Extensive AV Complements NAR’s "Green" HQ

Sound & Communications
By Jim Stokes

The National Association of Realtors’ (NAR) new “green” building on New Jersey Avenue in the heart of the nation’s capital provides a wide range of AV presentation and conferencing technologies in a corporate showcase setting. 

Main AV spaces include an event room, which affords a grand view of the Capitol Dome, a boardroom, a VTC/multi-purpose room and a PC training room, which are aided by a help desk/IT server room.

NAR’s new digs serve as the DC operations center for the Chicago-based organization. Known officially as The Realtor Building, the structure provides a stunning environment. In fact, “environment” is the key word describing the building. It has the distinction of being the first newly built structure to meet “green” standards, which are high levels of environmental performance as set by the US Green Building Council. For its achievements in the field of sustainable environmental design, the building was awarded the Silver Certificate from the LEED (the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System.

Striking Structure

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The striking, $46 million, Class “A,” glass-wrapped structure has set new architectural and environmental standards for Washington DC, and has created a dramatic presence with its breathtaking view of the US Capitol only three blocks away.

NAR presently occupies five floors of the 12-story building, using about 40,000 square feet. The balance of 93,000 square feet is rented or rentable. A rooftop facility is available for social gatherings. Quoting from NAR’s “The Realtor Building” publication, NAR president Tom Stevens observed, “It’s amazing how…our new building has become a landmark for beauty, uniqueness, greenness in Washington and has set a standard for all future construction in the city.”

The following Washington DC-area firms supplied services relating to the AV project. Our spokespersons for this article are Terry Richards, managing director, IT services of NAR’s DC office, and project manager Bill Apter, senior Avitecture systems consultant. Avitecture provided the integration of AV systems with information technology for architecture.

In addition, Avitecture’s AV team included designer Michael Crawford, CTS, and programmer Michael Faulkner, CTS. Sound & Communications also wishes to thank marketing coordinator Kirsten Bakken. Project architect was Laura Cabo, AIA, with Graham Gund Architects. Steve Boudreau, EET, was the consultant with Polysonics acoustical and communications consulting firm. Custom cabinetry was provided by Jefferson Millwork.

Glass, Ship-Shaped Challenges

Our AV tour of the Realtor Building will feature the boardroom, VTC room and event rooms, as well as the help desk. All AV installed rooms have Crestron control. Although the building was an architectural showpiece, it also created AV design and install challenges. The dynamic lines of the structure form a ship’s prow, which aims toward the Capitol. Avitecture’s Bill Apter noted that the main conference rooms and the boardroom are located where the building forms a point. “It created an incredible challenge in trying to lay out the room to work for audiovisual. In addition, the walls in the entire building, from floor to ceiling, are glass. There’s only a four-inch base that’s put around each floor for routing of wiring. So there are no walls, except for interior walls.”

He explained that the upfront coordination with the architect for placement of furniture, internal wire routing and camera placement was done primarily by Polysonics. “This was very labor-intensive coordination because there wasn’t the luxury we had in other AV situations. All the plates and wiring from point A to point B had to be pre-determined and sized specifically to handle whatever cabling had to go to a particular table or credenza. So we wound up putting a lot of equipment into custom credenzas, which were sized to hold the racks.”

“Reverse Build”

He continued, “It was sort of a reverse build. We knew how large the racks had to be; therefore, we made the credenzas to that size. Then, inside the credenzas, we brought power, cooling, LAN and cable TV connections. So there was a lot of upfront coordination required to accommodate this sort of unforgiving space.”

Another challenge was in the GUI selection. Avitecture supplied samples and Polysonics narrowed down the selection to three GUI layouts. Factors considered were aesthetics, functionality and layout. The least amount of page flips was a consideration, as well. “Polysonics’ Steve Boudreau was a superb designer who stayed with the project through all the changes,” affirmed Apter. “He took over in midstream and really helped us iron out the difficulties that the building provided, itself.”

According to Apter, one of the real strengths of Avitecture is that programmers know how to write programs for end users who are scared of AV. Every AV room has a step-by-step control system screen layout. “A strength of Avitecture/AV Washington is that we’ve developed a touchscreen protocol that really ‘walks’ people through their system operation with a combination of graphic layout and text,” he said. “That’s because touchscreens scare people. It’s the ‘Oh my! I’m going to press this and the wrong thing is going to work’ scenario. So our company does presentation spaces for non- AV end users.”

AV rooms are equipped with a full Crestron, with either a wired touchpanel or a wireless two-way system. And there’s a drama behind the two-way, which now functions quietly and dependably. But it wasn’t always like that. Apter noted that Crestron, on its own, developed a newer wireless technology because downtown DC is so very heavy with wireless that frequencies were jammed up. Although it was through no fault of Crestron that the initial two-way wouldn’t work in this environment, the company agreed to put in, at great expense, its newly developed 2.4 spread spectrum, two-way wireless that wasn’t in the consultant’s original spec.

New AV Room Advantages

Terry Richards, managing director, IT services of NAR’s DC office, noted that, before the new building was constructed, the previous location had only one area set up for videoconferencing because the group was renting space. Presently, he said that 90% between the Chicago and Washington DC offices. “In the past two months, we’ve tried to expand that out for streaming video. Usually, people would have to fly from different parts of the country to our Chicago office, where they’d meet with some of the key leadership people with our Chicago and DC offices. We would talk about strategic goals for the year. This way, we eliminated a whole lot of traveling by our members, which they appreciated. It turned out very well. They can log onto a certain website and we can actually stream video out via the internet for meetings.”

Richards explained that the rooms have multipurpose uses in addition to AV. “We can hold large meetings, which can be set up for presentations. They’re used for social gatherings. The nice things about the rooms are their connectivity. For instance, in the event room, we can move or connect laptops in different areas because we have Extron connectivity via the floor boxes.”

Help Desk

IT manager Richards pointed out, “One of the advantages we have here that we didn’t have previously is the ability to support all our major rooms from downstairs in our data center [help desk]. So, instead of me having to go upstairs, I can go to my data center where all the rooms are controlled by a central system in my computer room. I can actually take control of the room and monitor what’s going on. Nine times out of 10, I can fix whatever issues they’re having, instead of me or someone else going upstairs.”

The four major AV rooms are the boardroom and event room on the 12th floor, plus the 9th floor VTC room and the PC training room on the second floor. The rooms’ Crestron control systems are available via a web address on the client’s LAN down at a help desk in the data center/IT server room, which also has a direct camera feed to the four major AV rooms.

For example, in the boardroom and the VTC room, the camera is used for both surveillance and videoconferencing. The camera routes to the second floor server room and to the videoconferencing codec. In addition, there’s a hanging microphone in each room, which allows people at the help desk to monitor the particular AV room. The camera and mic audio links to the help desk were done over fiber.

The Crestron touchscreen has a “need help” button that triggers an audible beep from the help desk’s touchscreen. And the touchscreen blinks as well, showing the room location. The help desk has remote control of the camera pan/tilt/zoom and can talk back to the room, as well. “[People manning] the help desk can fully assist without having to actually go the room,” Apter pointed out. “It speeds up the response time and allows for a more seamless setup. If [someone in] the room requires help in a non-crisis mode, the help desk can have someone ‘talk them through’ what to do. Or, people at the help desk can do it for them.”

Projector lamp life can be monitored via the server room, as well. “There’s a system that monitors the actual service hours of the projectors so that, when it comes close to the end cycle of that bulb, it will send an email saying the bulb is getting close to where it may burn out,” said NAR’s Richards. “So it provides adequate maintenance time and lead time to repair any potential problems before I hear someone saying, ‘it doesn’t work.’ That’s a very nice aspect that’s included in the package.”

Boardroom

As a result of the building’s architecture, the 12th floor boardroom has only three walls with a pleasant view of the city. The two long walls, which come to a point, are comprised of floor-to-ceiling glass with only a four-inch perimeter for wiring chase. Then there’s a short interior wall with double doors for entrance. “So, the usual space available for screens, the usual wall plates and other normal AV accouterments weren’t available,” said Apter.

The huge glass walls affected projection, as well. Hence, a Christie Digital Vivid Blue 5800 lumen rear-screen projector was installed, which fired onto a 53″x67″ Da-Lite screen mounted on the entrance doors wall. “The client wanted the AV to function fully without the windows being darkened,” Apter pointed out. “The windows were darkened for videoconferencing, where they didn’t want the cameras facing out, into a bunch of glass and outside light. But for all other presentations, they’ll keep the shades open.” The room is equipped with electric roll-down screens for the windows.

As you’re facing the wall from the boardroom table, you’ll see AV displays built into a beautiful rare wood housing. Mounted on the right side of the double doorway is a 61-inch NEC plasma that’s used as the primary screen for videoconferencing. A video camera is mounted there, as well. And to the left of the doorway is mounted the aforementioned rear-projection screen with the Christie projector, which is used primarily for room presentations. “Because this is a high-end room, the client wanted dual-screen capability,” said Apter. “So, during videoconferencing, they can bring up a computer briefing in full resolution on one screen. Then the other screen has the video. It’s an unusual situation to have the screens separated by a double doorway. But there was no other way to give them that capability. And, in videoconferencing, they usually only use the 61-inch plasma, often with a side-by-side display within the plasma.” The support rack is nestled into the rear projection room. “That got to be a challenge because the Christie projector is large and required a one-inch lens,” he said. “So, we had to sort of reconfigure the rack to fit around the projector.”

Three Cameras

Three Canon cameras are placed strategically for the videoconferencing system. One is at the rear of the room, so if someone is at the front giving a presentation, the camera will see them and the screen. In addition, one camera is centered over the doorway to get the wide table shot. And one camera is next to the plasma monitor built into the wall, at eye level. That’s the most commonly used videoconferencing camera. The multiple cameras run through a Tandberg 6000 videoconferencing codec.

On the audio conferencing side, Polycom does the echo cancellation and audio processing. The ceiling-mounted AV conferencing speakers are Klipsch. And program sound content comes from a pair of TOA speakers.

The boardroom table also was customized to provide a large well toward the back of the table that accommodates storage of such bulky items as videoconferencing microphones and computer cabling. “They can go from a completely clear table with nothing visible to a full VTC and laptop presentation in two minutes,” declared Apter. “We didn’t want mics built into the table with the little goosenecks coming out, or the flat boundary mics looking like little pimples going around the table.”

He noted it was a “trial-and-error process” to find the right mic “look” that NAR wanted, along with audio capabilities acceptable to the consultant. As a result, the English-manufactured Clockaudio microphones were chosen. Twelve of these short shotguns were used around the table. “The mic doesn’t arc like a gooseneck, but has a knee coupler that swivels at 45° angles. They also have short goosenecks that fit in clearly with the well of the table.” They put the mic into an Audio-Technica base with a mute switch.

In addition, the table has a full complement of laptop inputs and LAN connections. Summing up, Apter pointed out that the table design was a collaboration among AV, the architect, the client and the millworker, Jefferson Millwork.

The Room with Two Head Ends

Now let’s go to the ninth floor VTC room: a dual-purpose videoconference and presentation room. NAR’s directive, according to Apter, was, “We want this room to do everything.” That ranges from distance conferencing to room presentations, staff meetings and client meetings. “A room that’s ideal for videoconferencing is not ideal for presentations,” declared Apter. “They have different needs and different requirements. What happened is that this space actually has two systems in one room.”

One wall has a dual-screen videoconferencing system comprised of two NEC 50-inch plasmas, which are built into AV-friendly custom cabinets, “so they don’t appear to be just two plasmas stuck into a wall,” said Apter. “They’re surrounded by gorgeous wood.” The conferencing camera is encased between the dual monitors. The millwork has side hinges so the wood panels open up for AV service techs. The codec is a Tandberg 6000.

The wall on the opposite side of the room has an electric screen with imaging from a Christie ceiling-mounted projector. There’s a lectern off the right of the screen. Because all furniture is movable, the U-shaped conference table can be shifted to face either direction for videoconferencing or presentation. So, essentially, the room has two head ends.

Because the shifted-about furniture easily could produce a snarl of mic cables during conferencing, six Shure wireless boundary mics, designed specifically for videoconferencing, were provided. Similarly, FSR floor boxes for laptop, input, LAN and power were positioned carefully to accommodate the shifting furniture. As in the boardroom, a surveillance camera and hanging mic connect to the second floor help desk. The Crestron touchscreen guides people through the two different configurations, because there are different speakers for the different head ends of the room.

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Power Room with a Power View

The event room is a power room with a correspondingly powerful view of the Capitol Dome. In contrast, the boardroom located on the same 12th floor, but on the other side of the building, looks over the city, but not the Capitol. According to Apter, the event room was positioned for VIP events, receptions, dinners and presentations because, as you speak, people are looking at you and over your shoulder onto the Capitol. Accordingly, there are half a dozen floor boxes available for various panel discussions and lectern presentations around a U-shaped table.

“You can position the furniture in such a way that it’s over the floor boxes,” explained Apter. “So it’s very clean cabling. And the floor boxes have inputs for microphones, laptops and control panels. When you walk the room, you don’t see anything amazing. You see two projectors on the ceiling, facing side-by-side screens. Then there are a couple of output plates for plasmas that can be brought in on an ‘as needed’ basis.

“Most of the time, presentations are done through the Christie projectors onto the electric screens, which drop in front of the glass. Then they can choose to leave the windows open because the projectors are bright. Or, if they want more focused presentations, they can drop the blackout shades; you lose the Capitol view, but gain the audience’s focused attention.” The lectern can be moved in front of the glass or near the one eight foot drywall in the room.

On the audio side, a pair of JBL program speakers is powered by a Crown amplifier. For conferencing, 16 Klipsch ceiling speakers are driven by a Biamp power amplifier. Voice reinforcement is via a bevy of beyer dynamic wireless Delegate encoded/encrypted conferencing systems. The high-level encryption system was important to the client; these units are similar to the simultaneous translation systems used in the United Nations. Participants’ voices are reinforced through all the other participants’ speakers in the Delegate system sitting in front of them. When the mics are used for audio conferencing, the Polycom is used for echo cancellation.

At press time, NAR’s Richards noted that the event room will have videoconferencing capabilities added “in the next couple of weeks. We’re in a build-out phase now. We’re just waiting for some equipment to come in.”

Used with permission of Testa Communications from the August 2006 issue of Sound & Communications magazine.