Advocating & Protecting Art and Science

Maybe the last decade's dot-com billionaires are now reaching their prime philanthropic years, or perhaps a number of lucky curators simply hit the lottery. Whatever the reason, cultural-facility construction in the U.S. is currently going through a boom of sorts. In planning this new generation of museums and science centers—including mammoth aquariums—designers are recognizing th...

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Writer November 1, 2006

Maybe the last decade’s dot-com billionaires are now reaching their prime philanthropic years, or perhaps a number of lucky curators simply hit the lottery. Whatever the reason, cultural-facility construction in the U.S. is currently going through a boom of sorts.

In planning this new generation of museums and science centers—including mammoth aquariums—designers are recognizing the increased competition for patrons’ time and responding with structures that are more engaging and interactive than ever before.

Consulting engineers in the field say they are seeing activity across the full range of cultural organizations. But while interactive, science-based facilities seem to attract bigger headlines, professionals say art museums are seeing the greatest construction activity today. And, they say, much of the funding for these projects is coming from private donors instead of government grants. “From an account point of view, there’s more activity in the arts,” says Bob Gracilieri, P.E., chief executive of Boston-based SEi. “And it’s all private money—philanthropists willing to step up to the plate because the money is out there.”

New money, new ideas

Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the museums now undergoing major expansions were originally funded by the last great wave of philanthropists—the industrial barons who began dispersing their wealth at the turn of the last century. For example, two of the most notable current museum projects, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the Art Institute of Chicago, are expansions of leading facilities originally conceived as civic improvements by prominent citizens of their day. But, as today’s fortunes draw on bits and bytes instead of ingots and rails, current improvements are often focused as much on laying the groundwork for re-conceiving what a museum can be from a technology standpoint as they are on simply adding new space for growing collections.

“The role of all [museums] is changing, in that they’re becoming more audience-responsive,” says Walt Crim, AIA, LEED AP, vice president of Philadelphia-based EwingCole and head of that firm’s cultural practices business. “There’s an awareness that audiences have a choice. Some of this trend has been brought on by the surge in science and technology centers; their growth in the last 30 years has been explosive.”

As was the case with the original wave of cultural buildings in America, new and expanded facilities today are seen by backers as potential economic drivers for their cities and regions, Crim says. This civic pride means donors are coming forward with the funding necessary to hire top-tier, signature architects. But it also can create some organizational tension over program goals: building traffic with show-stopping gathering spaces and dining facilities vs. building scholarship with better galleries and interpretive centers.

“Internally, there’s a lot of challenge between these things,” Crim notes. “Every institution is looking at every other institution.”

Surprisingly similar challenges

For engineers, the demand for soaring atria and increased connectivity is, in some ways, creating buildings that, from a systems standpoint, remind them more of office buildings than museums of the past. These owners also are struggling with many of the sustainable-design decisions facing commercial developers as they try to balance the public good and operating-cost paybacks against sometimes-hefty first-cost investment.

“In some ways, it just makes these facilities more like any other space we design,” says Bob Bucci, a principal and cultural-practice leader of Madison, Wis.-based Affiliated Engineers (AEI). “In years past, it wasn’t so much about that.”

Of course, other challenges in designing cultural projects remain the same as they’ve ever been, including the tension that can arise when designing fire and life-safety systems that must ensure visitor safety without damaging oftentimes-priceless collections.

Old masters, new technology

Renovation of existing space, either along with an accompanying expansion or as a standalone project, is another big piece of today’s cultural-facilities business. Updating these areas can be more challenging than building from scratch, as engineers must meet the needs of today’s technologies without damaging yesterday’s building craftsmanship.

That’s the challenge that faced engineers at URS Corp. in their work with the recently reopened Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture—which houses the National Portrait Gallery, along with the Smithsonian American Art Museum—at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The gallery is housed in the original home of the U.S. Patent Office, which was converted to Civil Service Commission offices from 1932 until the 1950s, when it became museum space. Bringing electrical and networking capacity up to today’s—and tomorrow’s—standards was a key goal of the project.

“It’s an old, historic building, but it was asked to be state of the art,” says Dilip Parikh, P.E., LEED AP, a principal mechanical engineer with URS and the firm’s project manager for the effort, one that included installing six electrical closets, four to five security closets and telephone closets on every floor. “We had to run massive [amounts of] conduit in this building.”

Fortunately, the building featured generous inter-floor space that designers could capture, since the raised floors that were originally considered would have required workarounds to meet Americans With Disabilities Act concerns. Engineers also were able to free up space that had been used by old under-window fan-coil units, which were eliminated in the new HVAC plan. New electrical junction boxes now occupy this space at regular intervals, giving curators new flexibility to arrange galleries to meet exhibit requirements.

Existing space also proved useful to SEi Companies’ engineers involved in a combination of updating and expansion work at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. These designers were able to use existing corner chases to run fire-retardant ductwork—which required neither fire dampers nor sprinklering—up a full three stories of the existing facility. This placement is also intended to enable easier connections between the existing building and two planned extensions.

Additionally, to maintain the clean lines desired by architects with London’s Foster & Partners, all temperature and humidity sensors are hidden behind return-air grilles, and controls are all located in remote basement mechanical areas.

“We did it all without any access panels in any of the galleries,” says Gracilieri, who also served as SEi’s account manager for the project.

Sensing requirements

Obviously, tight control over temperature and humidity is crucial to many of these clients, especially those with aging collections. As awareness of the importance of maintaining indoor environmental conditions has risen, so has client sophistication, says EwingCole’s Crim.

“They understand the difference between quality and lack of quality,” he says. “If you lay out the options, they want you to explain to them how to shop. And, because they talk to their peers, they’re pretty well educated.”

The danger, Crim says, lies in allowing clients to get so caught up in bells and whistles that the resulting system becomes too complicated to control.

“You don’t need to monitor everything, everywhere,” he says. “The most complaints always are that the mechanical system is just too hard for staff to understand. If they don’t know how to run the systems, you’ve just thrown away money.”

Data drivers

Data systems and networking capability are becoming equally important to these clients, in some cases because the nature of the art itself demands it.

“All the spaces that we’re seeing now are more data-intensive,” says Bucci. “Art, now—a portion of it—is electronic and video.”

Bucci cites a recent AEI project for the National Park Service focusing on the civil rights movement as an example. “They have the ability to capture people’s reactions, and then that becomes a part of the exhibit itself.”

In other cases, the networking enables new ways of enhancing visitors’ experiences in the museum. Curators are looking at delivering information on their collections via podcasting to cell phones and other handheld devices, an approach that demands broad-bandwidth capability.

“There’s a huge amount of information that museums are looking at putting on handheld devices,” Crim says. “Everybody went through the web phase, and now they’re going through the handheld, podcasting and cell-phone phase.”

And even if an institution doesn’t have specific electronic strategies in mind at the beginning of a project, many cultural facility managers want to be prepared to enable future initiatives down the road. Furthermore, falling technology prices are making it less expensive for them to at least get the necessary infrastructure in place.

“At the very least, we’ll be putting in conduit and boxes,” Crim says of future planning. “They can still buy that for a couple bucks a square foot.”

Protecting patrons and art

One building component that is never optional when developing these facilities is the fire and life-safety system. The challenge in this part of the design lies in balancing the potentially conflicting needs of patrons and collections. Standard, wet-pipe sprinkler systems generally are rejected out-of-hand, because an accidental release could do devastating damage to a priceless collection. Alternative approaches, however, are often fodder for debate.

For example, at the Donald W. Reynolds Center (National Portrait Gallery), designers opted against sprinklers, entirely, in gallery spaces—although office areas are fully sprinklered—an approach approved by the Smithsonian’s fire marshal, according to URS’s Parikh. Instead, engineers focused on detection, with smoke sensors in every gallery space.

“Every room has a surveillance camera, and they have 24/7 security monitoring,” Parikh says. “The chance of ignition in gallery spaces is small because it’s a stone building.”

AEI’s Bucci says his firm has designed systems using dry-pipe schemes that incorporate double interlocks to protect against accidental operation. He says clients also have been interested in learning more about mist systems, which release less water than traditional sprinklers. Regardless of the approach, he urges close cooperation with local authorities during design, adding that officials likely will be interested in the role a facilities staff is intended to play during any emergency.

“In my experience, you need to meet with the code authorities,” Bucci says. “They’ll probably ask questions about the training of the staff, so they don’t become victims—or someone the fire department needs to rescue.”

LEED still a question mark

Creating a sustainable design is certainly a goal in the cultural arena, as it is in just about every other civic or municipal building category. However, developers still often stop short of seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

“Everybody wants to go for certification, but when they go through the paperwork, they’re not connecting the dots between all the process and the end result,” says SEi’s Gracilieri.

While engineers may be able to meet LEED goals on system efficiency and commissioning, he adds, architectural designers may have a tougher time creating a LEED-certified plan that also fits the architect’s vision. “That’s where, sometimes, in order to get LEED certified, there are certain restrictions that can get forced on [the architects],” Gracilieri says. “So then the goal is to deliver the most efficient building we can design and [still] make a statement.”

Crim says science centers are leading the way on LEED, because backers of these facilities often view educating the public about sustainability as a core organizational mission. Other kinds of organizations, though, may have to balance added first costs—and possible long-term payoffs—against cuts to more patron-centric building-program efforts.

One solid argument in favor of investing in efficiency up front is that cultural groups often find it easier to raise funds for a large building project than to cover ongoing expenses. And incorporating a higher-efficiency chiller or variable fans into a new design could make a significant dent in future operational costs.

Communication is key

Communication is part of an engineer’s job on any project, so even bringing this skill up as a key success factor can seem like an act of overstating the obvious. However, those whose practices focus on cultural facilities argue that an ability to build interpersonal relationships really is especially important when working with these clients.

Unlike with, say, commercial developers or industrial project managers, developing plans for a new building may be a once-in-a-career experience for a cultural-facility client. So educating these individuals about the integrated nature of engineering and architecture can take a lot more time than with other clients. Additionally, decisions in these jobs are generally made by committees rather than individuals, so attention must be paid to multiple points of view.

On the positive side, however, these are projects with enthusiastic backers. Those with experience say the excitement a new facility can generate, both within the client organization and in the larger community, makes the other frustrations such projects entail seem very worthwhile.

“Most of them are in substandard spaces and have been in them for some time,” Bucci says. “They get very excited and very motivated. They’re very helpful. In that regard, they’re very fun to work with. And it’s an absolute gas when they open one of these facilities and you go to the opening; it’s a real high.”

Fish Tales

Cultural facilities can present many challenges for both architects and engineers, as signature designs compete with engineered-system realities. However, few such structures also require the capability to clean and recycle as much water as a municipal water-treatment facility. This was the task facing Atlanta-based A/E Heery in designing Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium. Construction was actually geared around the shipping availability of the aquarium’s more exotic animals, which included whale sharks, according to David Kimmell, P.E., Heery’s vice president and director of program management.

“Our coordination was enormous, because we started turning over the building in phases,” he says. “And we started building the structure before we had finished designing it.”

For the record, water in the tanks is completely re- circulated every 60-90 minutes and is recycled to the extent that the entire facility uses less water than the average supermarket.

Besides managing massive amounts of water, another design challenge revolved around a 120-ft. viewing tunnel under the aquarium’s main 6,000,000-gal. open ocean tank that could not be protected by sprinklers. So, Syska Hennessy, the project’sM/E/P designer, employed very-early smoke-detection technology in this area to sense combustion products far in advance of what standard smoke detectors are capable of.