Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Renovation/Remodeling and Interior Design and Recycling and Indianapolis Museum of Art and Energy & Environment and Environment and Facilities and Architecture/Design and Tobias Theatre and Real Estate & Retail

Tobias Theater renovation is new model for environmentally sensitive construction

March 9, 2009
The 600-seat Randall L. and Marianne W. Tobias Theater (nicknamed The Toby) sits at the nexus of two cultural frontiers.

On the arts front, it offers a home to cutting-edge entertainers, speakers and films. On the environmental front, the newly remodeled performance space is arguably the greenest facility of its kind in the nation.

It also looks pretty cool — from its thick, black, cushiony flooring made from old tires to the water-free urinals in the men's room. It was all managed on a limited budget and a tight schedule by a staff that, essentially, learned about green technology as it went along.

"Maybe it was my own naivete that made me think, 'Hey, why not do this?'" said David Russick, the IMA's chief designer and leader of the theater's refurbishment effort. "Maybe someone with more experience would have said, 'You don't have enough time; you don't have a big enough budget.'"

The facility, the former home of the Indianapolis Civic Theatre (which now performs at Marian College), was padlocked during the IMA's recent $74 million expansion program, which added 164,000 square feet to the museum complex and renovated some 90,000 square feet of existing space.

The original plan was to dust off the theater and reopen it "as is" at some point. But then Randall and Marianne Tobias, who in 2003 donated $1 million to the IMA's capital campaign, decided to offer a second $1 million to turn the theater into a state-of-the-art venue.

"They were very excited about that," said Randall Tobias, chairman emeritus of Eli Lilly and Co.

Which is putting it mildly. The IMA decided to update the facility, make it handicapped-accessible, and use recycled and green materials wherever feasible.

Making it happen — and quickly — fell to Russick and his staff. Technical Designer Gregory Smith and Assistant Director of Education and Public Programs Anne Laker pushed hard for the green angle.

Laker, a Hoosier Environmental Council director, took Russick on a pivotal visit to GreenWay Supply, a downtown shop that sells recycled and green building and decorating materials.

"Speaking as a designer rather than an environmentalist, I was encouraged because the stuff [they sold] wasn't ugly," Russick said. "Some of the crushed glass items, it looked like it was handmade and from Venice. And then I found out it was old car windshields."

But while having easy access to the only environmentally correct building supply store within hundreds of miles (the next closest is in Chicago) was a definite plus, there was still lots of research to do to get up to speed.

The refurbished theater had to be re opened within nine months.

"There were people who said, 'Is this really the project we want to do this on? It's certainly going to slow us down. We're on a fast track, we have a donor, we don't want to disappoint,'" Russick recalled. "But when I heard that the donors thought it was a great idea, I was like, 'We don't disappoint.'"

Tobias, for his part, was enthusiastic about the green angle.

"I thought that was very consistent with the image that the theater was trying to project," he said. "It was trendy, not in a sense of being a fad, but trendy in the sense of being on the leading edge of what a lot of people in society are broadly thinking about."

Most of the new hardware is made from materials that might have wound up in a dump.

The new seats are covered with Victor theater fabric, which is made of recycled polyester. Unlike their predecessors, the seating is designed with easy recycling in mind. All the seats sit on a vast sheet of Retire Rubber Flooring, which is made of old car tires.

A similar product — a mash-up of cork, tires and other (former) undesirables called Retire Composite Flooring — can be found underfoot in the bathrooms.

The lobby sports paneling and trim made from Kirei Board, a laminate composed of sorghum plants. The Chinese import also was used for cabinetry behind the lobby bar.

However, the bar top itself is of Hoosier origin. Produced locally by Santarossa Terrazzo, it is made of, among other things, recycled glass and resin.

The lobby and aisle carpets are likewise designed to be easily removed and recycled.

Time and budgetary constraints meant not everything could be green. The paints, for instance, are conventional. And the sorghum paneling was too expensive to use more generously.

GreenWay Supply furnished the recycled tire flooring, the Kirei Board and the bar top. The store offers quite a few Indiana-made products, including manual lawn mowers built by the Shelbyville-based American Lawn Mower Co.; solar-powered attic fans from a firm in Spiceland; and custom cabinetry that's free of volatile organic compounds from an Amish company in Freedom.

The most serious construction effort involved making the facility handicapped accessible. It was no small task, because the slope of the seating area was only slightly less steep than a ski jump. Descending in a wheelchair was frightening, and ascending was impossible. The staffers know because they actually got into wheelchairs and attempted it.

"Even if your upper body strength was tremendous, being wheelchair-bound, you cannot get enough traction to get up there," Russick said. "Someone has to push you."

A wheelchair-accessible "patio" was installed at the top of the main-floor seating area, and access to the front of the theater (which was leveled) is provided via an elevator near doors on the facility's right side. The flat area is given over to "alternative seating" — immense red beanbag chairs filled with recycled materials.

"I've come here for five or six performances, and they're always the first seats to go," Russick said.

Though there probably isn't another performance venue in the country that's gone to such lengths to become environmentally friendly, Russick is loath to claim the "greenest theater in the country" banner: "We may have missed somebody someplace."

It may be the greenest anything in Indiana — though perhaps not for long. Carey Hamilton, executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition (which the IMA recently joined) sees more such projects cropping up soon.

Not-for-profits aligned with the environment or health, and architectural firms with an interest in green design, may lead the charge, Hamilton said. The coalition and the IMA even have toyed with the idea of taking the green concept further. Much, much further — a case study for zero waste (in which a facility recycles literally everything it produces, sending nothing to the landfill).

"The IMA fits perfectly," Hamilton said.

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