African American Museum to Reflect Sustainability, Respect for Earth

Sustainability is a human rights issue. All living things have the right to clean air and water and a healthy place to live, and we have the right to expect that the planet our children inherit is capable of sustaining life indefinitely. If these expectations cannot be guaranteed, we have a human rights problem. The Smithsonian Institution has embraced the correlation among human rights, the African American experience, and sustainability in the highly anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture. The design team for this important building has kept constant sight of that connection.

On February 22, the new museum broke ground on the National Mall. Designed by a team of Architects that includes architects David Adjaye and Phil Freelon, with Rocky Mountain Institute and WSP Flack + Kurtz driving sustainability, it will tell the story of black Americans, it will celebrate achievement, and it will expose millions of visitors to the importance of conscious design toward a more sustainable, more environmentally just world.

The sustainability lessons visitors learn in this museum are intended to inform decisions they make in their own lives. Energy efficiency is necessary and often beautiful. The dappled daylight filtered through the intricate pattern of the bronze-colored corona can inspire all of us to let a little more sunshine into our buildings. This corona has been tuned to work with the seasons—to let in the heat of the sun during cold months and to block the sun’s rays in the summer while allowing in daylight. The energy story of this museum may include geothermal wells to provide heating and cooling, allowing significant reduction of energy use. Accommodation has been made for a supplemental thermal storage cooling system that would help level out peak energy consumption, which beyond its application to the museum is a key strategy for eliminating some of our most-polluting coal-fired power plants, often located in or near some of our most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Water plays a powerful role in African American history, and the water story at the museum is a strong one. At the onset of design, the team set out to use no potable water for end uses that don’t need it. The U.S. treats more than 400 billion gallons of water in the U.S. every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, but only 2.5 percent of that goes to potable uses (including showers, which is half of this quantity. So designated potable and non-potable service lines can enable a water efficiency revolution. With 40 percent of treated water in this country going to irrigation, the museum’s capture of on-site ground and rainwater makes the statement that resources are precious, and the path of this water within the landscape helps interpret the African American water story as well.

Materials and consumer goods we choose for our own homes and workplaces have a history and a place of origin that are rarely considered at the time of purchase. The design team for the museum has carefully chosen sustainably forested wood and construction materials that utilize recycled industrial material. This four-dimensional approach to design means that the source of the materials is as important as the function, reuse, and ultimate disposal. Every decision made upstream affects everything downstream, and those living downstream have the same rights as those upstream.

The museum, respectful in its design of African Americans’ roots in stewardship of American land, will teach respect and hope for the Earth and inspire visitors toward environmentally just thinking.