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Constructing a Museum

constructing a museum

“The interiors throughout are almost works of art themselves. The level of precision and detail is incredible. We’ve been working hard to make sure we get it right.”
John Biaglow, Skanska

When construction began on the Museum of Art’s expansion and restoration project in the fall of 2006, no one could have predicted exactly how the process would unfold. Museums, with their exacting climate and security needs, are by definition more complex facilities to bring to life than office buildings or schools. Even though Allied Works Architecture of Portland, Oregon, recently completed the Seattle Art Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and the project’s general contractor, Skanska, is seasoned in the art of building museums, each project, site, and design brings with it unique challenges and discoveries.

Because of the complex nature of simultaneously restoring and updating Alumni Memorial Hall and constructing the new Frankel Wing on a tight, essentially urban site, orchestration and sequencing of construction has been crucial, with every task dependent on the next. At the outset, construction appeared to progress slowly. This was largely due to the scope of excavation and the complexity of underground mechanical elements as well as the structural and engineering sophistication of the Frankel Wing’s dramatic, visually unsupported cantilevers and ribbed curtain walls.

Connecting the old and new—historic Alumni Memorial Hall with the new addition—was one early challenge for the construction team. Differences in grade level between the two necessitated significant underpinning before the opening on the north side of the old building could be carved out. Ann Arbor is known for its sandy soil, so grout was injected into the sand in order for it to bond together for the needed strength. Fabricating and installing the varied and complex glass systems was equally challenging—and thrilling—for the sheer physical beauty of the transparent, translucent, and fritted glass elements is one of the design’s hallmarks.

“It has been incredibly gratifying to witness the three-dimensional manifestation of the Museum after the investment indeveloping and refining the design,” said Allied Works’ Chelsea Grassinger, one of the lead architects on the project.

From the beginning, the entire design and construction team has been mindful of the building’s environmental impact. The Museum’s overriding “green” characteristic is the adaptive reuse and restoration of the existing historic building—historic preservation being one of the greenest strategies available to the construction industry. In addition to also using recycled building materials wherever possible, the project includes upgrading to high performance mechanical systems that are more stable and efficient, new thermally efficient window systems to decrease the energy footprint, and controlled natural light throughout to not only make for better viewing experiences but dramatically reduce electrical lighting loads.

As the University’s project manager for UMMA’s expansion and restoration, John Hetrick ensures that the University receives a good product and that everything runs smoothly. Having never worked on a museum before, Hetrick has been impressed with the sophistication and complexity of the design itself. From the cantilevers extending as much as 65 feet from their load-bearing elements to the curtain walls with their tube steel frames and glass panels that extend three full storiesfrom grade to roof, Hetrick said, “It’s just amazing that the engineers and designers can make such long spans work with such minimal supports visible from the outside. The whole exterior—glass, steel, and stone—is a piece of art, like a canvas hanging on the exterior walls.”

Todd Nemecek, the construction administrator for Integrated Design Systems (IDS), the local associated architects based in Troy, Michigan, interprets the construction drawings on site and serves as the liaison between the design architects and the contractors and engineers. “Working on such a high-profile design like this is exciting—you don’t build a museum every day,” said Nemecek. “Structurally it’s really interesting. The stone portion of the exterior skin looks like it’s floating. That is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen and been a part of—we’re really pushing the limits of gravity.”

John Biaglow, senior project manager for the construction firm Skanska, has been pleased by the hidden surprises in Alumni Memorial Hall, including the re-opened skylights in Alumni Memorial Hall’s Apse and the scale of the newly renamed Taubman Gallery. “I’ve felt a real sense of satisfaction bringing these gorgeous spaces back to their former glory,” said Biaglow. “And the interiors throughout are almost works of art themselves. The level of precision and detail is incredible. We’ve been working hard to make sure we get it right.”

With base construction wrapping up this summer, construction heads into a new phase, including finishing the interiors and the state-of-the-art loading dock and freight elevator, both critically important for the safe movement of objects outside and in.

For Hetrick, the current phase of construction is the most rewarding. “With 100 craftsmen on site now, every other day it looks like a different building. It’s the neatest thing in the world to see a building like this go up.”

As the Museum prepares to begin moving in both art and staff this fall and reopen in 2009, it will become more apparent than ever how successfully this talented group of designers, craftspeople, and managers has brokered a museum building of lasting beauty that will successfully meet the demands of a world-class museum for decades to come.

Stephanie Rieke
Associate Editor