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The National Museum of African American History and Culture Embraces Green Design

History in the Making

National Museum of African-American History and Culture opened this fall to rave reviews.

The wait is over for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum opened with a strong impact and celebration on September 24, 2016, and serves as a testament to African Americans’ contributions to our nation, as well as a model of sustainable design. 

Located on a five-acre site on Constitution Avenue, the museum is between 14th and 15th Streets, NW. According to the museum’s website, the collection is “designed to illustrate the major periods of African American history, beginning with the origins in Africa and continuing through slavery, reconstruction, the civil rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and into the 21st century.”

Museum highlights include the Harriet Tubman collection, which features Tubman’s hymnal and the lace shawl given to her by Queen Victoria; a Jim Crow railroad car; Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible; a Tuskegee Airmen trainer plane; Emmett Till’s glass-topped casket; and works of art by Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Lorna Simpson, Romare Bearden and many more.

For construction and design, the Smithsonian collaborated with the Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and the SmithGroupJJR.

The museum’s design was developed to achieve LEED Gold certification. “There was a conscious decision to go green. Smithsonian had that as a design goal very early on,” said Zena Howard, practice leader and principal at Perkins+Will. The Freelon Group joined Perkins+Will two years ago. 

The museum is framed by the “Corona,” 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels that weigh a total of 230 tons. The building’s skin is mostly glass that is coated with a high-performing glaze to help insulate the building. The Corona’s screens range from more dense to more porous openings, which helps to control the amount of heat and glare buildup on the glass. 

Taking into consideration how to use space and conserve energy and water was considered every step of the way. During the construction phase, the team discovered that about five to eight feet down was a wealth of groundwater. They decided to put it to use. “We put a huge tank in the building below grade on the southern side where we capture storm - water. We recycle it, we clean it and we use it in the building for nonpotable uses such as irrigation and toilets,” said Howard. 

On top of the main roof of the building are photovoltaic panels that produce electricity to heat water for the building. The interior finishes consist mostly of recycled content or are recyclable, and all of these materials were sourced within a 500-mile radius. “It was a great effort to make sure that we were not trucking in materials from too far away,” said Howard. 

The museum also uses natural gas. Washington Gas provides natural gas for the museum’s generators, kitchen appliances and boiler load (steam and hot water). “We think that using gas, particularly in areas where you would otherwise be using electricity, has been very helpful in helping to meet our overall sustainability goals,” said Howard. 

Smithsonian’s focus on sustainable building practices is a plus for our city. “The reason that it’s important for museums to be high performing is that they operate 24/7, and as a result have the potential of consuming so much more energy than other buildings that are able to have their systems shut down. That’s why it is important for the Smithsonian and other museums to be the trailblazers in high performance building for this building type,” said Howard. 

For an organization that preserves and protects our culture and history, sustainability is a very Smithsonian concept. 

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