The challenge of precisely maintaining proper facility temperature and humidity levels to keep humans comfortable and instruments in tune is enough to keep an HVAC guru like Joseph A. Boni excited about work.
And if that’s not enough, the privilege of keeping a landmark building complex in a major metropolis up and running is another reason why this chief engineer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra loves his job.
From stringent acoustics to the fact that much of the tenant base can change nightly during the orchestral season, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and Symphony Center
offer a whole different kind of “to-do” list than the more traditional commercial facility settings.
Boni came from a more conventional background, working his way up through the engineering ranks at CarrAmerica in suburban Chicago. Two years ago, he decided to take the plunge into the segment he fondly calls “atypical buildings” and accepted the chief engineer post with the orchestra. “This is my first arts property, and it was a huge culture shock,” he admits.
HVAC is Boni’s specialty. Because of his savvy, he’s done textbook editing for Arnold, MD-based BOMI Institute and serves as the chairperson for the institute’s Midwest textbook review for all the Facility Management Administration courses.
Boni says his strongest skill is taking apart HVAC systems, discovering where the inconsistencies are, finding the solutions to repair these problems, and putting the systems back together so they work better. And in the sensitive environment at Orchestra Hall, that skill is not just a benefit; it’s practically a necessity. “We have to maintain tight temperature and humidity,” Boni explains. “If we allow the humidity to fluctuate too much, we’ll knock the instruments out of tune. It all comes down to consistency.”
Symphony Center’s heating and cooling system runs off of five separate fans. One fan supplies Orchestra Hall’s concert hall only. Another supplies the basement of Orchestra Hall and the “support building,” which includes practice rooms and musical instrument storage areas. A third unit services the facility’s education and administration building. Unit four supplies Symphony Center’s eighth- and ninth-floor Donor’s Club, while the final fan services Orchestra Hall’s entire front-of-house lobbies. Each of these fan units is equipped with humidification units.
Boni says the biggest challenge is maintaining a balance between the concert hall fan and the fan that supplies the support building. “Because the musicians may tune their instruments in the locker rooms that are located in the basement and walk up into the concert hall from there, consistency between these two areas is key,” he notes. This especially holds true with the pianos, which are stored in the basement in an area directly under the concert stage and then are brought up on stage via a special lift system. Often, the pianos are tuned prior to reaching the stage. Dramatic fluctuations in temperature between the basement and the stage could wreak havoc on the tuning, so Boni and his team work hard to maintain constant conditions in the building’s various areas.
Fiscal issues bring another challenge. U.S. cultural institutions are pinched in the current economy – even world-class organizations such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Public funding and donations are down, and the effects trickle into the facilities management arena. “We’re financially tight,” Boni says. “We’re constantly battling to justify our preventive maintenance program vs. cost. We’re only 350,000 square feet, but you have to keep up with the cleaning and the maintenance. There are a lot of challenges here.”
“But that’s what makes the job fun,” he admits. “It’s not everyday property management. We’ve made vast improvements here. We’re truly trying.”
Robin Suttell (email@example.com), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.