Quinn Evans Architects with Mueller Associates and Robert Silman Associates
From the time of its incorporation in 1863 to now, much has changed at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). For one, the organization of scientists, engineers, and medical experts charged with the duty of advising the nation on matters close to their expertise on a pro bono basis has begun to conduct its business in a more public fashion. Unfortunately, the NAS’ headquarters in Washington, D.C. was not designed to host large gatherings. The 1924 neoclassical enclosure, which was designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue as a “Temple of Science in America,” was meant to provide its elite members a place to congregate, smoke cigars, and discuss matters of import in clubby, 19th-century style splendor. Though west and east wings and a 500-seat auditorium were added in 1962, 1965, and 1970 respectively, they did little to open up the facility or deliver capacious meeting rooms and the contingent break out spaces necessary for hosting public gatherings.
Altering this state of affairs was chief among the tasks given to Quinn Evans Architects when the NAS hired the firm to take on a $44.5 million effort to restore and preserve the historic fabric of the building. The organization also wanted the architects to replace the facility’s aging infrastructure, incorporating sustainability strategies and technologies to reduce its energy consumption by as much as 25 percent and qualify the project for a LEED Silver rating.
The 1924 building’s primary interior architectural feature is a large rotunda bedecked with the work of bronze sculptor Lee Lawrie as well as paintings by Albert Herter and murals by Hildreth Meière. In addition to the works of art, the rotunda has been surfaced with Akoustolith, a porous ceramic material used widely in the early 20th century to moderate acoustic reflection and noise in large vaulted ceilings. Over time and exposure to tobacco smoke and other corrosives this resplendent space had somewhat lost its luster. Quinn Evans teamed with Conservation Solutions, Guilders’ Studio, and FC Vogt, to restore these details to their original vibrancy. On the exterior, the masonry exterior needed re-pointing and the steel windows (graced by sculpted bronze spandrels also designed by Lawrie) presented a special quandary. On the one hand there was the desire to preserve their historic aspect, but there was also the overall goal of increasing efficiency. In the end, the original window framing was maintained, though the glazing itself was replaced with low-emissivity glass. The windows of the 1962, 1965, and 1970 additions were replaced with insulated glass units.
One major challenge was finding enough cavity space in the historic structure through which to thread efficient new infrastructure, including HVAC, plumbing, electrical, fire suppression and alarms, and audio/ visual and communication systems. The team created a BIM model of the existing building from old drawings and field surveys to help layout these systems and conduct clash detection. In many instances, however, the architects as well as engineers from Mueller Associates and Robert Silman Associates had to gather onsite to puzzle out difficult conditions. The team also had to work to resolve differences between the floor levels of the original building and its additions in order to make the facility ADA compliant.
In order to satisfy the NAS’ desire for more public space, the team reconfigured the first floors of the building to accommodate two meeting rooms, one for 100 people, the other for 75. The challenge then became how to accommodate gathering and break out space for these two rooms as well as add pleasant environments for cocktail parties and receptions. Quinn Evans found their answer in two existing courtyards, one on the east, the other on the west, as well as a tiny sliver of space between the historic structure and an addition. The team infilled these spaces, covering them with saw-tooth glass skylights outfitted with building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) panels. While the BIPV system doesn’t generate a massive amount of electricity, it is important to the overall sustainable message that the NAS wanted to promote—serving as a green billboard, so to speak.
Steel frameworks that bear directly on the existing building’s walls support the skylights. They were craned into place in sections before being bolted into place. Workers added the glazing once the frame was complete. To resolve the differences in height between the historic structure and its additions the architects incorporated translucent clerestory panels that let light through, while at the same time responding architecturally to the aspect of the higher building. The team also added light shelves to the windows that face the new atrium spaces, directing natural light deeper into the interior.