Innovative design, construction, and technology come together for Museum of the Bible.
By Sarah Ghorbanian, LEED AP, and Jared Oldroyd, PE
What started in 2012 as a vision of the Green family, founders of retail chain Hobby Lobby, is now a world-class museum dedicated to one of the world’s oldest texts, the Bible. After surveying cities, including Dallas and New York, the nonprofit Museum of the Bible Inc. (museumofthebible.org), which oversaw the museum’s design and construction and manages ongoing operations, chose Washington, for its museum culture and national profile, as the site for the museum.
Permanent museum exhibit spaces are housed in a renovated industrial facility, once the Terminal Refrigerating and Warehouse Co. building originally built in 1923, and which later served as the Washington Design Center. While the museum’s design, preservation, and adaptive reuse reflect the facility’s architectural heritage, the interior encompasses world-class finishes and cutting-edge technologies.
The museum features five floors of exhibit space, including three permanent exhibit levels, as well as research laboratories and libraries, collections storage, a lecture hall, a performing-arts venue, a 500-seat ballroom, scholar residences, classrooms, offices, and a rooftop garden and restaurant. A juxtaposition of old and new, the structure seamlessly combines ancient Biblical scripts and artifacts with modern architectural forms and technology.
The museum’s grand opening in November 2017 marked the culmination of five years of work, but the structure could easily have taken twice as long to deliver. Due to their complex nature, museums often take more than a decade to bring to life, including years of planning, design, and construction. Even as design and construction methodologies have evolved, the delivery timelines for modern facilities have remained relatively unchanged until this project.
Washington-based firms SmithGroupJJR (smithgroupjjr.com) and Clark Construction Group (clarkconstruction.com) led design and construction operations on the $254-million, 430,000-sq.-ft. facility, and worked with museum leaders, engineers, exhibit design teams, and academic scholars to drive an integrated, collaborative process. Bringing museum stakeholders together early and often was fundamental to creating a team environment. The approach promoted unity, fostered problem solving, and accelerated decision making and project delivery.
In order to house the many programmatic elements required for this new institution, additions and renovations were made to three existing structures sitting on an entire city block. The existing warehouse’s original red-brick masonry and concrete were retained and restored, and the historic structure’s original train portal was reopened to serve as the museum’s monumentally scaled entrance. An additional two levels of new construction were built above the remaining historic structure to house a 472-seat performing-arts hall, gathering space, biblical-foods restaurant, and additional exhibit spaces.
At mid-block, a non-historical building addition with loading dock was removed to make way for two levels of below-grade space and new vertical circulation for the museum.
The Museum of the Bible organization also purchased the air rights to the adjacent Washington Office Center where a one-story addition above the building was constructed to provide space for a conference and educational facility for scholars associated with the museum’s research arm, Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative, as well as residences for visiting scholars.
The main museum building is designed to inspire a sense of history and wonder. Bronze-embossed Gutenberg Gates standing 40-ft. tall flank the structure’s main entrance where trains once entered the building. A dynamic, 140-ft.-long LED display hovers above the museum’s arcade entrance, bathing the lobby in a colorful array of images and light. The museum’s lobby floor, which features marble from Portugal and Tunisia, and is complemented by columns of Jerusalem stone, symbolizes a journey from dark to light.
Throughout the building, motifs and elements speak to the existing structure’s history and to the museum’s content. The new mid-block section of the project is clad on its two exterior faces in custom-textured, handmade bricks from Denmark. These façades complement the historic masonry and architectural language of the adjacent historic structure while evoking a sense of overwriting, or Biblical palimpsest, where a page is wiped clean in order to re-use it while traces of old writing are still left behind.
A rooftop addition over the original building, with its curvilinear glass-and-metal envelope, visible structural ribs, fritted insulated glass units, and dramatic prow projecting over the entry façade, is a bold architectural and urban gesture in its own right, evoking an ancient boat or scroll that further helps merge the building’s form and function. This iconic element—known as the Galley—spans 250 ft. and stretches 40 ft. tall from the fifth floor of the museum to the roof and provides visitors with stunning views of the National Mall and major Washington landmarks.
Making the asymmetrical glass rooftop a reality required several innovative solutions to determine if the galley met the performance requirements outlined in the specifications. The design was enhanced until its performance met all visual and safety requirements. Traditionally a non-structural building element, the curtainwall served as an avant-garde design feature and structural support for the floor between the two new levels. Selecting a system that would meet structural and aesthetic requirements was a collective effort that involved SmithGroupJJR and Clark teams, as well as glass fabricators and installers.
The museum’s iconic design elements, while striking, are only a part of what makes this new museum unique. The facility is also notable for its architectural programming, which represents a potential new model for contemporary museums of all kinds. Whereas traditional museums typically consist of exhibition galleries, spaces for lectures and educational activities, a shop, and a café, Museum of the Bible was conceived, programmed, and designed as a more ambitious and flexible institution.
Long-term, permanent exhibitions occupy the majority of floor space within the original structure, but the project includes a variety of additional gallery spaces accommodating displays from visiting institutions, such as the Vatican Library and the Israeli Antiquities Authority, effectually creating museums within a museum. In addition, an unusually large number of theaters—12 in all—offer a broad range of experiences, from informational films to an interactive experience in which visitors “fly” over sites of biblical significance in and around Washington.
Also included in the museum program are spaces for donor retention and development, a rare-manuscript library, a conference facility with simultaneous-translation capabilities, a broadcast studio, and hotel rooms for visiting scholars. Given the breadth of such functions, the Museum of the Bible may be regarded not so much as a singular museum but as a one-building campus of interrelated facilities.
Situated at the intersection of D and 4th streets in Washington, the museum strategic location links the National Mall and major cultural landmarks with Southwest Washington, further invigorating this historic and rapidly transforming quadrant of the city.
The project’s dense urban surroundings—with CSX trains to the south, an active government office building to the east, and an underground Metro rail line to the north— added myriad coordination, logistical, and safety challenges to an already complicated construction process. To address these complexities, Clark and SmithGroupJJR teams worked closely with nearly a dozen outside agencies—from the Commission of Fine Arts and the Historic Preservation Review Board to the Washington Area Transit Authority and CSX Transportation—to ensure the project moved forward with proper stakeholder input and approvals.
Construction was performed in two existing buildings encompassing a full city block. Collaboration between the design and construction teams helped maintain a tight schedule. With the architect, six exhibit-design teams, a general contractor, and more than 60 specialty trade partners, the project team took an integrated approach early in the process with specialty partners embedded with the design team. This included weekly design coordination meetings with participation from all of the exhibit teams and the contractor as well as quarterly project meetings where design progress was shared and the client was brought up to date and could weigh in on all design decisions.
Meticulous schedule management also was crucial to success. The museum’s aggressive schedule was a determining factor in the project teams’ approach to design and construction. Two options were explored: preserve the exterior, gut the entire interior, and rebuild within the existing envelope; or, remove every other structural floor while maintain everything else. Preserving the building’s structural slabs on every other floor yielded timesavings, so the team chose that path.
Another approach to advance the project involved dividing the museum into two separate construction projects: the historic renovation and demolition and the new construction, which enabled turnover of the renovated historic building to exhibit installation teams a year ahead of the grand opening.
In 2015, many trade partners began work to restore, adapt, and enhance the refrigerated warehouse. After gaining designation as a historical landmark, the museum’s first step in the construction was the surgical removal of a 1982 addition followed by the challenging removal of the roof and every other floor to expand the floor-to-ceiling heights to the 20-ft. minimum required for modern museum exhibits. The selective demolition of existing floors required careful coordination of the structural retrofit of existing concrete columns with steel-plate reinforcing.
Due to the technical challenges involved, buildings are rarely expanded below grade. Clark Construction performed an innovative underpinning and support process to lower the building’s basement level by 5 ft. to make room for the museum’s central plant. The team also installed a robust foundations system to provide support for the modified historic structure, which included driving more than 7,000 linear ft. of piles.
Museum of the Bible leaders had a progressive vision for the facility that involved leveraging cutting-edge technology to create a multi-dimensional visitor experience. Clark subsidiary, S2N Technology Group, helped achieve that vision, serving as a single point of coordination between museum representatives, Clark, exhibit designers, subcontractors, and technical vendors. S2N streamlined management of the museum’s low-voltage technology scope and helped save critical time in the final stages of the project.
Upon entry, visitors are greeted by a soaring digital arcade ceiling that stretches 140 ft. in length and 15 ft. wide. The kaleidoscope-like feature comprises 555 LED panels, and is one of the largest LED screens in the U.S.
In addition to the ceiling, “digital docents” provide a personal touring system and museum experience unlike any other. The hand-held navigation devices can be programed based on visitor interests and serve to guide patrons through exhibits, providing supplementary information based on a visitor’s positions in the museum, accurate to within 6 in.
The World Stage Theater, a 472-seat performance theater on the fifth floor, provides yet another unique experience for visitors. The theater takes its shape from the flowing fabric of a tabernacle tent. The rippled ribbons surrounding the house of the theater hide lighting and projectors that provide an immersive 3D mapped projection experience, where all surfaces from stage to ceiling are enveloped into the moving display.
The facility represents the future of cultural institutions. Not only is it revolutionizing the way visitors experience history, the story of its design and construction is changing the way museums come to life. It serves as a model of what can be achieved through creative engineering and superior collaboration.
In the first four months of operation, the museum welcomed more than 300,000 visitors. At this pace, the museum will see more than 1.4-million visitors in its first year, ranking it as one of the top museum attractions in Washington.
Sarah Ghorbanian, LEED AP, is exhibit design coordination and project manager, SmithGroupJJR. She coordinated the design and fabrication of the work of the museum’s six exhibit design firms with the design and construction of the base building. She also oversaw project construction administration.
Jared Oldroyd, project executive, Museum of the Bible, is a vice president at Clark Construction Group LLC, Bethesda, MD, and serves as business unit leader on public assembly and private development projects throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
• SmithGroupJJR, Washington—architectural design; MEP and fire-protection engineering; general lighting design
• Clark Construction Group, Bethesda, MD—general contractor
• Tadjer Cohen Edelson, Silver Spring, MD—structural engineer
• EHT Traceries, Washington—historic resources
• Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, Alexandria, VA—landscape architecture
• The PRD Group Ltd, Chantilly, VA; BRC Imagination Arts, Los Angeles; C&G Partners LLC, New York; Jonathan Martin Creative Inc., College Grove, TN; DyMoRides GmbH,Vienna, Austria; Design and Production Inc., Lorton, VA; Maltbie, a kubik company, Mt. Laurel, NJ; Technomedia Solutions LLC, New York—exhibit designers and fabricators
• Artist Larry Kirkland, Washington, collaborated with SmithGroupJJR to develop several large-scale art elements including the Gutenberg Gates, the entry art glass, and the marginalia experienced throughout the building.