'Russian nesting doll' design provides unique fire protection solution for movie negatives

A major movie studio needed a new vault to protect its irreplaceable negatives for films released after 1982. SmithGroupJJR came up with a box-in-a-box design solution.

December 29, 2014 |
Courtesy SmithGroupJJR

A major movie studio needed a new vault to protect its irreplaceable negatives for films released after 1982. The studio was against installing a fire-sprinkler system. But a consultant reminded the studio that an insurer would require some sort of water system to protect the building itself if not the films, which are uninsurable.

The studio turned to SmithGroupJJR, which designed the 415,000-sf National A/V Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va., where the Library of Congress houses its film, video, broadcast, and recorded sound materials.

In that project, local code officials required a clean-agent fire suppression system with a pre-action water sprinkler system as backup. SmithGroupJJR went with a primary system that uses FM-200, a clean, colorless, environmentally friendly gaseous suppressant.

For the movie studio, SmithGroup came up with a “Russian nesting doll” design. SVP Hal Davis, the firm’s Cultural Studio Leader, explains that the vault is its own separate building, equipped with a clean-agent suppression system. The inner shell maintains temperature and humidity at just the right levels to preserve the film negatives. A second structure, fitted with a sprinkler system, will be built over the vault in such a way that water can’t get to the film stock. The roof actually diverts water away from the vault. 

Construction of the nearly 10,000-sf structure kicked off in November. Davis says the structural redundancy, while adding to total cost, enabled the building to exceed the regional seismic code standard.

The design has attracted the attention of another studio. Davis believes the concept could have applications for other buildings that protect valuable books, paintings, artifacts, and documents. 

Read about more innovations from BD+C's 2014 Great Solutions Report.

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