EwingCole: Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History

Automation, controls; electrical, power; fire, life safety; HVAC, mechanical; lighting; energy, sustainability; plumbing, piping.

By EwingCole August 11, 2016

Engineering firm: EwingCole

2016 MEP Giants rank: 39

Project: Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History; first floor, west wing renovation

Location: Washington, D.C.

Building type: Educational facility; government building/military facility; sports/entertainment/convention center facility; museum

Project type: Existing building retrofit

Engineering services: Automation, controls; electrical, power; fire, life safety; HVAC, mechanical; lighting; energy, sustainability; plumbing, piping

Project timeline: January 2010 to June 2015

MEP/FP budget: $18 million


  1. The transformation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) continues with a major project to renew the building’s 120,000-sq-ft west exhibition wing. The design features new galleries, an education center, interior public plazas, and performance spaces as well as modernized infrastructure including wireless environments.
  2. A new panoramic window on the first floor gives a sweeping view of the Washington Monument and connects visitors to the National Mall’s landmarks. This introduction of daylight into the exhibit space created a challenge for the design team.
  3. Energy efficiency, flexibility, and quality light were required to meet the museum’s goals. All spaces required general lighting, accent/display, and event capabilities. The galleries required long-term modular designs for changing needs. 
  4. As with any museum, lighting plays an important role in the storytelling process. Grabbing the attention and imagination of visitors, it encourages engagement with the objects and their story.


  1. Lighting was used in the public area to establish hierarchy within the multi-use circulation and display areas. Wall-grazing products with high-efficiency lighting sources were incorporated to illuminate perimeter cases and wall-mounted art displays.
  2. Lighting installations were paired with a centralized lighting control system to allow for dimming capabilities and programmable presets to meet each curator’s needs for specific object-display requirements.
  3. All spaces included general lighting, accent/display, and event capabilities. LED downlights line the circulation with two circuit-switching/dimming track, a combination of ceramic metal halide (CMH), halogen, and LED heads for exhibits, and adjustable LED multiples for accent lighting.
  4. The large performance plaza includes music, theater, and a display kitchen. Dimming LED downlights were tied into a centralized control system with theatrical luminaires suspended between the floating ceiling panels.
  5. The modular ceiling and lighting support multiple special-event setups and are tied into the AV system for increased control. Perimeter LED accent lights illuminate circulation, and several dimming zones were provided for flexible adjustment.
  6. The Object Project gallery is adjacent to the new west window, where daylight was re-established in the building. Three-percent visible light transmission (VLT) glazing with automated shades was used for light exposure to objects.
  7. The gallery is illuminated from a modular grid ceiling using distributed dimming plugged in for flexible mounting and individual control. All distributed dimmers tie back to the central lighting control system.
  8. Perimeter LED lighting is connected to photo sensors for daylight harvesting and energy savings. Theatrical busports pull down from the ceiling to mount fixtures for special events.
  9. Galleries required long-term modular designs for changing needs. Distributed dimming through the ceiling allowed for all luminaire types and mountings. Separate bi-level fluorescent work lighting was provided and tied to the central control system.
  10. Large thresholds from the central circulation lead visitors into the main galleries. Track lighting with dimming LED heads illuminates vertical objects and signage.
  11. In terms of energy efficiency, the project meets ASHRAE 90.1/2007 LEED CI v2009. Eight lighting credits were awarded: five points for EA c1.1; one point for EAc1.2; and two points for IEQ c6.1.

Read more about the project by downloading this PDF.

Author Bio: EwingCole delivers buildings, spaces and places that advance their clients' missions.