Preserving the Past

May 31, 2005
WINNER: National Archives and Records Administration Building, Washington, D.C.

Five hours on a plane, a $14 cab ride, and now all that separates you from reading the Declaration of Independence are 42 granite steps. While even the healthiest of bodies might balk at the workout, persons with disabilities would have found it a huge disappointment. Two years ago, this was the challenge many faced when visiting the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building in Washington, D.C.

In recent years, the 70-year-old building exhibited more than the Bill of Rights, Constitution, and Declaration of Independence. The facility also displayed a lack of compliance with fire and life safety codes, as well as with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); inadequate exhibit space; and inefficient and outdated mechanical, electrical, and plumbing equipment.

The necessary modernization would span 5 years and cost $84 million. It would ensure that the nearly 1 million visitors could enter and view the Charters of Freedom with ease, and that the researchers and staff could work in a facility that protected historical documents in addition to building occupants.

To say that the 950,000-square-foot facility was cramped would be a gross understatement. Many of the facility’s archival documents were being stored off-site at another NARA location, only two of the Constitution’s four pages were on display, and the museum gift shop was too small to best serve the buying habits of tourists. Solving these problems resulted in recognizable rewards. However, the changes to the building that addressed the facility’s infrastructure - the invisible upgrades - were perhaps the most significant.

The HVAC system underwent a massive replacement. “All the ductwork had been installed behind the walls with no firestopping between floors. They also didn’t have fire dampers,” says Patrick Alexander, project manager, National Archives and Records Administration. “All that old mechanical equipment was replaced with high-volume and high-velocity ductwork that allows us to reach 65-degree temperatures in the storage areas and 45-percent relative humidity, which is optimal for records.” The improvements didn’t stop there.

“Like a lot of federal buildings in Washington, D.C. along Constitution and Independence Avenues, the cooling system [used] what’s called the Tidal Basin cooling line - that’s water drawn from the Potomac River that comes into the building and is used with the cooling system,” explains Richard D. Armstrong Sr., senior project manager, Grunley Construction, Rockville, MD. Project plans mandated a switch to chillers, cooling towers, and air-handlers. To preserve the sophisticated and awe-inspiring design of the building, it was necessary to conceal the equipment. “We took a section about 60-feet by 60-feet from the main roof, and created a 2-story well to house four new cooling towers,” explains Armstrong.

Viewing the Charters of Freedom is more than a lesson in the nation’s history; it bridges the time between our nation’s past and present. However, for many visitors, the rotunda that housed these three documents - because of its stepped entrance and the high mounting height of these archival records - proved challenging. “Because of the steps, it was not accessible to people with disabilities or people with small children in strollers. [They] had to come in a different entrance and go through a contorted process in order to see the rotunda,” says Alexander. The addition of four elevators and two handicapped ramps along Constitution Avenue increased accessibility dramatically.

The modernization project alleviated many compliance problems, making the facility more accessible to visitors, researchers, and employees. “There were two core stairways and restroom cores that didn’t meet ADA requirements. We removed those all the way up to the roof, and reconstructed those with new access stairs that met ADA [guidelines], new restrooms, and telecommunication closets,” explains Armstrong.

Interior fire stairs were replaced with wider stairs, and improper door swings were corrected. “We added two new fire stairs to get the public out of the building,” Alexander explains. “We addressed the really large fire evacuation problem.” With new fire alarm and security systems, the facility is now better equipped to deal with a number of emergency situations.

With the Charters of Freedom re-encased, and a newly constructed 288-seat theater opened, the facility is now an improved destination for researchers and tourists alike. The heightened fire and life safety measures and updated MEP systems will enable the building to store records, display exhibits, and provide office space for many years in the future. The project team worked in an occupied building with limited space to bring a facility focused on history into the present.

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.

The Modernization Team General Contractor (entry submitter): Grunley Construction Co. Inc. ■ Building Owner: National Archives and Records Administration ■ Consultant to Owner: Heery Intl. Inc. ■ Architect: Hartman-Cox Architects ■ Mechanical Engineer: URS Corp. ■ Fire Protection Engineer: Gage-Babcock & Associates

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