Natural History Museum of Utah at Rio Tinto Center, University of Utah

New construction: Natural History Museum of Utah at Rio Tinto Center, University of Utah; Spectrum Engineers


Natural History Museum of Utah, view from Past Worlds Terrace looking back on dinosaurs displayed on the terrace itself and below on Level 2: Past Worlds. Courtesy: Spectrum Engineers (Click to enlarge)Project name: Natural History Museum of Utah at Rio Tinto Center, University of Utah

Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

Firm name: Spectrum Engineers

Project type, building type: New construction, art/museum venue

Project duration: 4.5 years

Project completion date: Dec. 1, 2007

Project budget for mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection engineering only: $21 million

Engineering challenges

Closely coordinating with the exhibit designer, Spectrum Engineers provided electrical and acoustical/sound system engineering and technology systems design for this new museum located south of the Natural History Museum of Utah, view from Past Worlds Terrace toward Level 3: the Great Salt Lake. Note sea birds in upper right hand corner indicating a transition from Past Worlds (with dinosaur exhibits) to the Great Salt Lake area describing the advent of mammals in the region. Courtesy: Spectrum Engineers (Click to enlarge)Red Butte Garden and Arboretum on 17 acres at the University of Utah Research Park. The $103 million, 163,000-sq-ft museum supports the active research and care for a 1.2+ million-piece collection and displays about 10% of the collection. Construction was completed in December 2011.

Each of the museum’s four floors has a theme: sky, life, land, and past worlds. The museum includes eight permanent exhibits totaling about 37,500 sq ft plus a 1,200-sq-ft children’s gallery. Terraces access outdoor exhibits and the 17-acre protected desert site. The museum houses a 150-seat theater, bookstore, café, and approximately 31,500 sq ft of storage. The museum is designed to meet U.S. Green Building Council LEED Gold certification. Meeting the energy code targets for lighting power density was extremely difficult in this museum because lighting for displays was so important.

To overcome this challenge, incandescent lighting was avoided and energy-efficient ceramic metal halide and LED light sources were used for displays and exhibits. The Canyon multi-story open lobby area that Natural History Museum of Utah, view from upper level of Land Terrace, which leads to Level 4 and overlooks Level 3: Land exhibit and its many interactive exhibits including an erosion table, earthquake simulator, on- and off-site seismographs, wind chamber, etc. Courtesy: Spectrum (Click to enlarge)emulates the experience of walking through one of Utah’s slot canyons as well as other design features made it very difficult to route conduits for power and signal wiring. There was a concern that future routes would be nearly impossible once the building was constructed. Ample conduit pathways with spares were put into place to bridge across The Canyon, allowing future cabling to be run through the building with ease.

The unique space created by The Canyon’s varied angles and planes of concrete panels required extremely careful designs from Spectrum’s acoustical engineers and sound system designers to achieve systems that are intelligible yet unobtrusive to patrons. Maintaining aesthetics while simultaneously providing for building life safety was another challenge. The architect did not want fire alarm horns interfering with the beautifully detailed canyon wall. Spectrum Engineers proposed, and used, a special fire alarm AV device that is concealed in the Canyon wall and will rotate into view in an alarm situation.


Natural History Museum of Utah, the Canyon on Level 2. This was an extremely challenging space for designers and contractors. The Canyon houses café seating (foreground), multi-story collections wall, and two pedestrian bridges allowing occupants to crossSecurity systems designed by Spectrum include: video surveillance, access control, and motion detection and intrusion detection systems. At the inception of the project, the video surveillance system began with the existing University of Utah campus standard for CCTV digital/analog (e.g., not IP megapixel cameras) in which the video signal is distributed over coaxial cable/twisted pair. Hoping to take advantage of the enhanced video quality of IP megapixel cameras, the video surveillance system at the museum was changed. This created an installation/camera location challenge because the cameras now had to be within 300 ft of termination to the network (typically located in communications closets). With a traditional surveillance system (typical voltage digital analog camera systems), the signal can be distributed over 800 or 900 ft of coaxial cable comfortably. In a building as large as the museum, with massive open spaces, the difference between 300 and 900 ft can produce challenges because of the likely increased distance between communications closets.

Careful coordination was required to ensure that the upgraded megapixel system, which achieves improved resolution images for distribution and capture, was implemented with very careful location of cameras. This was the first major project on the university campus that utilized the newer megapixel IP system, and it became the de facto campus standard. Card access and other security systems followed the existing campus standard.

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