The campus church at the Greater Atlanta Christian School (GACS) was proving too small for their expanding arts programs and would be hard pressed to support the big dream the school had for it. They envisioned a “Hogwarts” dining hall look and feel – or at least something that wouldn’t look out of place in Oxford. A tall order for a 40-year-old prefab cinderblock building.
There are more than 25 other buildings on GACS 88-acre campus. DIRTT had already helped the school overhaul the junior and senior high school to create a cutting-edge learning environment in 2016.
“We had concrete block, factory-style classroom, and we wanted what we dubbed the 21st-century classroom or learning studio,” said architect John Gramigna of Kohl Gramigna and Associates Architects (KGA).
The new design featured versatile spaces for students, including classrooms and collaborative meeting spots with writable walls and integrated technology. To continually keep up with the modern world they also liked that DIRTT could provide “a very flexible, adaptable space that can change over time,” Gramigna said.
Over the course of the summer break, the junior and senior high school was transformed. More than 70,000 square feet was redesigned and constructed.
“[With] conventional construction, there’s no way that we could have achieved that,” said Brett Harte, GACS project manager.
Based on the all-around success of the high school build, and upon learning that DIRTT had recently introduced a timber frame solution, GACS turned to DIRTT to discuss their new project: the performing arts center.
As the design and planning began, GACS had to decide where to put the performing arts center.
A new building would cost upward of $18 million. GACS made the more economical choice to repurpose the existing chapel. In the end, the decision to revitalize an existing building saved the school more than $15 million.
David Fincher, GACS president, understood it would be challenging to revamp the “plain vanilla” building. “But I knew we could do it, and we could do it in a way that we’d be proud of for decades to come,” he said.
The GACS team began the design process. There were a lot of changes to make. The proscenium had to expand from 30 to 50 feet. The seating capacity needed to increase from 700 to nearly 1,000.
“To accomplish that, we needed to add a balcony in this existing building,” said Gramigna.
Yet, the building could not physically support a balcony or a bigger proscenium. Several engineering solutions were considered, while the beauty of the design could not be compromised.
It was also critical to minimize disruption during construction. And, of course, the project had to be completed on time and on budget. With all this in mind, a new possibility began to emerge.
“We were talking to DIRTT about wood paneling and wood wall systems, and we realized they had the capabilities to build a timber system that would be self-supporting,” Gramigna said. “It fit right into the scheme.”
GACS discovered it could also reflect the historic feel and “an aura of respect,” said Harte. “We wanted the building to have a feel that it was built 200 years ago.”
Gramigna looked to examples of churches and cathedrals in Europe, saying, “We very much wanted to introduce some heavy timber trusses into the space to give it that kind of character.”
More than that, they wanted the space to evoke a sense of magic and awe. In fact, the famous Harry Potter school, Hogwarts, inspired the design, too. Particularly, “the dining hall and all the big wood timbers and the glass windows,” said Harte.
Leveraging technology was pivotal in both the engineering and design of the space. DIRTT’s innovative software (ICE) was a valuable all-in-one tool. The design program produces manufacturing data, shop drawings, and exact pricing in real time.
This ensured that the right decisions were made to keep the project on budget. ICE also brought the project to life through a remarkable 3D experience: virtual reality.
“It’s very difficult when you design a building to be able to see and visualize every little detail. The VR allowed us to do that,” said Gramigna. “We could zoom in on the trusses up high and really get a visual on what that was going to look like. It’s this incredible blend of modern technology and old-world craftsmanship.”
DIRTT’s leader on the timber team was Christoph Friedlos. He is a master timber framer with 37 years of experience designing and building extraordinary timber structures.
With Friedlos at the helm, the DIRTT and GACS team worked for six straight weeks to come up with a structurally sound and beautiful design for the new performing arts center.
To help ensure accurate site measurements were taken, DIRTT used a 3D-scan camera. It created a 3D model of the whole building.
As the installation process got underway, the team ran into some interesting challenges.
“Everything on the existing building was not level, square, or straight, the floor was uneven and sloped,” said Friedlos. “That was definitely the most complicated part.” None of it could jeopardize the schedule.
General contractor Choate Construction worked with DIRTT and KGA during the installation and design process. At first, Choate thought the DIRTT schedule looked too aggressive.
In a few short weeks, DIRTT’s largest timber project to date was installed and complete. The installation is a testament to both the technology employed and the expertise of the DIRTT timber team.
Despite timber being cut in five locations in two different countries (Canada and Switzerland), it all – remarkably – fit together on site.
The entire GACS team – Choate, GACS, KGA, and DIRTT – proved that with the right people, technology, and a great vision, anything can be accomplished.
The performing arts center has created a buzz in the community. GACS has received inquiries from other schools and organizations who want to host events there, too.
“Believe it or not, aesthetics matter as much to kids as they do to us as grownups,” said Fincher. “A place of beauty furthers your thinking, and it pulls your mind up, your heart up and causes your dreams to expand.”
DIRTT, which stands for Doing It Right This Time, provides custom interior prefab spaces by combining a powerful and interactive videogame experience for clients to design their own environments along with components open to infinite configurations, www.dirtt.com.