By David Beach
Staff - Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Director of GreenCityBlueLake Institute
Green building experts always say that an “integrated design process” produces a better building. If all the design professions are engaged at the beginning of a project, they can share ideas, reach better solutions, and prevent problems down the road.
I have been watching this principle at work first-hand over the last few months on the development of a final design for the new Cleveland Museum of Natural History campus. The Museum took a bold step in March when it hired all members of the project team so that they could work together from a very early stage. Normally in large museum building projects, architects and engineers are hired first, while exhibit designers and construction managers come onto the team far later.
Throughout the spring, I attended a number of work sessions with the Museum’s architects, engineers, exhibit designers, and construction managers working side by side, here at the Museum as well as in the Denver offices of Fentress Architects, the Museum project’s design architect, and at the Cleveland offices of URS, the project’s architect of record. Together, the members of the project team have been discussing the pros and cons of concepts with varying amounts of new construction and renovation, as well as different ways to mass the building and locate it on the Museum’s site in University Circle. (Read more
about the Museum’s project team)
Starting with stories
At these project team work sessions, the exhibit designers have been especially eager to express their views. For them, it is a rare opportunity for exhibit ideas to influence building design.
“Usually we are given a black box into which we insert the galleries,” says Tony Reich, of Reich & Petch, one of the firms creating new exhibits for the Museum. “The process does not focus on the flow of exhibits and the storyline we want to present. There are a lot of missed opportunities to improve the visitor experience.”
At a Denver work session in April, Reich introduced a plan that included a dramatic two-story space to display the Museum’s dinosaurs -- “enough height to let them breathe,” as Reich said. His firm’s proposal included positioning one of the world’s largest dinosaurs in a window opening out onto Wade Oval with exterior landscaping that would invite people to sit and enjoy the view. Thus, the thinking about the exhibit experience was guiding the architecture by determining sight lines and the position of the building. It’s a nontraditional approach, but one that the Museum believes will reap great benefits for the project overall
Other interesting topics that the collective project team has been wrestling with this spring include:
How to bring the public exhibit spaces closer to the Museum’s collections and laboratories? One of the project goals is to connect people to the exciting science being led by the Museum’s curators. As the project team has thought through this question, the Museum’s other exhibit firm, Thinc Design, has presented a plan to stack the collection, laboratory and gallery spaces to maximize possibilities for interaction. For example, an exhibit on human origins could be adjacent to the Physical Anthropology collection.
How to connect the new indoor spaces with nature outside the Museum? A suggestion was made at one of the work sessions that a new gallery about the natural history of Ohio could be separated from the rest of the galleries and located next to the Perkins Wildlife Center. This would strengthen the connections between the exhibit stories of Ohio ecology and the Museum’s living collection of native plants and animals.
The engineering lens
In the midst of this blending of exhibit design and architecture, the project team engineers, including Cleveland-based Osborn Engineering, have been bringing a lens more focused on practical constraints. Where do utilities enter the site? Where is the best place to locate the central plant to house the building’s mechanical equipment? Early involvement of these engineers has allowed them to recommend the most cost-effective solutions at a point when it’s easy to change the building design.
The Museum’s design engineers from Buro Happold also are setting overall sustainability goals for the project, including goals for energy performance and the green building standard to be achieved. Such goals will drive the architecture. And the engineers’ energy modeling of early plans is helping fine-tune the design by adjusting the building’s shape, orientation to the sun, insulation performance of wall systems, and placement of windows. Thus, considerations of the building’s long-term sustainability are being integrated into the process from the beginning, not as an afterthought.
Finally, I’ve been interested to hear in these work sessions the voice of the project’s construction manager, Panzica/Gilbane. Instead of being hired to build a project already designed, they have been present at the early brainstorming to take the ideas of the other design team members and ask them tough questions: Are there reasonable ways to phase the construction of each design concept? Can portions of the Museum remain open during construction? What are the cost implications of building new versus renovating parts of the existing Museum building?
Coordinating many cooks
With so many cooks in the kitchen, the process could get messy. But the members of the project team were chosen based in part on their commitment to work collaboratively.
“We sought a cohesive team,” says Steve Zannoni of Project Management Consultants, the firm managing the project for the Museum. “We want to stretch the limits of how engineering can inform the architecture and how exhibits can be integrated into the building design.” (Watch a brief video
interview with Zannoni about the integrated design process)
By considering more ideas at the beginning, the Museum hopes to avoid the typical problems of big construction projects -- delays, change orders, cost increases, and missed opportunities. And, it expects to create the best possible museum for science education and engaging the community in science for the next 100 years.