With a combination of architectural excellence, engineering complexity and high-quality craftsmanship, the build team delivered a winning performance in the renovation and expansion of Arena Stage at Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C.

Photo Courtesy Clark Construction Group
Photo By Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Bing Thom Architects

The $100-million project, which started in January 2008 and completed in July, demanded intense collaboration to tackle the design and construction challenges that arose on a nearly daily basis. That’s why an independent jury awarded the project its top award as the best overall project in Mid-Atlantic Construction’s “Best Of 2010” awards program.

“This project pushed the limits of problem-solving,” says George Conard, vice president of Bethesda, Md.-based Clark Construction Group, general contractor on the project. “No two items were alike. It wasn’t like your standard office building, where if you solved a problem once, you solved it a dozen times. Here, everything was unique.”

Beyond updating the existing spaces, the design team led by Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver, Canada, created a vibrant new campus for Arena Stage. Since locating to the site in the 1960s, the complex’s two original theaters—the Kreeger and Fichandler—suffered acoustically from external noise.

The solution was to enclose the two buildings as well as a new theater—the Cradle—under a 130-ft-wide and 500-ft-long undulating roof and within a transparent glass curtain-wall system.

“We encapsulated these jewels into a jewel box,” says Bing Thom, principal of the architectural firm.

The obstacles began in the design phase. Funds for the project came primarily through donations, and the original budget exceeded Arena Stage’s estimates. After contracting with Clark in December 2006, the team had to value engineer the original $120-million budget to $100 million without sacrificing aesthetics.

Revisions included eliminating project phasing, which saved $3 million; modifying the roof and eliminating planned rooftop apartments, at a combined savings of $8.5 million; reducing onsite parking; and changing the mechanical and electrical systems to save $2.5 million.

By the end of 2007, the project was set to break ground.

Getting the project “dramatically cost reduced, redesigned and re-permitted within a year was a herculean task,” says Ted Kalriess, senior construction manager at Paeonian Springs, Va.-based KCM, the project’s construction management firm.

Strong teamwork continued through the duration of the project.

In addition to the architect, several key subcontractors are based in Vancouver. To facilitate communication, the architect relocated two designers to Washington, D.C., to work with the owner and the Clark team to implement changes.

Having representatives from the architect onsite at all times was a boon to integration. Certain elements of the project—including the complex concrete work, the curtain-wall system and portions of the ceiling design that went through 10 iterations before being put in place—were handled as design-build to ensure that all details satisfied the aesthetic demands and constructability requirements.

The complex engineering mandated quality craftsmanship. Both the concrete walls of the Cradle Theater and the timber columns supporting the curtain wall are four degrees out of plumb. Arena Stage’s roof is a complicated series of trusses, girders and rafters. On the outside, the undulating roof constantly changes planes. To create one of the project’s signature design elements, a 65-ft girder cantilevers from one end of the new building and points to the nearby Washington Monument.

Creating the curtain-wall system took a high degree of technical excellence and attention to detail. The system is made up of more than 300 custom-made units. It’s backed by a series of timber columns, which also support the structural steel framing above. The 18 parallel strand lumber columns were hand-lathed in Canada, measure between 46 and 58 ft and are set four degrees out of plumb.