Government Case Study: Like Building A Ship In A Bottle

Revising the footprint without altering its legacy, the National Archives evolved from the inside out.
Revising the footprint without altering its legacy, the National Archives evolved from the inside out.

Government Case Study: Like Building A Ship In A Bottle

Government Case Study: Like Building A Ship In A Bottle

By Matt Stansberry
Published in the February 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

With its place of prominence on the Mall in Washington, DC, the National Archives Building serves as the depository of American history. As the display venue for the Charters of Freedom-The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights—this facility must do justice both to its contents and those who travel thousands of miles to view them.

Built in the 1930s, the neoclassical structure with its stately facade underwent numerous component replacements through the years, but it never experienced a comprehensive system upgrade, according to Patrick Alexander, project manager for National Archives & Records Administration (NARA). By 1985, NARA identified deficiencies in electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems and determined that an extensive renovation was in order.

According to Scott Teixeira, project manager for Hartman Cox Architects (HCA), the government even toyed with the idea of starting from scratch for several reasons. Most significantly, the existing primary entrance failed to meet Americans With Disability Act (ADA) standards.

Disabled visitors (including those requiring wheelchair access) were forced to enter the facility from the north entrance. From there, these visitors required escorts through the north side of the facility-originally designed to be secure for NARA staff only.

The Monumental Planning Process

For five long years, NARA staff evaluated potential solutions. Priorities included the expansion of public facilities (exhibition space, conference centers, and research facilities), relocation of exhibits to meet current accessibility standards, and improvement of indoor environmental controls for the conservation of the documents in the building. Eventually, the decision was made to pursue a thorough renovation of the existing structure-all one million square feet.

The sheer scope of the renovation-with its $120 million budget-was overwhelming. Alexander recalls, “Early in the design stage, we decided to split the construction into two major project phases. The first stage was the initial demolition of the facility and construction of swing space.”

Contracts were awarded in 1999, and “the demolition phase was put on a fast track in February 2000,” explains Alexander. Teixeira adds, “In the end, the project was executed with seven separate construction contracts.”

Obsolete Systems

Once the first construction phase began, a number of physical and environmental challenges surfaced. Faced with archaic, legacy HVAC methods-at one time used by federal buildings throughout the area-the project team looked at drastic restructuring.

Before the renovation, the building’s air conditioning system was connected to the Tidal Basin. Traditionally considered a top spot with tourists, the Tidal Basin is a scenic link between the Potomac River and the northern end of the Washington Channel. It also has the functional purpose of supplying water (through an underground tunnel) to the surrounding buildings on the National Mall.

In the early part of the 20th Century, the government and Army Corps of Engineers came up with the idea to provide cooling to these buildings-not just water-by tapping into this central loop. But over the years, the water temperature proved to be unreliable for cooling purposes. Furthermore, debris managed to contaminate expensive chiller equipment.

One by one, the government slowly began to remove buildings from this loop. At the time of the renovation, the Archives was one of only three buildings left connected to this obsolete system.

Plunging To New Depths

“Without the Tidal Basin, we had to provide cooling towers that required rooftop placement. However, regulatory agencies would not allow the towers to project above the roofline; they had to be concealed from view. So we demolished three levels of storage in the building and constructed a 20′ well,” Teixeira explains.

“We had to connect those towers to the chillers in the basement-located a steep 160′ below. By crane, we dropped in the pipes, which weighed about 40,000 pounds empty and about 140,000 pounds when full,” says Teixeira.

Next, the construction team had to close off the water line that came in from the river. But there was no valve; the original had deteriorated.

“Our mechanical contractor had to figure out how to close that pipe, which was 18′ below grade. The contractor actually had to hire a diver to swim through the Tidal Basin and up to our building site to try to ascertain how to isolate the connection,” says Teixeira.

The Archivist Shuffle

To make matters more complicated, the building remained occupied during the renovation. “We had two functional research rooms receiving 100,000 researchers per day which remained open,” says Alexander. “We shut down the tourist entrance, so we didn’t have to contend with a million visitors.”

To the greatest extent possible, NARA moved employees to its other building, Archives II, located in College Park, MD. But in order to accommodate the remaining personnel (400 NARA staff members and various contractors), construction in the first phase focused on renovating the ground floor into swing space. “Staff cycled through the building in a series of carefully planned moves,” says Teixeira.

A major restraint on the renovation was that the project had to be completed with 600,000 cubic feet of documents remaining in the facility. NARA would have preferred to move them elsewhere, says Alexander, but there was not enough funding to build an addition to Archives II or rent archival storage space.

“We had a crew that moved records from one area of the building to another, so the contractors could have space to work,” says Alexander. “That was challenging for the archivists, since they needed to know where they moved the records in case a researcher wanted to look at them.”

A New Drama Unfolds

When the Archives was originally built, it featured four large courtyards. Almost immediately after original construction concluded, the courtyards were converted into storage areas.

“While we had very good as-built documents for the original construction, more than 70 years of modifications were not recorded,” says Alexander. This was not a problem in itself, except for the fact that some less than ideal approaches were used in different stages of the construction process.

“As we went through the walls in the former courtyard, we could trace various building materials. There was no asbestos in some parts, but as you went three or four years down the road, you could see where they started using it,” Alexander explains. Naturally, asbestos removal had to be choreographed very carefully.

The Ship In A Bottle

The original construction of NARA featured concrete slabs at 21′ intervals with metal decks at 7′ floor to floor heights. Because there was a desire to expand the public facilities, the existing 7′ floor heights were impractical.

As a result, “we demolished the whole interior of the building. At one point in the renovation, we had a clear volume of 46′ from tier one to tier seven,” says Teixeira.

“Within that space, we built brand new floors 14′ apart. We took six levels-unusable because of their headroom-and converted them into three levels. It was a very complicated process,” Teixeira explains.

A Delicate Situation

Engineers faced equally daunting challenges while redesigning the rotunda. The original architect, John Russell Pope, designed the exhibit to look like an altar. People had to climb three steps in order to view the documents, which were displayed at a height of 44″—above eye level for some visitors.

NARA redesigned all of the display cases to provide better access. In addition, the lighting was replaced with fiber optics, and the historic murals-depictions of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights-were removed for restoration.

“When the paintings came back, the new display cases went in, and the new security apparatus was set up-when what we had conceived four years came together-that was the best moment,” says Teixeira. “You operate for years knowing what the project will look like in your head. You have faith that things will turn out a certain way, and when they finally do, it’s satisfying.”

The Crowning Moment

“When you walk around the building, there is not only a feeling of history but continuity,” says Alexander. “We have a historic building that displays the most important documents of our country. It was very gratifying to improve the accessibility of these documents so a greater number of Americans could appreciate them.”

Feedback on the project has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Alexander and Teixeira. Initially, the archivists had voiced concerns about the safety of the documents during the renovation. “But now that they’ve had experience with the new space, they are extremely happy,” says Alexander.

But the main approval came from the Capitol. “Congress appropriated the money for the renovation, and those Congressmen are very pleased with what was done. There’s always a concern when it is tax payers’ money,” says Teixeira.

Those involved with this project are quite satisfied with the contribution they have made to the preservation of this country’s heritage. And with its new look, this historic facility has a much better platform to engage and educate the public.

Information for this article was compiled from interviews with Alexander and Teixeira. For more specific information on the actual preservation of the Charters of Freedom, visit


Suggested Links: