With several awards on its shelf and a third expansion in the works, the Electronic Theatre Controls (ETC) headquarters merits another look behind the curtains. The 328,000-square-foot building that houses the Middleton, Wis.–based theater-lighting manufacturer appropriately alludes to a stage setting through the clever use of metal panels.
In March 2001, ETC CEO Fred Foster approached Madison, Wis.–based Strang, an architectural, engineering, and interior design firm, to discuss consolidating his company’s operations in a new headquarters building. At the time, the company’s various divisions—which include research and development, operations, marketing, and the paint and metal shops—were dispersed across eight buildings in Dane County.
Keeping all aspects of the business local gave ETC complete control over its schedule and production and allowed the company to fulfill quick-turnaround orders. However, each building was beginning to develop its own culture, which conflicted with the egalitarian philosophy of the company’s founders.
Foster wanted to unite the company under one roof, but worried how—or if—the resulting mix of talents would get along. His uncertainty informed how the architects approached the project’s design, says Peter Tan, AIA, a vice president and design principal at Strang who served as the design architect for the project. “In this day and age of outsourcing and offshoring, it’s such a heartwarming corporate success story,” he says. “Right here in Middleton, we have the world leader in theater lighting and controls—and it’s totally vertically integrated.”
Enlisting the help of the on-site design/build team of Frank Miller and Jerry Scholts of Madison-based Erdman Development Group (now Erdman Holdings), Strang and ETC created a design that would highlight ETC’s products and provide a shared space where the entire staff could socialize and collaborate. Incorporating a combination of theatrical techniques and ETC’s own lighting solutions, the design featured a centralized “town square” complete with a cinema, bank, hardware store, and other small-town staples that would be right at home in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
While a typical office building might contain a lobby, a cafeteria, conference rooms, and a product demonstration area in separate locations, “a town square is all of those things,” Tan explains. “It also takes the place of eight conference rooms. If you place yourself at a table with a lot of buzz going on, you have a lot of acoustic privacy. It’s an extremely efficient multiuse space.”
Each town square façade was designed with its department in mind. The public school façade houses the training room; the typewriter repair shop contains the IT department; the hardware store is home to manufacturing; and the finance department is located upstairs from the bank.
Meanwhile, ETC’s reception area recreates the diner in Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting, down to the circa-1940s coffee urns. Behind a cinema marquee emblazoned with the movie title It’s a Wonderful Life, the staff take prospective customers to a demonstration space in which they are introduced to the ETC product line.
While the ground floor areas are usable, three-dimensional spaces, the façades from the second floor up are theatrical illusions. In an actual theater, fabric scrims painted with scenery create an inexpensive backdrop or special effects. At the ETC headquarters, industrial expanded steel mesh panels take the place of the traditional fabric scrim. “We looked for a material that would perform like theatrical scrim and be code compliant and durable, so we found this expanded metal,” Tan says. When the ETC lighting is brighter in the town square, the scenery is visible; but when the office lighting behind the metal scrims is turned up, the scenery fades from view.
“The theatrical metaphor was really helpful for the budget,” Tan says. “The use of metals was also helpful for the budget. We used very economical metal products.” The project team used other ordinary materials in extraordinary ways to stay within the project’s budget—the final cost was $72 per square foot—as well as to continue the theme of theatrical illusion. Instead of solid wood, for example, the building uses faux wood-grain doors.
In a typical corporate headquarters, the office areas use carpeting while manufacturing areas have concrete floors. In response to ETC’s egalitarian ethos—and the project budget—Strang specified concrete flooring as much as possible, with carpet installed only where people sit, such as workstations in both office and manufacturing areas. A corrugated metal acoustical floor and roof deck help absorb sound throughout the building.
The concrete-and-metal motif continues onto the building’s exterior and also pays homage to the performing arts. A metal space truss frames the front entrance, creating a proscenium for an area that periodically becomes a stage where ETC hosts concerts.
In place of bricks, yellow, durable, and economical precast concrete blocks clad the building exterior. Fabral Select Series 12-inch-wide, concealed-fastener expanded metal panels—a more economical option than composite aluminum panels—accent the walls. Neutral-colored, mica-gray Fabral panels form a horizontal band across the building exterior to help with sun shading, while expanded steel mesh panels, painted black in ETC’s metal shop, serve as additional vertical sunshades on the southwest-facing exterior.
Fabral’s 7/8-inch-thick corrugated panels in a random yellow, red, and blue pattern add visual interest to an exterior courtyard and serve as the basis of sculptural pieces—these geometric planes call to mind the lighting gels on stage lights as well as evoke the work of abstract artist Piet Mondrian.
Construction of the original 250,000-square-foot building was completed in 2004. A 78,000-square-foot expansion took place in 2007, bringing the total square footage to 328,000. Milwaukee-based BizTimes.com reports a planned expansion to provide space for about 100 additional workers. An ETC representative confirmed the report, but declined to provide further project details.
The Electronic Theatre Controls headquarters demonstrates metal’s versatility as well as its durability. ETC facilities manager Marc Reuter says, “The concealed-fastener panels have held up well. They have been maintenance free and look as good as the day they were installed. There has been some minor maintenance required on the expanded metal panels used on the exterior of the building—a few broken welds that connect the mesh to the frame [required repairs] and some touch-up painting [was needed]. More of this work will be needed in the future.”
The originality of the project’s design resulted from the combination of collaboration and creativity. “ETC represents the ideal client for us,” Tan says. “The project is a custom-built facility for an organization that has a lot of personality and real unique, specific needs. What we love to do is get right in there, understand the culture and mission of the organization, and create something that fits them like a glove. At the end of it, my best reward as an architect is when they say, ‘Peter, you listened well. You truly created something that represents us as a company.’ ”
Heidi Moore writes about architecture, design, and sustainable living from Chicago.