D.C gets a new look

Renovations of the country's oldest and finest

February 01, 2002 |

Renovation of government buildings in Washington D.C. is a major activity this year, as work proceeds to modernize and preserve some of the capitol's oldest and finest structures.

Three of the most significant projects include the National Archives, the 168-year-old Treasury Building and the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

The 1.4 million-sq.-ft. National Archives building, constructed in 1932, will be equipped with a new museum shop, more exhibit space, a new staff training room and offices and, pending the donation of an additional $7 million, a new theater below the monumental steps, which is currently a parking structure. Washington, D.C.-based Hartman-Cox Architects and Grunley Construction, Rockville, Md.-based, in connection with URS Greiner Woodward Clyde Mechanical & Electrical Engineers (URS), of San Francisco, are working on the project.

The renovation will improve the building's air quality by completely replacing the facility's mechanical and electrical systems. It will also bring the building up to compliance with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) by creating two new handicapped access ramps on either side of the monumental stairs.

"Our greatest challenge has been carving out a portion of the roof to put in the cooling towers," says Ike Ramos, senior mechanical engineer for URS. "After installing four cooling towers on the roof, we now have to conceal the towers, so they aren't visible to the public."

Perhaps the most significant change the Archives is the new encasement of its original "Charters of Freedom" documents, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In 1952, the documents were placed in metal and glass encasements and surrounded by helium gas, in an effort to preserve them. Researchers in the late 1980s discovered the helium had caused the glass to deteriorate.

After four months of research in 1998, a team of experts suggested each page of the documents be encased separately, this time in aluminum and glass cases, with argon gas inside. The new cases, designed by Atlanta–based Heery International, will be made by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to hold their pressure for 100 years.

The charters themselves will sit a top a metal platform with lots of holes that will help the argon gas hold the documents almost 2 inches off the base. The platforms will be cut in the exact shape of the charters so that viewers can see only the documents themselves when looking at the case. They will appear as if they're floating.

After hours each day, the charters (still in their cases) will be retracted behind the walls of the rotunda and stored there, where they have less exposure to bright lights and different temperatures.

The National Archives is expected to reopen its doors July 4, 2003.

The U.S. Treasury Building, the oldest office building still in operation by the original cabinet office for which it was built, will see its 1833 facility brought up to date.

This 502,000-sq.-ft. facility will undergo renovation of its HVAC and electrical distribution systems its communication and data network, fire-and- life safety and plumbing systems and also be modified to comply with the ADA. XX??-based Shalom Baranes Associates is the buildings architect, Dallas-based Turner Construction is the joint venture contractor and URS is handling the engineering aspects of the project.

"We will use techniques to modernize the building on the inside, but make it look like it did when it was first built," says Walter Janus, senior mechanical engineer for the URS. The exterior work includes window replacement and repointing the stone façade, but is under a separate contract.

According to Janus, the design team has had to carve out new chases in 3 to 4-ft.-thick interior brick walls, covered by stone on the outside, in order to install the mechanical systems.

"We're trying to find spaces for HVAC systems in a building from the 1830s, which originally used fireplaces to heat the building," Janus adds.

Completion is set for the Summer of 2004, after five phases of construction. Interior construction on the building has been scheduled in one-quarter of the building at a time so that other areas can continue to be used.

The Smithsonian's 330,00-sq.-ft.-National Portrait Gallery, currently in its redesign stage, will have its M/E/P systems renovated, as the existing mechanical systems do not provide flexible temperature control, which is needed to facilitate such a large facility. The redesign will include a new auditorium, which will be made under the current 250-by-150-ft. wide courtyard. Hartman-Cox Architects, XX??-based James Davis Construction Corporation and URS are all involved in the planning and execution of the museum.

The Smithsonian anticipates reopening its doors in 2005.

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