April 28, 2016

The Secret World of Engineering

The world of a structural engineer tends to be one of quiet, focused work. We are the ones, after all, who are responsible for the integrity of entire systems, including the building where you currently sit (you’re welcome, by the way). However, there is a world outside our offices that can be very different and that can be very exciting. Let’s call it ‘The Secret World of Engineering.’

As a Lead Structural Engineer at Progressive Companies for more than 20 years, I enjoy a rather unique partnership with SMG, the nation-wide firm that manages DeVos Place, DeVos Performance Hall and the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Whenever special circumstances arise and an engineering analysis/solution to an unusual event or venue is needed, SMG reaches out to me for a little “behind-the-curtain” assistance.

Due to the fact that SMG manages three of the most popular venues in the Grand Rapids area, safety and security of exhibitors, as well as event attendees, is always the top priority.  Along with my team, I assist in determining the acceptability of many large events by assessing the capacity of the structures and making recommendations if and when modifications are required. Three of my favorite examples of this, include:

  • Installation of a 6,500 gallon swimming pool for the annual boat show at DeVos Place
  • Building a full-size Ferris Wheel in the Exhibit Hall at DeVos Place
  • Assisting with unusual rigging conditions for touring productions at both Van Andel Arena and DeVos Performance Hall

Making Room For “The Phantom”

In July of 2014 officials from DeVos Performance Hall and Broadway Grand Rapids announced that one of the world’s most popular musicals, The Phantom of the Opera, would be coming to Grand Rapids in May of 2016.

The Phantom of the Opera is notorious for requiring specific modifications to the stage and performance space when on tour. When you add to this the production being billed as: “bigger and better than ever [with] many exciting special effects… [And] new scenic and lighting designs,” you could expect quite a few modifications would be needed. Changes to the stage and performance hall were required to allow the production to occur for the two weeks of performances, all of which were expected to be sell-out events.

Phantom of the Opera set engineering
Sections from the DeVos Performance Hall’s orchestra shell are removed to make room for The Phantom of the Opera’s large sets

SMG asked Progressive Companies to do a study of the modifications required by the production company as well as a related cost analysis to make the changes. Our report highlighted four major focus areas:

  • Assessment and reinforcement of the ceiling. As many “Phantom” fans know, the large and beautiful chandelier plays a big part in the production. For this show, the chandelier weighs more than 9,000 pounds and hangs above patron seating! Assessing the current ceiling to see if reinforcements were needed was an important step.
  • Expanding the stage area. The Phantom of the Opera is known for lavish and grand sets. From a watery trip by candlelight, to over-the-top opera sets, the show is a feast for the eyes. However, all these amazing sets take up space. More space than typical touring productions require. To accommodate the show, the orchestra shell doors located within the proscenium (fancy term for the part of the stage in front of the curtain) opening were removed to make room for the large sets.
  • Widening scene shop doors. When not on stage, the show’s large props and sets (see point above regarding fancy sets) must be stored away from the main stage. To make this possible, the doorway to the scene shop had to be widened.
  • Assessment of the stage floor. The “spring-floor” section in the center of the stage floor had to be assessed and potentially reinforced to accommodate the weight of the production company’s staging. From a weight perspective, “Phantom” is the heaviest production to ever assemble within DeVos Performance Hall. Approximately 15 to 20 semi-trucks delivered production staging to Grand Rapids.
Devos Place engineering
Sections of the orchestra shell will be hung and stored throughout the entire run of The Phantom of the Opera