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 this fountain of plenty, 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 curiosities on display is a diorama that demonstrates the inner workings of the earth’s hot spots, such as volcanoes, shifting tectonic plates, earthquakes and hot springs.
To highlight the display, a tall, almost transparent ceiling was needed to help support the dramatic lighting that replicates the blue Wyoming sky.
Innovative Thinking With Wire Mesh Options
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, yet see-through to avoid the confined feeling typical of ceilings that mask unsightly mechanical equipment.
Considering the size of the exhibit room–approximately 87 feet by 42 feet–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 that imitates the natural hue of a typical Wyoming day.
A Seismic Solution Using Designer Wire Mesh
In earthquake and volcanic 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 were forced to co-exist, as 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 most every day.
Framing and Suspending Pre-Fabricated Wire Mesh
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 mesh panels, 70 in total, are cut into 16 different sizes and shapes ranging from 4 by 6 feet to 5 by 10 feet. Each panel, which has 82 percent open area, is secured in a cold-rolled steel angle frame and suspended 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.
“Our typical need is 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 requirement, said Harmon. His firm set the pre-cut mesh panels into custom steel angle frames, then welded them together for strength and rigidity.
With help from the contractor, Swank Enterprises of Valier, MT, the panels were installed below the sprinkler system, allowing the wire mesh to obscure the mechanical features without inhibiting the sprinkler from doing its job. “Once they were installed, people could actually walk on the panels to access HVAC and lighting above the panels,” said Harmon.
The frames are suspended via threaded rods using ceiling handles and tabs welded onto the steel frames. That way, each frame is reinforced with sway bracing cross rods as a safeguard during a seismic event.
Sustainable and Inspirational
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.