Black History and Culture in a Green Building

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is about to become the newest member of the Smithsonian system on the National Mall, in a dazzling building that is more sustainable than any before it. At the official opening this Saturday, Victor Olgyay, a principal at RMI and a leader of RMI’s buildings practice, and Elaine Gallagher Adams, a former manager with RMI’s buildings practice, will be taking part. This is only fitting because the pair (both members of the American Institute of Architects) was involved with the project from its very beginning, as was RMI. Olgyay says, “For me it’s been a fantastic project and I couldn’t be happier that it’s complete and becoming part of our national conversation.”

It is indeed a fantastic project. The museum was first proposed by black Civil War veterans 101 years ago as a way to place black history and culture at the heart of the American experience intellectually and—by placing it on the National Mall—physically, too. The museum uses the genius of place again by locating the halls devoted to slavery and the Jim Crow era below ground, in the same earth in which the Vietnam Veterans Memorial recalls the names of the dead a short walk away. As a visitor climbs through halls devoted to the Civil Rights era, light floods in and the museum rises in a three-tiered, bronze-clad crown echoing a design of the Yoruba people, with halls celebrating African-American music, food, literature, dance, and other aspects of culture and life.

Bronze—and Green, too

And the museum is superlative in terms of sustainability, as well. “It is the most energy efficient, environmentally responsible Smithsonian museum that has been built to date,” says Olgyay. The infrastructure of the 400,000-square-foot museum building is connected to other buildings on the mall, reducing redundancy and making already built elements more efficient. In its own right, the NMAAHC building is in the process of getting LEED certification and is expected to receive LEED Gold status.

“There is energy efficient lighting throughout the facility and a very efficient mechanical system as well,” Olgyay explains “Materials were carefully chosen for low environmental impact, recycled content, and low volatile organic compounds; this results in less indoor air pollution and outstanding air quality,” says Olgyay. “That new car smell is what we’re trying to avoid.”

“One of the most interesting sustainability features grows out of the distinctive triple-crown facade of the new museum. The bronze-clad aluminum panels of the corona, as it is called, act to help the building work with Washington, D.C.’s climate by passive cooling in the summer months of the main building exterior beneath them. We spent a lot of time studying how the light would work with this box inside a box,” says Olgyay. The result “provides a lot of the shading, but also provides some daylight to come into the interior.”

Bringing The Whole Nation Together One Charrette at a Time

It wasn’t easy to actually build such an efficient structure to contain a museum of such importance, and in such a special location as the National Mall. “The success of the project was dependent on the cooperation of all of these different parties,” says Olgyay.

The museum was created by an act of Congress, sits on National Park Service land, and is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Its half-billion dollar price tag was funded partly by the federal government and partly by a constellation of private donors, including the foundations of Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James. The design team alone—of which RMI formed a part from its earliest inception—includes the Freelon Group (the architect of record), Adjaye Associates (the firm of lead designer David Adjaye), Davis Brody Bond, and SmithGroup.

All the different people and entities “were very cooperative, for the most part, but it was difficult sometimes to ensure that the communication was clear,” says Olgyay. “RMI used the vehicle of the design charrette to gather people together and discuss different issues of sustainability and try and resolve them, and ensure that they were incorporated in a way that didn’t compromise any aspects of the project,” he explains.

A Building With a National Purpose

The museum was conceived as a place for all Americans, regardless of race, to come together and understand black history.

“This has been one of the most personally meaningful projects for me to work on at RMI, because this project provides an opportunity for us, as a nation, to reflect on and discuss some of our deepest unresolved feelings about black history in the United States,” says Olgyay. “I feel it is incredibly relevant to issues today; it pays terrific homage to what has happened in our history; and I think it can go a long way to helping us better understand and build on the incredible cultural resources that we have in this nation.”

Image courtesy of iStock.