Supporting the Arts


Supporting the Arts

A lot of behind-the-scenes work went into raising the curtain at BLUEBARN Theatre in Omaha.

Ric Thompson, a senior truss designer with Millard Lumber, is used to taking on a challenge. “I don’t do small jobs,” he said. “I only do monsters.” Still, some monsters are more monstrous than others. Ask him about BLUEBARN Theatre, and it’s clear that this project stands out. “Oh, golly,” Thompson sighed, “I remember this guy.”

Larry Lightner, the truss designer who sits next to Thompson, remembers BLUEBARN too. “The very first time Ric showed it me, I looked at it and said, ‘it can’t be done,’” Lightner recalled. It didn’t take long, though, for the project to grab him. He pondered for a while and soon was thinking, “there’s gotta be a way.”

In telling the story of BLUEBARN, Thompson identified three distinct phases: “When you get started, you say, ‘what a nightmare this is going to be!’” Next, Thompson reached the stage of thinking, “wow, how am I going to do this?” Finally, “when you’re all done,” Thompson says, “you say, ‘that wasn’t so bad.’”

What a Nightmare

“In the architect’s defense,” Lightner said, “even though it drove us crazy, in the end it looked pretty darn good.” It’s an “extraordinary building,” he admitted: an in-fill project in a revitalizing warehouse district, wrapped in re-claimed finishes and boasting an oversized door—essentially, a fold-back wall—that accommodates outdoor seating to turn an indoor stage into a 360-degree performance space.

Yet it was the roof that caught Thompson and Lightner’s attention. “There were no roof plans defined on this job,” Thompson recalled. There was simply a note indicating that the truss designer could figure it out. As a consequence, Thompson and Lightner had to work very closely with the building engineer to arrive at the final roof design.

The plans called for “a three- or four-twelve pitch in the front going down to nothing in the back,” Thompson said, “and I wasn’t sure how to do that on my own.” Fortunately, Lightner had some ideas, and between them, they managed to translate the architectural plans into data they could use to set up the roof in their truss design software. “That’s our game,” Lightner said. In this case, “we had to do some pretty tricky math to make it work with the tools we’ve got,” but they managed. 

Part of the challenge of translating the architect’s design to a truss layout was the unusual zig-zagging of the roof planes. “The slope goes up and down and up and then down and then up,” Thompson explained. “There’s a valley going back, so that means there has to be water drainage somehow.” That was no small consideration for a building in Nebraska where, as Thompson said, “we do have three foot of snow on a roof sometimes,” which will eventually run off.

In a typical roof design, Lightner said, “you’re trying to move water from the center out.” In this case, he said, the architect’s primary concern was street-view aesthetics. The focus of the building design was on the look of the façade, not on the top of the roof—so the resulting design channeled water “in opposite directions,” Lightner explained, “shooting some water towards the back, some water towards the front.”

“Picture the exterior wall like a W,” says Flack. “The trusses themselves were the same height, following this but the walls had different bearing—some on the slab, some up on a curb and some set down into the concrete.”

An unusual water management strategy was just the beginning of the project’s design challenges; next came the trusses themselves. “Every one was unique to get the funky roof,” Thompson remembers. For example, the building engineer specified a uniform two-foot depth for the trusses. “When the roof slopes, whatever pitch it may be, the ceiling slopes with it,” Thompson said. “That made it difficult to apply additional loads and make sure everything planes out from one truss to the next.”

Those additional loads certainly needed special attention. “We had to load it for fire sprinklers; we had to load it for theatre apparatus; we had to load it for lighting,” Thompson recalls. There were point loads specified at precise locations and loads for theatre equipment that required girder trusses be placed exactly as noted on the blueprints. One big plus, Thompson recalled, was that “the plumbing was underneath the trusses,” attached on the underside rather than running between webs.

On top of everything else, the building engineer originally specified trusses hanging from concealed steel; Thompson says he couldn’t actually find a truss hanger that would accomplish exactly what the design asked for, and the option that would have maintained something as close as possible to the original design was prohibitively expensive. “So I had to change the end condition,” Thompson explained. He conferred with the building engineer and added blocking that allowed a skewed hanger to connect the trusses to the rest of the framing.

Then came the critical question: how to support all the trusses Thompson had designed? “Bearing issues were very important,” Thompson said. Fortunately, he again had a
colleague to turn to for help.

Once Thompson and Lightner had solved the roof plane issue, the project was just one minor issue after another—like an eight-foot overhang that required two-ply trusses for support. “The overhangs were so excessive,” Thompson recalls. “It’s going to break off if it’s only going to be one ply.” 

How Am I Going to Do This?

Beth Flack, a senior wall component designer at Millard, created the wall panels to support Thompson’s trusses. It was convenient to keep roof and walls in-house; it was also a design collaboration of necessity. On “a job like BLUEBARN,” Flack argued, “it would not have been possible to have one without the other.”

It was essential to integrate the roof and wall component design because of how closely the two needed to match. Flack said she and Thompson “really spent a lot of time—more time than usual—discussing this one.” He would add a girder; she would figure out how to bear the girder. He would design a truss to support loads from hanging catwalks and spotlights; she would make sure the wall provided enough support.

“It’s just a good brain teaser,” Flack said. “It was really more of a puzzle than most projects are.” Most of the time, she noted, “when you have a roof that looks like a W, you have a flat roof underneath.” That wasn’t the case with BLUEBARN. Instead, the interior ceiling followed the exterior roofline. In some areas—both inside the building and on the underside of the exterior overhang—bottom chords were left exposed. That meant that the trusses were designed with all sorts of uses in mind: they needed to support hanging chandeliers and hidden roof insulation, they had to stand up to weather exposure and accommodate netting to prevent birds from building nests in the overhang.

Adding to the challenge, the walls themselves were no simple matter. For one thing, the design used 25 different wall panel bearing heights. “The wall heights are very, very critical,” Thompson explained, “because they have to go up to the roof planes.” Every design choice and change Thompson made needed to be communicated to Flack so she could match his adjustments with her wall design. 

Fortunately, said Flack, “the design program that we use is very good.” Despite working 40 miles apart in separate Millard offices, Flack and Thompson could talk on the phone and work in the same drawing, taking turns watching each other design in IntelliBuild and Truswal, compatible software tools from Alpine. They tackled bearing issues together, accounting for the building’s odd angles and end-use-specific touches like recessed marquees.

Laying out trusses to support the zig-zagging roof planes wasn’t the only challenge Millard’s staff faced. To get the right level of noise dampening around the theatre sound booth, the architect designed a double wall with a dead air space in between. The problem, says Flack, is that the species of lumber the architect called for isn’t grown in the specified length, “so the structural engineer actually gave us a detail on how to splice studs.” Another challenge for the Millard shop ended in success for the sound booth.

That Wasn’t so Bad

In the end, said Flack, “it turned out pretty good.” Lightner agrees: “We had to invent the way to get there,” he said, but some creativity and hard work on the front end made for a beautiful building. “Everything worked,” Thompson concluded. “The framer called me very few times. There were very few issues; I don’t remember any repairs.”

Now that they’ve worked through the difficulties, all three agree that it was a very rewarding project. “It keeps you going, mentally, to have the challenges instead of just the mundane,” Flack acknowledged. “In the long run,” Thompson explained, “when I’m all done and everything’s fine,” he’ll go by and think, “what a job that was!” But really, he says, big, complex projects are never quite as difficult as he fears at first and not quite as much of a struggle as he’s sometimes inclined to remember. “It wasn’t so bad,” he said cheerfully of BLUEBARN. “It really wasn’t.” 

Millard Lumber & Grain Company was founded in 1948. It remains a family-owned Nebraska-based business with a staff of over 200 at three locations: Omaha, Waverly and Spring Hill. Its vision is to provide quality building materials and services that exceed customers’ expectations.

About the Author: Dale Erlandson joined SBCA staff in fall of 2015 as the assistant editor of SBC Magazine. She has written for a variety of publications over the last decade and thrives on the challenge of learning something new and passing that knowledge along through the written word.