From factory to world-class music venue

A former sawdust factory one block from a noisy train line might seem like an unlikely location for an acoustically ambitious music venue and recording studio. But the space fit the vision of Brooklyn-based architects Bureau V. Arup collaborated with them to bring the project to life inside the century-old brick walls.

A floating room

Expectations for what soon became known as National Sawdust were high. “I wanted a building with perfect acoustics,” said founder Kevin Dolan. “We would make no sacrifices to those acoustics. But we also wanted aesthetics that would be amazing whether someone walked in at age 25 or 65.”

At the outset of the project, the architects worked with Arup to come up with a basic design that could meet these expectations. They then searched for a suitable space in Brooklyn’s booming Williamsburg neighborhood. “My partners and I were literally biking around Williamsburg looking for a plot of that size,” said Peter Zuspan, Bureau V’s founding principal.

After exploring the abandoned sawdust factory, they knew they had their site. Bucking the local trend of knocking down existing structures to build from scratch, they were determined to incorporate the factory’s original exterior walls into the design.

Credit NYC Municipal Archives

National Sawdust in 1940

This presented significant challenges for the acousticians. Vibrations from rail lines travel through the ground to nearby structures, often leading to occupant complaints of unwanted noise and movement.

When designing new buildings near trains, project teams can choose from a number of proven strategies to mitigate these concerns. For existing structures, however — particularly those slated to become world-class performance venues — off-the-shelf solutions are not an option.  “If we were just to have plopped down the venue right on the ground, performances would have been marred by the sound of the train,” said Matt Mahon, an acoustician in Arup’s New York office. “We had to do something different.”

Ultimately, the team decided to resolve this concern by floating the performance hall within the building’s shell. “It’s actually structurally decoupled from the façade of the building and the ground,” Mahon explained. “The floor of the performance hall is on springs, the walls are on springs, the balcony’s on springs, and the ceiling is resiliently hung from the structural roof above.”

National Sawdust interior walls.

Interior walls

This required an extremely high degree of finesse and coordination between the project team — so much so, in fact, that the project became one of the most complex Arup’s acousticians have ever worked on.

Eye and ear

Bureau V’s bold vision for the venue’s interior also demanded an innovative acoustical response. To accommodate performers ranging from solo pianists to choral groups and rock bands, venue operators needed the ability to deploy and retract sound-shaping drapes. The architects’ desire for a consistent visual experience — specifically, a bold geometrical treatment covering all four walls — meant that this equipment needed to be hidden from sight.

Arup and Bureau V worked to ensure that the room’s visuals and acoustics could coexist without competing. “Developing this acoustically transparent architectural finish that is so iconic for the room really challenged the design,” said Mahon.

Mahon during construction.

Mahon during construction

Showtime

The end result is a futuristic space that has been lauded by music critics, artists, and fans for its look and sound alike. “The acoustics, engineered by the firm Arup, were impressive in music both amplified and not, a difficult feat,” wrote The New York Times.

When the space opened earlier this month, Dolan sat in the venue for the first five nights in a row. “I tried to figure out sometimes whether the instruments were miked or not,” he says. “It was all so crystal clear. You’re talking to someone who has middle-aged hearing loss, and I felt I could hear things I’ve never heard before.”

Opening night performance.

Opening night

Better together

Mahon credits the project’s success to the strong team dynamic. Working with a passionate client and creative young architects who were eager to learn and experiment helped Arup push far past business as usual. “People have to be curious to really come to the table to collaborate,” he said. “And we see the best results where we’re having an effective collaboration.”

 

Questions or comments for Peter Zuspan or Matt Mahon? Email zuspan@bureauv.com or matthew.mahon@arup.com.

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