44th Annual Meeting – Collection Care Session, May 15, "Spoiler alert! Planning around the pitfalls of construction projects" by Jeffrey Hirsch and Angela Matchica

Construction projects have been on my mind lately and I thought this would be a good complement to Angela Chang’s presentation about her experiences during two major construction projects at the Straus Center (she spoke at the Conservation & Exhibition Planning: Material Testing for Design, Display, and Packing conference in DC in November 2015). Jeffrey Hirsch and Angela Matchica from Ewing Cole (an architect-design-engineering-planning firm) put together a clear and useful review of how conservators and collections care professionals can be active participants in a construction planning process. They took turns speaking, with Jeffrey giving an overview of each issue or area of collaboration, and Angela providing the in-practice examples from her experience as a lighting designer. The concrete examples were helpful in illuminating how collaboration goals can be translated into actual practice and decision making.
Jeffrey emphasized the complexity of the team on both sides of a museum construction project, with a wide variety of interests being represented. He noted that while those from Facilities departments are probably used to talking to architects and designers, the rest of the museum representatives may not initially be as comfortable, but need to make the time to stay at the table and speak up whenever they have questions. The slide below started out as just two dots – Design Team and Museum – and then grew and grew to encompass all the different roles that are part of the discussions around planning a new space or changes to an existing space.
Hirsch Matchica people at the table
In this diverse group, achieving consensus can be difficult, and knowing everyone’s individual needs is important. Angela discussed one instance in which repaired dinosaur skeletons were going on view, and light levels were initially assessed for the bones themselves, though it turned out that the most sensitive material present was the adhesive in the repairs. She also mentioned that they built a standalone mockup so that lighting levels could be experienced by all stakeholders, to get a real sense of what the space would feel like with different lighting, to achieve consensus. I thought this slide was helpful in illustrating all the sub-questions from different stakeholders that are a part of one major design decision.
Hirsch Matchica problem statement
Jeffrey noted that what looks like one construction project is really a number of simultaneous and interdependent projects – structural, exhibit design, conservation, and so on – all coming out of basically one pot of money. Scheduling all of this was likened to a symphony, in which it’s very difficult to get the multiple instruments to finish the piece at the same time.
Hirsch Matchica multiple projects at once
As always, communication was underscored as the most essential element. Each group should be aware of how the other groups are progressing, and know if someone’s end date is shifting, and what that means for all the others. On this point, he stressed how important it was to have a contingency amount of funds specified in the budget very early on. Changes cost a lot more at the end then they do at the beginning, so it’s also important to assess all your options early on and make choices then, with full information about the long-term costs of each option. Here, Angela presented the choices between various types of light bulbs, some of which are low cost but require frequent replacement, while spending a bit more at the beginning can lead to major savings in time and materials later in the life of the building – value engineering.
Hirsch Matchica bulb choices
The end message for all involved parties was to stay at the table, attend all meetings, read and familiarize yourself with all the minutes and notes, and keep track of what decisions are made. No sweat! I still feel like the only way to really know how to predict and prepare for all the things that can go wrong in a construction project is to go through one and learn from your own mistakes – but it was great to hear from the other side of the table, especially from a team that has a real sense of the wide-ranging and diverse concerns of working in a museum setting and the energy to work towards collaboration.

42nd Annual Meeting – General Session, May 29, "A LEED Primer for Conservators: Or, What Should I Do When the Architect Proposes Daylight in Our New Galleries, by Scott Raphael Schiamberg and Rachael Perkins Arenstein"

Both Scott and Rachael emphasized the importance of working together.  This is NOT the attitude they endorsed.
Both Scott and Rachael emphasized the importance of working together. This is NOT the attitude they endorsed.

When I perused the list of talks for this meeting, the subtitle of this one immediately caught my eye. In fact, I used it as one of the justifications for my Museum to support my attendance. There have been many skirmishes in the ‘natural light in galleries’ tug of war at the Penn Museum lately. It turns out that the light issue was peripheral to the LEED discussion but I’m so glad I was drawn into this fascinating and useful talk.
Scott started off explaining that to be good clients for architects, conservators should have a basic understanding of LEED. Like all of us, I’ve been seeing LEED mentioned in every building project I read about or walk past but I never really knew was it was or how it worked.
From the US Green Building Council website: “LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. To receive LEED certification, building projects satisfy prerequisites and earn points to achieve different levels of certification. Prerequisites and credits differ for each rating system, and teams choose the best fit for their project.”
With gentle humor, Scott filled out this definition for us. He compared LEED to eating one’s vegetables: sometimes a challenge but good for us. Considering LEED factors is Doing the Right Thing (something conservators always strive for, right?). He explained that the system is constantly evolving and getting better. There are five different ratings systems but none of them is a perfect fit for museum buildings; he hoped that there might be a special system for our special needs. Until then, we need to understand how the system works and how it can be used for and against conservation factors. Scott explained that sometimes architects (not his firm, of course) ‘game’ the system – using LEED to justify things like the aforementioned natural light in galleries: “if you don’t give in on this, we won’t make our LEED rating”. But the LEED system is point-based and natural light only counts for 1 point out of a possible 110. Putting a bike rack outside the building gives you the same point with much less impact on artifact preservation.
Scott emphasized that it’s not our jobs as conservators to be intimately acquainted with LEED, just to understand enough to work effectively with the construction team.
Scott’s takeaways before handing over to Rachael included:

  • The reminder that the client is always right. The Museum is the architect’s client.
  • Do your homework; it’s important to select the right architect. Check with colleagues and previous clients. (Speaking of someone who has been working with an absolutely stellar architectural firm recently and has coped with the results of less successful choices, I can’t emphasize this strongly enough)
  • Work closely with the architect
  • LEED is not perfect but is a good starting point and is getting better.
  • It’s more important to get things right than to chase LEED points, if they don’t align with your needs.

Rachael began by pointing out that new construction should be exciting but in her and many colleagues’ experience, it turns out to be more stressful than joyful. She theorized that the problems many of us have faced are not inherent in the LEED system but in the design process. We (and she included in this pronoun conservators, facilities staff, administrators, and donors) make our lives difficult. Rachael suggested some strategies for reducing the stress for everyone.
The most important factor is probably effective project management. All the stakeholders should be involved early. Rachael referred to the trap many of us have experienced: being told that it’s ‘too early’ to be involved in the process then, when we are allowed a seat at the table told that it’s too late to change the problem items. She reiterated the importance of wise choice of architect; the right architect needs to be responsive to the client’s concerns and this should be just as true of ‘STARchitects’. To be an intelligent client we need to be prepared to sit through a lot of meetings and to have done our homework. Rachael provided some resources she’s found useful:

Both the books are available on amazon.
She suggested that we as conservators need to have a voice in broader preservation concerns and emphasized that this is best done by contributing positively: “be an ally not a critic”. [Later several of us were discussing this profound fact at the lovely evening reception and Terry Drayman-Weisser shared her technique for responding to suggestions from non-conservators that horrify her conservatorial instincts: “That’s a good idea, let me work with you to figure out how we can manage that” I may not have the quote exact but you get the gist.]
Rachael’s LEED specific tips included the insight that there were three of the six LEED rating categories that tended to have the most potential for contention with conservation concerns: Energy and Atmosphere; Materials and Resources; Indoor Environmental Quality. But these are only contentious if the team is choosing to chase LEED points without considering the Big Picture.
Finally Rachael reminded us that all the planning in the world will not help if the plans are not followed through or carried out properly. Perhaps the most important tip was to ensure that the construction plan included an independent commissioning agent. Building commissioning (Cx) is the process of verifying, in new construction, all (or some, depending on scope) of the subsystems for mechanical (HVAC), plumbing, electrical, fire/life safety, building envelopes, interior systems (example laboratory units), cogeneration, utility plants, sustainable systems, lighting, wastewater, controls, and building security to achieve the owner’s project requirements as intended by the building owner and as designed by the building architects and engineers [thank you, Wikipedia]. An independent commissioning agent is one who ensures that everything has been done as laid out; clearly an outside specialist is to be preferred to the contractors who have an understandable vested interest in passing their own work.
I’ve tried to do justice to this very informative presentation but I’m sure I’ve left out or misrepresented some vital facts. This blogging stuff is hard – I don’t mean to discourage others from doing it; I’m really glad I did so but it’s just that it’s always harder to take coherent notes for others who weren’t there. So, if any of you who were there read this and have additions, emendations or suggestions, please do so. Until then, I’ll leave you with Rachael’s last slide: