45th Annual Meeting – Workshops, May 28-29, “Reading Between the Lines: Understanding Construction and Exhibit Design Drawings” – Collections Care Network

I participated in the “Reading Between the Lines: Understanding Construction and Exhibit Design Drawings” workshop along with 12 other conservators. During the introductions, we learned that the participants come from all over the country and as far away as Taiwan and Australia. Many had signed up in order to prepare ourselves for upcoming major renovations or new construction in our institutions. The workshop was taught by four instructors: Jeff Hirsh (Architect, Principal, Director of Cultural Practice at EwingCole), Bill Jarema (Principal, Mechanical Engineer at EwingCole), Angela Matchica (Principal, Electrical Engineer and Lighting Designer at EwingCole), and Mike Lawrence (Chief of Design at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History). EwingCole, an architecture, engineering, interior design, and planning firm, has worked extensively with museums and other cultural and research institutions. They recently collaborated with Mike Lawrence and Cathy Hawks (Museum Conservator at the NMNH and a participant and organizer of this workshop) on building the Q?rius Learning Space at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, a permanent exhibition space in which visitors can engage with the museum collections through hands-on interactions. Much of the materials that were used in the workshop – drawings, specs, images, and group exercises – are documents from the Q?rius project.

The workshop covered a lot of ground, filling two full days during which we plunged into the complex world of construction projects. The workshop utilized a mixture of powerpoint presentations, tabletop exercises, and both planned and impromptu Q&A sessions to guide us through each step of the renovation process and help us to understand different types of construction and exhibit design documentation.

Day 1: Introduction to stakeholders, phases of design, basic terminology, reading mechanical and electrical drawings

We began with an overview of the stakeholders in a given construction project and the progression of projects from start to finish. I found it very helpful to learn about the types of documentation created during the various phases of planning and what level of detail can be expected from each phase. For example, a project starts from a concept report, which narrates the scope, timeline, and intent, progress to schematic designs, then to more detailed design development drawings, and finally to construction documents, which will go out to contractors for bidding. This lesson was supplemented by a tabletop exercise that asked the participants to find light temperature information among documentation from various phases of Q?rius design process. The exercise helped to drive home the importance of becoming a stakeholder and communicating preservation priorities at an early stage of the project, since it is becomes increasingly more costly and difficult to make revisions as the project progresses.

In the morning, we also learned basic terminology and symbols found in drawings. Because depicting the numerous things that are happening in a space – both inside and outside of the walls – is so complex, multiple drawings representing various levels of detail, multiple perspectives (elevation, plan, section), and specific categories of information are necessary. These drawings are supplemented by written documentations such as indices, keynotes, and specifications to convey the full scope of information. A reviewer must understand the system of symbols used as shorthand to indicate important information such as past edits, recent changes, the location of detail drawings, and demarcations of areas slated for demolition. At the start of the workshop, Jeff Hirsch had introduced the building as “a tool for preventive conservation”, and as the session progressed, I found it increasingly more helpful to think of the drawings as a set of instructions for using a very complex tool – in our case we are looking for ways to maximize the building’s ability to support collections preservation.

In the afternoon, we delved deeper into the different types of construction drawings by examining the general, architectural, mechanical, and electrical drawings, which each come with their own system of symbols that are used to communicate a wealth of meaning. Despite the sometimes daunting complexity of the drawings, it became clear that they follow a very specific and consistent order. I learned that when reviewing the drawings, it helps to understand them as both a set of instructions for the contractors and a legally binding contract for all stakeholders. As the latter, edits and revisions are closely tracked from version to version. Successful drawings clearly, thoroughly, and accurately communicate the scope of the project, including what is being demolished, what is being built, and what materials are being used for construction. Since each drawing can contain an overwhelming amount of information, approaching them with specific questions in mind makes them easier to navigate.

Some examples of information a conservator may need include: Do the edges of a demolition space impinge on existing collections? What are the fire ratings of the partitions slated for use in collections storage spaces, and will the fire rated partitions be fully enclosed (they must be in order to be successful)? Are there flammable materials sharing a wall with collections storage? Are smoke detectors and sprinklers located in appropriate areas? Are there enough outlets reserved for housekeeping, and are they readily accessible? What types of light sources are being used and how will they be controlled? If a new HVAC system is being installed, look to the mechanical schedules for the system’s ability to provide humidification/dehumidification and filtration information, and to the control chart for set points. Finally, with all systems that require maintenance and upkeep, it’s important to consider their proximity to collections materials, the frequency of maintenance, as well as space needs of associated personnel and equipment.

Day two: preventive conservation, exhibition design, and Q&A session

On day two, instructors began with an example in which the design team and conservators collaborated to identify an optimal pathway to move collections between the freight elevator and the Q?rius exhibit at the Smithsonian NMNH. An ideal pathway was not available, so the team mapped various options on the floor plan and used color coding to identify areas with issues such as security, access, and cleanliness. The drawing was supplemented by a filmed walk through of the actual path, which communicated potential issues with a clarity and immediacy that was difficult to convey through other media. I liked the way this example underscored the ways in which preventive conservation often relies on collaboration among parties with specializations beyond conservation, and that it focussed on an aspect of the environment – pathways – that is often overlooked when thinking about preventive conservation.

This followed with a tabletop exercise to find the outlets in the the drawings for the Q?rius space, which drove home how sometimes the little things can make a big impact on the maintenance of a finished space. In this case, it was important for us to consider the amount and location of outlets designated for a new space to make sure that enough are available for both display cases and for housekeeping use. In addition, we had to consider the accessibility of outlets for housekeeping and deduce from the drawings whether staff had to crawl into the base of display cases to reach outlets, for example. Through this exercise, we also learned that it was often necessary to switch between different sets of drawings (in this case, between electrical and exhibitions) because the information we needed was covered by overlapping specializations.

Moving further into the world of exhibition design drawings, we examined ways in which an existing space can be slightly modified to provide better climate collections objects. For example, Mike discussed an instance in which he built a vestibule as a means of limiting air exchange to an exhibit space that is located close to exterior walls and windows. In these instances the contractor schedule would be the place to look for information regarding the types of doors that are designated for use in a space.

Mike also walked us through the ins and outs of looking at drawings of custom exhibit cases, which provide detailed information on what can and cannot be done. I took a lot of notes here of factors that are important in the final product, such as: glass size (may be swapped to a different type without notice), acceptable deflection amount, potential need for levelers, desiccant chamber capacity (consider the climate of space that the case is going into), presence/type of lighting inside the cases, type of gasket used (does it actually press against the other side?), presence and composition of adhesives inside case. Getting custom cases sounded like a taxing process that was further complicated by the case builder’s use of proprietary materials.

The workshop concluded with a lively Q&A session that was populated by both questions that were pre-submitted by participants and by impromptu questions. Instructors and participants discussed questions relating to fire coding in collections and user spaces, condensation in air diffusers, preparing for a new building to be added to a museum, and considering the efficacy of using inhouse vs. outside consultants on construction projects. All in all, the workshop covered a lot of ground in two day period and offered a wealth of information that I was happy to bring back to share with my colleagues in preparation for our own renovations. I certainly felt more prepared and informed when our own construction drawings arrived at my desk several weeks later.