Music strikes up major renovations, construction

By Jason Winders
July 29, 2013

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Music buildingNicholson Sheffield Architects
Pictured is an artist rendition of what the Don Wright Faculty of Music will look like after major renovations and construction are complete on its two main buildings – Talbot College and the Music Building – in Winter 2015. Early stages of construction began last week.

The first notes of a construction symphony have sounded as the Don Wright Faculty of Music prepares for major renovations and construction involving its two main buildings – Talbot College and the Music Building.

“The excitement is directly in response to the possibilities faculty, staff and students will experience,” said Betty Anne Younker, Music dean.

The $25-million project involves three main components:

  • A new, five-storey tower constructed in the courtyard space between the east wing of the Music Building and Talbot College, housing mostly practice rooms, teaching space, studios and piano technology space;
  • Major renovations to the east wing of the Music Building rebuilding the main recital hall plus some classroom space (building on the footprint designed by Don McKellar and Clifford von Kuster). When complete, the west wing of the Music Building will be torn down; and
  • A three-storey structure housing added performance space.

Early stages of construction began last week; completion is expected by Winter 2015. As soon as that is complete, the faculty has plans to begin on the Music Library.

The project is long overdue, Younker said.

“When I entered the job two years ago, there had been a budget in place for renovations in Talbot College with three aims in mind: increase rehearsal and classroom space; cluster professors, administration and staff; and renovate the Music Library,” Younker explained “The challenge was meeting the budget target for a variety of reasons. The other challenge was that the current Music Building (opened in 1972), which is extremely functional in terms of layout thanks to the vision of those who designed it, housed materials that do not meet current codes and an HVAC system and related functions that all needed or would need to be replaced.”

With a building originally constructed to accommodate 400-450 students, the faculty boasts an enrolment of 700 today. Even with the space gains from the Talbot College exit of the Philosophy and Classics departments, the faculty remains in need of studio, classroom teaching and rehearsal spaces.

The project will add 9,500 square feet of usable space, taking the faculty from 28,165 square feet to 37,685 square feet. (Gross square footage, which includes mechanical, grows by about 19,000 square feet.) In addition to space, the HVAC system servicing the buildings is failing and causing serious damage to delicate instruments.

For example, pianos are stressed by either too much or too little humidity.

“In our world, you can imagine anything made of wood responding to fluctuations in temperature. All instruments are affected and the maintenance becomes increasingly costly when you cannot control temperature,” Younker said. “We needed to build to code, codes that differ from when the current building was built. Thus, we need to update, upgrade and enhance for 21st century technological and pedagogical needs.”

In detail, the project will provide additional practice rooms with more effective sound isolation and acoustical properties; studios that meet the needs of faculty in terms of space, sound isolation and acoustics; an enhanced von Kuster Hall from an acoustical perspective; additional seminar rooms and classrooms; a new smaller recital hall that will allow students to complete recital and chamber music requirements in a more intimate space with the necessary acoustical properties; four large rehearsal spaces (two of which will rely on fundraising) to effectively deliver the curriculum; and areas for students to gather in areas that provide natural light. 

For students, that means more access to classrooms, practice, recital and rehearsal spaces; improved air quality and temperature control; areas that allow for access to natural light; floors, doors, hallways and elevators that are ‘friendly’ for moving equipment and instruments; and spaces that allow one's musicianship to flourish.

The university is picking up 80 per cent of the building’s $25 million price tag; the remaining 20 per cent falls to faculty fundraising efforts.

Younker, along with former Music deans Robert Wood and Jeffrey Stokes as well as architect John Nicholson of Nicholson Sheffield Architects, worked on the project’s design in consultation with faculty, staff and students via town hall. All those voices added value, Younker said. She has had – and continues to have – conversations with McKellar who, with the dean at the time, von Kuster, designed and built the current music building.

Nicholson called the project an amalgamation of the two existing buildings – an addition, an alteration and a new build. “The existing building is in poor shape from the standpoint of performance – in terms of building science and how it works. It has been poor,” he said. “(The project) really blends the two.”

The exteriors will feature stone and metalwork mimicking those across campus.

“Some of it is a straight-line replacement,” Nicholson said. But he admitted a music building, unlike an office building, for example, can be as much art and emotion as science. “There are challenges in replacing cherished places – most notably von Kuster Hall,” he said.

Named in honour of the first dean of the Faculty of Music, the recital hall is located in the Music Building with the entrance off the main lobby. The 248-seat recital hall gets heavy use – being home to more than 270 performances each year between September and May.

“It is (von Kuster Hall) a place to which faculty, students and staff feel a strong connection,” Younker said. “It is here that students present final requirements for degree programs, namely their solo and chamber recitals. It is here that many have received quality instruction from their professors and guest artists. It is here the Friday at 12:30 series is held. Faculty have presented many recitals in this space as soloists and in collaboration with colleagues and guest artists.

That emotional attachment, she continued, led her to ask “what does the hall ‘do well’ and how can we expand upon that quality.” And while the plan is to replace the hall completely, it will be “built up again.”

Nicholson said the new hall will mimic the existing in many ways, “replicated and improved” in a similar size but improved in the background. “To the ear, mechanical and electrical is not significant,” he said. “But to the building it is.”

“You have hidden things at play here. Acoustics are significant in many roles; you have people practicing, recording, studying, performing all at the same time,” said Nicholson, whose firm worked on the Paul Davenport Theatre. “That is the challenge, of course. I have come to appreciate that during this process.

“The building is a silent participant in the learning of music.”

Staging for the project has begun; construction teams should be on site this week. In preparation, the faculty has moved 37 faculty members and their contents, many of whom are now located in re-purposed spaces in Talbot College with 10 in newly designed studio spaces (four on the fourth floor and six on the first floor).

Accessibility to the faculty’s buildings will be maintained, but challenging during construction.

The Music Building door situated across from the Talbot College loading dock as well as the door into Talbot College from its loading dock are no longer accessible. These two highly used doorways will be the most challenging inconveniences throughout the construction and renovations, Younker said.

A covered walkway will connect the two buildings in this area as soon as workers are ‘out of the ground.’

The main door of the Music Building (facing south onto Lambton toward the soccer pitches) along with all other Talbot College entrances will be accessible.

The Talbot College loading dock is no longer in operation except for special cases; access for unloading to Talbot College now includes the main and handicapped entrances in the Talbot College circular drive. The Music Building loading dock will remain in service.

The bridge connecting the Music Building’s third floor to Talbot College’s second floor will be open, but restricted from time to time depending on crane activity.

Follow the construction at the Music Building Renovations website,


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