When Old Faithful erupts about every 90 minutes, spitting boiling water 145 feet into the Wyoming air, the public is undoubtedly impressed. The phenomenon is one of the most talked-about features of Yellowstone National Park.
To explain one of nature’s most predictable and popular tourist spots, the national park spent $27 million on a new visitor education center funded through the Yellowstone Park Foundation.
Located a stone’s throw from the geyser, Old Faithful Visitor Education Center is designed with an interior exhibit hall that showcases unique educational displays.
Among the displays is a diorama that demonstrates the inner workings of the earth’s hot spots, such as volcanoes, shifting tectonic plates, earthquakes, and hot springs.
They utilized a transparent ceiling to highlight the display. This ceiling supports the dramatic lighting, which mimics the blue Wyoming sky.
The project team consisting of architectural firm Christopher Chadbourne & Associates of Boston and exhibit fabricator/engineer Pacific Studio of Seattle in concert with metal supplier McNICHOLS wanted the 5,600-square-foot exhibit hall to feel open yet intimate and high quality.
The role of the ceiling became integral to the concept. It needed to be a dropped design to accommodate the sprinkler, HVAC, electrical, and lighting system. Also, it had to be see-through to avoid the confined feeling typical of ceilings that mask unsightly mechanical equipment.
Considering the size of the exhibit room, the ceiling model required a material that was open enough to promote airflow, sturdy enough to accommodate access for maintenance, and flexible enough to be installed in sections, including a curved portion. Likewise, the material had to possess sufficient transparency to diffuse the LED lighting system designed to imitate the natural hue of a typical Wyoming day.
In earthquake-prone areas like Yellowstone National Park, seismic consideration also plays a big part in building design and construction. Therefore, the requisite safety requirements could inhibit the creation of spaces where style is a priority. In this case, style and building code must co-exist. Because the facility sits on a caldera with volcanic activity potential.
Like many modern natural history museums, the displays at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Visitor Education Center included a dioramic scale model, a giant three-dimensional reproduction of a portion of the park depicting the park’s life and geological features.
The ceiling plays a prominent role in showcasing the diorama as a backdrop for environmental lighting that floods the display like the sun that permeates the park almost every day.
The team, prompted by Pacific Studio, which builds exhibits for centers and museums across the U.S., chose an open grid ceiling fabricated with Wire Mesh panels made from McNICHOLS® Designer Mesh, TECHNA™ 8160, Stainless Steel, Type 304.
The team cut the mesh panels, 70 in total, into 16 different sizes and shapes ranging from 4 by 6 feet to 5 by 10 feet. The cold-rolled steel angle frame secures each panel, which has 82 percent open area, and suspends it from the building's upper structure.
While Pacific Studio has engineered and built scores of interpretive centers, this is the first time the firm has used a stainless steel Wire Mesh in a ceiling application.
“We typically need perforated steel or aluminum to build cases for interactive AV equipment because it allows airflow for the electronics,” said Jon Harmon, Project Manager at Pacific Studio.
The Wire Mesh satisfied the functional and aesthetic requirements, said Harmon. His firm set the pre-cut mesh panels into custom steel angle frames, then welded them together for strength and rigidity.
Swank Enterprises of Valier, MT, installed the panels below the sprinkler system with help from the contractor. This allowed the wire mesh to obscure the mechanical features without inhibiting the sprinkler from doing its job. “People could walk on the panels to access HVAC and lightning above the panels once the installation was complete,” said Harmon.
Ceiling handles and tabs welded onto the steel frames suspend the frames via threaded rods. In that way, sway-bracing cross rods reinforce each frame as a safeguard during a seismic event.
Inspired by the novel Wire Mesh ceiling, the park foundation asked Pacific Studio to incorporate the material into other visitor center areas: the decorative supports for seven graphic panels and two flat-screen monitors in the lobby.
The addition created continuity with the center’s ceiling and served as an artistic backdrop for the storyboards that chronicle the story of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal wonders.