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Hotel entrance canopy evokes the earth and sea

Case Studies, Features | September 1, 2008 | By:

To a guest at the 132-room Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa, it’s obvious what separates this place from other hotels. The property is the world’s first and only Gold LEED™ Certified hotel, which means that it has met rigorous environmental sustainability standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. So naturally, the hotel is quick to advertise its low-VOC paints, its Forest Stewardship Council-approved wood, its low-flow plumbing, its recycled tile and stone. The landscape is xeriscaped and chemical-free; solar panels provide 12% of the electricity.

But what about the building’s appearance from the outside? Does it look like just another upscale boutique hotel? Not on your life. On the curvy wood-faced facade, a spectacular 45m2 canopy shaped like a giant scallop shell rises above a sleek glued-laminated timber entrance arch. It’s a little like Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” realized in modern, clean-lined building materials. It speaks volumes about the building’s intimate connection with the planet.

The concept

The canopy is the work of Rainier Industries of Tukwila, Wash. The company became involved when Berkeley, Calif.-based M. Muenig Architects contacted Rainier and asked it to flesh out the details of a scribbled concept drawing. “We’re pretty visual,” says project manager John Small. “Architectural firms find out about us from other architects and designers. In this case, a graphic artist had written something on a napkin and said, ‘This would look cool.’ So they gave it to the architect to start looking at.”

Initially, the architectural firm wanted Rainier to give a quote for completion of the product. But without knowing more about the specifics, Small said it would be difficult to talk about pricing. So instead, Rainier agreed to a price for figuring out the specifics of the project and getting it approved by its engineering firm. Then, once they knew the specifics of the canopy, they’d talk about a price for building and installing it.

The creation

It turned out that there was nothing terribly forbidding about creating the piece, other than the fact that so many individual, far-flung companies were involved. It was a little like herding cats, Small jokes, but everyone had a good working relationship, which helped the project to go smoothly. Still, there was quite a bit of travel involved; Small, for one, traveled to Napa Valley four separate times.

“They [the architectural firm] spec’d out the fabric, which was a Ferrari structural fabric,” Small says. “Everything else for us was pretty straightforward. We welded steel and then painted it, and mechanically fastened aluminum to the steel. Their general contractor built and installed the wooden arch that the whole thing rests on.

The glue-lam arch is an integral supporting member for the canopy, so Rainier had to communicate quite a bit with the contractor. “It’s a major component, and it carries the load,” Small says. “We have an attachment at the building that is pretty beefy—the contractor built in some blocking when they were framing the building for us to attach to. But the pipes in the canopy are 12.7cm-diameter steel, and they’re pretty heavy. Plus, the canopy can catch some wind, and there are seismic considerations. So there are some pretty beefy attachments to the glue-lam itself.”

The completion

Installation of the canopy was somewhat atypical. Each of the lobes of the shell is an individual piece of fabric, and in order to keep the pieces taut and wrinkle-free, the installers had to work from left to right. “I was actually one of the installers,” Small says. “One of the considerations was, each piece is actually unique. They look similar, but because of the roll of the structure, each piece had to be cut a little bit differently.”

Before fabrication began, Rainier staffers went to California to scope out the project. There were eight bays between the steel pipes (installed and painted by yet another subcontractor), and because the bays were narrow where they met the building and became increasingly wide as they projected outward, precision measuring, cutting, and labeling were crucial.

The fabric pieces are connected to the steel pipes by a system of staple tracks. “At the top of each pipe, there’s a piece of 2.54cm aluminum staple extrusion,” Small explains. “We drilled holes into the steel pipe and mechanically fastened the staple track on the top of the pipe—actually, not the very top, but at angles varying with the radius of the canopy. There was a certain pattern that we had to do. Then we mechanically fastened the aluminum to the steel, stapled the fabric into the aluminum, and then put gimp in the track after the fabric was stapled in.”

Where the canopy meets the building, Small and his colleagues built a gutter with a downspout at either end. Water that runs off goes into a pair of planters. And at the edges of the canopy, the two small triangular pieces that form the “wings” of the scallop are not actually very triangular at all; they were cut to conform to the radius of the building. In addition, there’s a pocket on each piece that contains a tensioning cable.

From there, the canopy reaches outward, starburst-like, to its intersection with the glue-lam arch. To attach the pipes firmly, Rainier custom-fabricated a series of steel brackets. These brackets were attached to the steel beam in the arch, then the pipes were welded to the brackets. “That was a result of the structural engineer’s instruction on that,” Small notes.

At the outermost end of the canopy, where the fronts of the pipes cantilever over the wooden arch, additional aluminum staple tracks help the fabric hold its shape. They’re built on a radius, once again, and they give the fabric a tight, professional finish.

From concept to installation, the Rainier Industries team worked on the canopy for about two and a half years. And the installation took approximately one week; it was completed in November 2006.

Small is quick to deflect praise. “There were some tricks to making sure that the fabric was wrinkle-free,” he says. “It really turned out superb, I think. But Don McDaniel, who was working with me on the installation, was really good.”

Jamie Swedberg a freelance writer based near Athens, Ga., writes regularly about architecture and design.

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