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A Crowning Achievement

By Molly Miller

At the west end of the National Mall, near the Washington Monument and not far from where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a Dream” speech, a crown will soon appear.

“Reaching toward the sky, the bronze-clad corona expresses faith, hope and resilience,” according to the website of The Freelon Group, Architect of Record for the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

A primary architectural feature, the bronze-clad crown, or corona, will surround the museum galleries and allow daylight to enter through patterned openings and skylights. At night, the corona will have a subtle presence against the dramatic backdrop of the Mall. In addition to The Freelon Group, the design team includes the firms of Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond, and SmithGroup. The Freelon Group selected Rocky Mountain Institute to lead the sustainability effort for the new museum.

During the programming phase of the project, the Smithsonian Institution set the goal of 30 percent reduction in energy below its most efficient museum, the National Museum of Natural History. To achieve this goal, RMI is using a number of sustainable design strategies. The new museum will send a message about the Smithsonian’s commitment to clean energy.

“It will, without a doubt, be the most environmentally sound museum on the National Mall,” said RMI Principal Architect Victor Olgyay. “The Smithsonian is deeply committed to making this museum as green as possible.”

The project is currently in conceptual design and will soon enter the schematic design phase.

“This is where we really start to design the systems and how they interact,” said RMI’s project manager Elaine Gallagher Adams, with a gleam in her eye. “Making the corona functional is one of the more fun and exciting parts of the process,” she said. “The corona is an important symbolic image in the design, and it will also serve as a second skin. The air in between the skins will heat up and can be used for heating. The corona skin will also shade the windows. The openings in the corona will be designed to relate to climate and sun.”

Daylighting is a primary area of focus for RMI. “The Smithsonian really wants daylighting,” Adams said. “Daylight is uplifting and they want a visit to the museum to be an uplifting experience.”

Integration of daylight into the dramatic architectural forms is both challenging and rewarding. While daylight is a wonderful attribute to public spaces and for exhibiting artifacts, the sensitivity of the artifacts requires daylighting that can be managed, controllable, and indirect.

The buildings heating and cooling systems also must be carefully controlled. “HVAC is rarely sexy, but it is interesting in this case,” Adams said. “Gallery space, containing artifacts, needs to be more tightly controlled using mechanical systems, while open public spaces lend themselves to passive design,” she explained.

Similarly, certain artifacts within the exhibits need specific environments with specific levels of humidity—fabrics tolerate less humidity; wood needs a little more.

Coordinating everything from daylighting, HVAC, and exhibit design to security in a prominent public building is a bit of a juggling act. RMI is leading the team to incorporate integrated design principles in the decisions.

“The project team is a very talented group, and the challenge is creating consensus because the team is so big,” Adams said. “Integrated design requires everyone to work together, and when there are 22 team members—that is a huge challenge. The museum design team includes those in charge of food service, security, sprinkler systems, AV, exhibit design, landscaping, and, of course, the Smithsonian staff.

The NMAAHC design team is currently exploring using groundwater for an open-loop heat exchange. The system would run groundwater through plates under the building and use the constant temperature of the water to meet heating and cooling needs. This system could go a long way toward meeting, or exceeding, the Smithsonian’s goal of 30 percent lower energy use than their most energy efficient building.

“Tiber Creek used to run through that site,” explained Bill Browning, a former RMI research associate. Working with landscape architect Gustafson Guthrie Nichol on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in the 1990s, Browning’s team turned that same groundwater into a spectacular opportunity to pay tribute to a native landscape, by creating a wetlands over the former Tiber Creek bed. “It’s pretty cool to stand on the sidewalk and look out across wetlands to the Capitol."

When it comes to energy efficiency and renewable energy, things have come a long way since the design of the National Museum of the American Indian. (While not designed to obtain USGBC LEED certification, the building is now in the process of obtaining LEED certification for Existing Buildings.)

“There’s a much bigger push in the federal government in terms of green building issues,” Browning said. “There are more opportunities now. Having conversations about green building is essentially easier now. This was a brand new topic for the Smithsonian then. It is now required for all their capital projects.”

Inside the new museum, visitors will find exhibits that describe the African American experience from slavery through the Civil Rights movement and beyond. They will also be able to experience and appreciate African American art, music, dance, as well as scientific achievement.

“NMAAHC will use African American history and culture as a lens into what it means to be an American,” said museum director Lonnie Bunch. “When I think about many American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality, there are few places where one can better understand their origin and evolution than through African American history and culture.”

The design team wants Bunch’s inspirational vision for the museum to extend beyond the exhibits to the building itself.

Molly Miller is a communications specialist at RMI.

--Published August 2010

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