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Published: Saturday, 3/27/2004

The art of the construction test

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE REAL ESTATE WRITER

People who are building glass houses shouldn't throw stones - unless they first bounce them around in a testing room to gauge the damage.

That is one of the few tests not being conducted in a boxy structure erected in the parking lot of the Toledo Art Museum as part of planning for the facility's $27 million Glass Pavilion.

Museum officials are toying with everything from whether paint looks better sprayed on or rolled to the best way of exhibiting collection pieces in a building whose exterior will have no square corners and which will be made entirely of glass.

"We're testing things under the conditions they will be used under," explained Terry Beamsley, assistant director.

The testing structure isn't unique.

When the Houston Museum of Fine Arts constructed a second gallery four years ago for its collection of European and American art and antiquities, it built a testing facility.

"It didn't look like anything from the outside," said spokesman Frances Carter Stephens. "But the interior was a test gallery. It yielded significant information about what building materials to use and important information on how lighting would fall on paintings."

Such facilities are an expansion of the common construction industry practice of building mock-ups to show customers how an architectural feature will look, said Lowell Metzger, a construction manager with contractor Rudolph Libbe Inc., in metro Toledo.

One example, he explained, would be an eight-foot section of masonry wall including a corner and unique features. He said he is aware of no other use of a testing facility by Rudolph Libbe.

David Wyatt, who is involved in selecting construction materials for an Akron architectural firm, praised such testing facilities.

He said the Toledo museum's isn't unique but it's probably one of the first such uses of the concept. "With a unique facility, it's necessary for quality assurance to get certain systems and materials right," he said. "You can't always rely on the construction process to experiment."

The 76,000-square-foot Glass Pavilion, which will be built at Monroe Street and Parkwood Avenue across from the main museum, will house the institution's world-renowned glass collection, studios for making decorative glass, a restaurant, outdoor courtyards, and a meeting room.

Construction is expected to begin soon, and opening is scheduled for spring, 2006.

Now, however, activity is concentrated in a squat, unattractive structure behind the museum, where officials are discovering what works and what doesn't, what they like and what they don't.

In pursuit of its mission, the testing structure duplicates features that will be found in the glass pavilion: It is 16 feet tall, with an exterior wall made of the same three-quarter-inch-thick laminated glass that will be used on the exterior of the pavilion, and it has some interior walls made of glass, just as will the new building.

Already, the facility has helped avert costly mistakes.

Ms. Beamsley, who is overseeing the construction project, leans over to point out air bubbles that erupted in a row of caulking injected into the space between two adjoining glass panels to keep out air. There was no such problem with competing products tested elsewhere. Obviously, the problem product has been eliminated from contention.

The building will include about 370 panels of glass.

Lighting tracks installed in the ceiling provide for tests of various styles of fixtures. Planners initially liked the look of a larger, canister-like fixture. But when they installed it, they discovered that the bulb was too close to the bottom of the fixture and cast a reflection that showed up on the glass walls. As a result, they are now considering smaller canisters that prevent that problem.

"There would be no way of knowing something like that ahead of time without a facility like this," Ms. Beamsley noted.

The test room has pedestals similar to those that will be used to display art objects. Although pedestals are white-washed, curators learned that glass art, in a room flooded with light, would show up better if the display base were black.

As an alternative to standard wood, curators are experimenting with pedestals made of acoustical panels to determine whether their sound-deadening properties would make them a better choice.

The effect of light in an all-glass room is an important consideration, Ms. Beamsley said.

Helping curators determine its impact - besides the testing facility - is a computer simulation performed by the project's lighting consultant which calculates how light will fall at every point in the pavilion throughout the year.

The test facility is even yielding information on cleaning methods. Curators were concerned about how best to clean glass in narrow hallways with glass walls on either side. "We think people will be able to do it with squeegees with extension poles," Ms. Beamsley said.

Pieces of colored paper as well as Owens Corning insulation are pressed against glass panels in a test of how to best protect the glass as construction continues after it is installed.

Also being tested are various shades and treatments for concrete floors that planners are studying.

The humble-looking testing facility has generated many questions since its construction last August in the shadow of the neoclassical museum. Most people simply want to know what it is. Officials have even conducted tours for community and volunteer groups.

The museum plans to continue to use the facility until the new building is completed.

Contact Gary Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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