Learning by Design

By Kiley Jacques

Green design features add a layer of learning to three acclaimed cultural institutions.

Boston Children’s Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and the Barnes Foundation are seemingly disparate projects. A closer look reveals their common thread: Sustainability is the tie. Enhanced visitor experience is the cloth from which all three were cut. Layered together, they begin to form the fabric of future museum design.

Boston Children’s Museum

Originally located in Jamaica Plain, Boston Children’s Museum moved to its current location in 1979. A recent Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-certified expansion by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) member Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A) has breathed new life into the dated building, offering diverse educational experiences for a new generation.

Boston Children’s Museum harvests stormwater from both the green roof and main roof for building services such as irrigation and dual flush toilets. This helps to reduce water runoff into Fort Point Channel by 88 percent and potable water demand and use by 77 percent. Photo: © Robert Benson Photography

Because the museum is geared toward children and families, the C7A team took special care in designing spaces to support and enrich the shared experience of playful learning. “A common [design] technique is to target the information to a lower-level audience,” explains principal Steve Imrich, referring to the way in which adults help to interpret information for young people. “It’s an intentional targeting relative to the pedagogy of how things work in museums.”

In a time of increased awareness and curiosity, educating our youngest generation to protect the environment has never been more important. Photo: © Robert Benson Photography

Throughout the museum are interactive stations that encourage making your house, community, and world a greener place. Photo: © Robert Benson Photography

Since the addition’s opening, the museum has created a “green route” highlighting its green roof, graywater system, low-flow fixtures, LED lighting, and recycled materials. “We created a few museum components that interpret some of the LEED features,” explains science program manager Alissa Daniels. “Many of those features are invisible to visitors or [are] very subtle. For example, the light bulbs are all energy efficient, and there is a panel in the museum that explains how they work and what visitors can do at home [to be energy efficient].” Onsite stormwater management, daylighting, and natural ventilation were also key to the project.

The new approach from the site’s waterside was one of the biggest changes. The original entry was along railroad tracks, below the building’s grade level by a few feet and highly inaccessible. C7A raised the entire site up to the level of the first floor of the existing building, via a boardwalk and a plaza deck, to make for a smooth transition from the harbor walk into the museum.

Also noteworthy is the exchange between the existing building and the expansion. Of the original building—once a wool storage warehouse—Imrich says: “It was a simple industrial building that made sense for a museum but it was not a particularly healthy environment for kids.” Despite the strong character shift between the existing building and the expansion, the two spaces are well integrated because of what Imrich calls the building’s circuitry. “We allowed the free zone of the building to have a very clear circulation to the stair,” he says, describing the new glass spine—built from highly daylit bridges on the outside of the existing building—which allows people to come out of each gallery and orient themselves to all of the spaces at once. “Being able to add the new circuitry and spine . . . has enabled the existing building to sing and breathe on its own,” remarks Imrich.

Now, thanks to the daylit high bay, light penetrates deep into the existing galleries, which further unites the spaces. The introduction of daylight has impacted the visitor (and staff) experience significantly. “In an old warehouse building such as this one,” says Daniels, “that natural light is a wonderful change. I see a lot of visitors looking out the windows, watching the boats in the Fort Point Channel, watching people or just watching the day go by. We have taken advantage of all these windows by developing programs that utilize them; for example, we have done some bird watching and bird identification. Recently, we put up a weather station that encourages visitors to look outside and record their observations about the weather.”

Imrich says the expansion is architecturally simple. The original building was constructed with heavy timber and masonry, whereas the addition uses mostly recycled steel in the glass curtain wall. Many of the areas in the new expansion don’t have ceilings, making for an exposed structure. He describes it as “fun, open, and utilitarian.”

Zinc cladding and wood panels for the exterior create a kind of industrial framework. “The main intent was to allow the exuberance of the exhibits to show through what we provided as the armature,” he explains. Some of the heavy timber structures were disassembled and reused to make the information desk and ticket counter, and incorporated into other operational areas. Colored panels were introduced for shading and to add a playful element.

The NMAAHC’s highly symbolic presence on the National Mall is matched by the symbolism of the building itself. Photo: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC.

The NMAAHC’s highly symbolic presence on the National Mall is matched by the symbolism of the building itself. Photo: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC.

One of the more remarkable features of the new space is its centrally positioned climbing structure by Tom Luckey. Built from Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC) wood, the structure reaches from the main floor to the top floor and is visible from all levels. “It offers an opportunity for the kids to feel free and to explore while allowing parents to see them from multiple vantage points,” notes Imrich. “It’s watchable and safe but it’s also intricate and interesting.” Whereas the old climbing structure was located deep within one of the galleries and had no relationship to the greater museum, the new one serves as the primary “wayfinding device.”

The new space permits museum curators and program directors to be more creative with their offerings. They can accommodate tennis ball cannons and an interactive dance floor, for example—things that require a lot of space. “One of the main characteristics of the new space is that it has more generosity both vertically and laterally . . . the existing building was very cellular . . .”

C7A also created the Commons, an area intended for collaborative learning. Located on the second floor in one of the existing galleries, it is part of the adaptive reuse design. “It was meant to be a flexible space that could be used for group demonstrations or lectures or special events. We very specifically designed it such that when it’s not being used for an event, it’s still active and interesting to be in,” Imrich explains, noting its signature wall with silhouettes and colorful built-in storage units for games like life-size chess.

Outside the museum, the visitor experience is meant to be varied and is characterized by the harbor, the renovated iconic milk bottle, a maze in patterned paving, and climbing boulders, which Imrich describes as “basic but unusual.” The museum makes relating to the environment a priority. “They view the children that visit the museum as future stewards of the environment,” explains Imrich. “They realized how important it was to hit that topic hard.”

Given how disconnected from the site the existing building had been, it made sense to use it adaptively, in concert with the new expansion, to wed it to its surroundings. “Interconnecting the site, the existing building, and the new construction was the primary goal,” concludes Imrich.

National Museum of African American History

In 2009, four architectural firms and nearly 30 consultants began a seven-year journey on behalf of those with ties to a much longer journey.

Zena Howard, AIA, LEED AP, senior project manager at Perkins + Will

Zena Howard, AIA, LEED AP, senior project manager at Perkins + Will

Led by the Freelon Group, which has subsequently been acquired by Perkins + Will, and lead designer David Adjaye, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) project in Washington, D.C. is pursuing LEED Gold certification.

Opened in September 2016, NMAAHC offers a rich and layered visitor experience referencing both African and American histories. Senior project manager Zena Howard, AIA, LEED AP of Perkins + Will, explains that the three-tiered inverted pyramid shape of the building references ornate crowns made by the Yoruba peoples of West Africa. She compares the three-tiered inverse pyramid to a symmetrical lampshade built over the Museum’s glass curtain wall. Comprising six cast-aluminum panels of randomly patterned modulated filigree, the corona serves dual purposes: It accentuates chosen views and controls light and heat gain. A patented Kynar five-coat variegated finish simulates real bronze, which is cost and weight prohibitive. Howard notes the materiality and patterning are a nod to the craftsmanship of African-American ironworkers living in the south in the pre-Civil War era.

The route through the exhibits begins below ground—a design choice intended to symbolize the depth of African American history. Coming up, the experience is one of contemporary times, of light and empowerment, community and culture. Daylighting plays a large role in evoking that sentiment. “We thought it was important to harvest light not just for the sake of the exhibits but also to enhance the experience of the context,” explains Howard. “Daylight is used as a teaching tool to point visitors to . . . the historical significance.”

Because the site’s water table sits just five feet below grade, rerouting water was a constant. “We thought we might as well just celebrate it,” says Howard, noting that water is significant in African American culture because it was the mode by which Africans were transported from their homeland. On the south side, visitors cross over a water feature that is a combination of both moving and still water—referencing the “nonlinear” African American experience, whereby turbulence and peace occur simultaneously, as in the case of slavery and freedom.

Interestingly, any groundwater collected at the building’s foundation goes through sand filters before being reintroduced to the soil. “We are actually scrubbing D.C.’s groundwater, one drop at a time,” notes Todd Case, senior associate, AIA, LEED AP at Perkins + Will. The building also houses a 100,000-gal tank for harvesting and recycling water for potable uses.

Crossing over water and under a grand 180-ft porch—a symbol of African American life in the South, where the vernacular structure is used to celebrate community—visitors walk into a space meant to mediate the transition between exterior and interior. The overhang creates a cool microclimate for respite on the hot south-facing side. “Between the shade and the water and the captured wind, it’s a very nice cooling environment that people are drawn to,” says Howard.

The museum sits on the National Mall, “in the shadow of the Washington Monument and the White House.” The historical significance of the location is paramount. Although the visitor experience is one of immersion, the design team felt it was important to bring people out of that immersive state for moments at a time. “The idea is to immerse the visitor in the content of what they’re seeing, learning, and processing,” explains Howard, “. . . [but] we didn’t want people to forget the sanctity of the place where [the museum] is located.” She gives the example of the military gallery, which frames a view of the Washington Monument; the exhibit content and its context couldn’t be more fitting, and the visitor is helped to realize that.

Night lighting was a tricky challenge, given the all-glass structure. They wanted to both avoid light pollution and deflect the harsh artificial lighting coming in from the hyper-lit Capital surroundings. “We had to figure out a way to do that that made the building something beautiful and lacy,” explains Howard. To accomplish this, they lightly fritted the glass of the curtain wall, which serves two functions: It diminishes incoming artificial light and provides bird collision protection. And since the frit is backlit at night, the whole building has a soft glow devoid of hot spots. “Because the corona angles up,” explains Howard, “uplighting made sense, initially. But when we found a way to revert to downlighting by fritting the glass, we switched to mounting the lighting on the top tier of each of the three levels—angled down and lit backwards.” That prevented light pollution and resulted in less energy use. While the interior lighting makes use of LED technology, that is not the case with the exterior lighting, so it was important to find an alternative means of minimizing energy use. “This approach was different and helped us be more efficient and use less artificial lighting, which is a direct parallel with energy savings,” notes Howard.

The NMAAHC follows the principle that buildings integrate their form and function in the sense that the building (as a “container”) embraces its content—which is the American story told through the lens of African American history and culture. Photos: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The enveloping lattice opens the building to exterior daylight, which can be modulated according to the season.

The enveloping lattice opens the building to exterior daylight, which can be modulated according to the season.

Because the museum is structurally supported by four cores from which the corona hangs, it remains a column-free space, which allows for its signature panoramic views. The team’s mechanical engineers (WSP) accommodated the space by using the four cores to provide pathways for the highly energy-efficient HVAC system housed primarily below grade. “The challenge with museums is to keep air velocity and the accompanying noise relatively low so as not to compete with the exhibits,” notes Case. “To their credit, that was exceptionally well done.”

The footprint of the building, being largely below grade, meant much of the park-like space surrounding it could be preserved. “We have a significant amount of building relative to the site we have,” says Case. “We were tying into the National Mall and didn’t want to just fill the site with building . . . In essence [the museum] is a monument on a piece of park land.” That park-like appeal was largely accomplished by changing the site topography. The mounding up of the north side in combination with the green roof creates significant green space. “Burying so much of the building below grade facilitated mounding up [earth] to cover the building,” explains Howard, “which created a rolling landscape that relates more to the landscape seen on the Washington Monument grounds. It’s not just a flat lawn; there’s a little bit of a roll, which makes it feel more like a park.”

NMAAHC is also a deeply evocative metaphor for the plight of African American people. Keeping sustainability at the project’s fore added yet another chapter to the narrative. “The building is sustainable in terms of being socially responsible to our environment,” says Howard, “but it’s also sustainable in terms of sustaining the heritage, culture, and identity of people who are American first and African American overall.”

The openness to light is also symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogues about race and to help promote reconciliation and healing. Photos: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The openness to light is also symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogues about race and to help promote reconciliation and healing. Photos: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The Barnes Foundation

Philadelphia is a city that cares deeply about the arts and sustainability, so it makes sense that the Barnes Foundation’s new Art Education Facility earned LEED Platinum certification—the first major art and education institution in the country to do so.

The collection of primarily Impressionist works—originally housed in a Paul Cret gallery in Merion, Pennsylvania—was moved to its present location (formerly a brownfield) on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to make its offerings more accessible. The two-story, 93,000-sq-ft building, designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien in collaboration with Ballinger, opened in 2012 and is immediately recognizable for its crowning “light box.”

The lighting system, designed by Fisher Marantz Stone, is probably the most engaging of the building’s features. According to Peg Zminda, the foundation’s executive vice president, CFO, and COO, “The . . . immensely sophisticated filtering of natural light in the collection allows visitors to view the art and participate in our educational programs in the best possible environment.”

The signature light box—a large, seemingly all-glass light monitor—is peppered with small openings that allow diffused sunlight to enter the building. “It appears to be all glass, and it is in its imagery,” notes Williams, adding that the feature also hides the PV system above. “The building looks like it belongs in the parkway because it seems to be largely without windows. But it has a great deal of natural light brought in other ways.”

The potential volume of natural light penetrating the space called for a specialized system of controls. (Each gallery has its own lighting restrictions, depending on the percentage of sensitive organic material in the exhibits.) To start, the glass allows only 14 percent of light in; there are devices on the roof that track the sun in real time, and exterior electric shades close off the galleries to sunlight when necessary.

A state-of-the-art lighting system, combining artificial and natural light, shows the collection to best advantage, revealing subtleties of color, texture, and form to visitors. A rooftop “light box” filters out harmful UV rays from natural light and is illuminated at night. Photo: Courtesy © Michael Moran/OTTO

A state-of-the-art lighting system, combining artificial and natural light, shows the collection to best advantage, revealing subtleties of color, texture, and form to visitors. A rooftop “light box” filters out harmful UV rays from natural light and is illuminated at night. Photo: Courtesy © Michael Moran/OTTO

Williams values the less obvious ways in which design influences the visitor experience—the “domestic” characteristics that make a place feel comfortable. He cites the stairs as an example. “One of the things that we’ve always believed in is making buildings fully accessible but also making your senses move through [them],” he explains. “That’s one of the reasons we made the stairway so prominent.” Constructed of reclaimed ipe wood from the Coney Island boardwalk and hand-hammered stone, they are inherently warm and inviting, and therefore domestic.

Claudy Jongstra, a Dutch artist renowned for her sustainable techniques, designed the 15 large-scale panels on the lightcourt. Made of wool (from sheep she raises) and silk, they add “sensuality” to the space. “The visitor experience in the center court,” says Williams, “is enhanced by the comfort in the beauty of the wood on the floor, the panels on the walls that give a different texture and absorb sound, and the light that comes from the top.”

Carrying the theme of domesticity through the space was intentional. Working with landscape architect Laurie Olin, the team created what they call “a gallery in a garden and a garden in a gallery.” Noting that most museums do not offer immediate access from exhibit space to the outdoors, Williams says, “I think it’s an important connection . . . to be able to step outside rather than experiencing it from inside a glass wall.”

Bathed in natural light, a visitor relishes simultaneous views of the paintings and the exterior gardens—a palpable design strategy. Or, as Williams puts it, “a technical and a psychological condition.”

The building’s LEED features are not pointed to with signage. “Visitors come in and they feel good,” says Williams, and for him, that is what matters most. The idea is to encourage people to “interpret” the space for themselves—similar, in principle, to Dr. Barnes’s own decision not to display text explaining the paintings he collected and exhibited. “He wanted people to use their eyes and to realize they didn’t need to know the title to appreciate the art,” explains Williams.