but that still is large enough to offer meaningful capacity and box-office returns to a producing agency of national stature. The Yard would be that space — although don’t look for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a vociferous and competitive producer of international work, to open it up for rent anytime soon.

As a new addition to Chicago’s portfolio of performance spaces built without a traditional fly tower, The Yard will succeed or fail based on the efficacy of its dominant feature — nine independent towers of seating that can be moved into a dozen configurations, depending on the needs of the production.

These multilevel towers — an invention of the British theater design firm Charcoalblue and that can be merged or pulled apart to create proscenium, thrust, alley and arena-style seating — are imposing structures with HVAC hookups, speakers, sprinkler systems and the usual audience padding. They’ll be accessed from three levels, depending, of course, on where you are seated. And each configuration will change the capacity, and thus the level of intimacy, of the theater. The area with the towers is welded onto a renovated version of the old Skyline Stage stage house (which was always indoors, of course, and includes dressing rooms). But you cannot easily discern the joint.

The selling point of the towers is their ease of movement. At a recent hard-hat tour of the new theater (which you will reach down a linear lobby lined, like a Boeing 787, with electrochromic glass), I watched a couple of workers demonstrate how to lift one of them via a portable hydraulic system that sends the edifice scooting with ease across the floor, not unlike a hovercraft. Artistic director Barbara Gaines was watching too. “It’s priceless,” she said, “for an artist to have such flexibility.”

It’s hardly unusual for a theater to build a flexible space — the Owen Theatre at the Goodman and the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf are examples of venues that can be used in a plethora of configurations. But the devil tends to be in the ease (or lack thereof) of transformation, especially in houses that use union labor to shift hefty risers, platforming and seating units. Flexibility typically comes at such a cost that budgets often mean such spaces get stuck in one use for an entire season or more.

At The Yard, CST director of production Chris Plevin explained, the towers that define the perimeter of the artistic space will be more akin to scenic elements (the large structures that you often see used as part of the morphing setting for a big musical or a Shakespearean extravaganza).

Those structures are always built to be no more hefty than needed and must be designed to make fast entrances and exits. Plevin argues that if a similar mindset and vocabulary is assigned to where the audience sits, and if a theater can change its shape and identity in a matter of minutes, then the creative possibilities vastly are increased.

“It will be in the spirit of a found space,” Henderson said, referencing a common performance buzzword that suggests the work is in charge of the space, rather than vice versa.

In some ways then, The Yard will be a pop-up theater for our new gig economy — or, perhaps more accurately, a huge black-box shell in which any number of different kinds of playing spaces will be able to pop up, and then pop back down again, cheaply and quickly.

 

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For more about “The Yard at Navy Pier,” check out this short illustration video showcasing what this exciting project will look like upon completion.

Please visit www.pentegrasystems.com for all of your audio and video needs or give us a call at (630) 941-6000 for more information.

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Art Institute Chicago

Art Institute Chicago

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In 1893, The Art Institute moved to its present location at 111 South Michigan Avenue, adorned with its two bronze lions famously guarding the west entrance. Since then, the museum has undergone extensive additions and renovations, the most extensive being the new Modern Wing addition. At 264,000 ...

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