Construction projects have been on my mind lately and I thought this would be a good complement to Angela Chang’s presentation about her experiences during two major construction projects at the Straus Center (she spoke at the Conservation & Exhibition Planning: Material Testing for Design, Display, and Packing conference in DC in November 2015). Jeffrey Hirsch and Angela Matchica from Ewing Cole (an architect-design-engineering-planning firm) put together a clear and useful review of how conservators and collections care professionals can be active participants in a construction planning process. They took turns speaking, with Jeffrey giving an overview of each issue or area of collaboration, and Angela providing the in-practice examples from her experience as a lighting designer. The concrete examples were helpful in illuminating how collaboration goals can be translated into actual practice and decision making.
Jeffrey emphasized the complexity of the team on both sides of a museum construction project, with a wide variety of interests being represented. He noted that while those from Facilities departments are probably used to talking to architects and designers, the rest of the museum representatives may not initially be as comfortable, but need to make the time to stay at the table and speak up whenever they have questions. The slide below started out as just two dots – Design Team and Museum – and then grew and grew to encompass all the different roles that are part of the discussions around planning a new space or changes to an existing space.
In this diverse group, achieving consensus can be difficult, and knowing everyone’s individual needs is important. Angela discussed one instance in which repaired dinosaur skeletons were going on view, and light levels were initially assessed for the bones themselves, though it turned out that the most sensitive material present was the adhesive in the repairs. She also mentioned that they built a standalone mockup so that lighting levels could be experienced by all stakeholders, to get a real sense of what the space would feel like with different lighting, to achieve consensus. I thought this slide was helpful in illustrating all the sub-questions from different stakeholders that are a part of one major design decision.
Jeffrey noted that what looks like one construction project is really a number of simultaneous and interdependent projects – structural, exhibit design, conservation, and so on – all coming out of basically one pot of money. Scheduling all of this was likened to a symphony, in which it’s very difficult to get the multiple instruments to finish the piece at the same time.
As always, communication was underscored as the most essential element. Each group should be aware of how the other groups are progressing, and know if someone’s end date is shifting, and what that means for all the others. On this point, he stressed how important it was to have a contingency amount of funds specified in the budget very early on. Changes cost a lot more at the end then they do at the beginning, so it’s also important to assess all your options early on and make choices then, with full information about the long-term costs of each option. Here, Angela presented the choices between various types of light bulbs, some of which are low cost but require frequent replacement, while spending a bit more at the beginning can lead to major savings in time and materials later in the life of the building – value engineering.
The end message for all involved parties was to stay at the table, attend all meetings, read and familiarize yourself with all the minutes and notes, and keep track of what decisions are made. No sweat! I still feel like the only way to really know how to predict and prepare for all the things that can go wrong in a construction project is to go through one and learn from your own mistakes – but it was great to hear from the other side of the table, especially from a team that has a real sense of the wide-ranging and diverse concerns of working in a museum setting and the energy to work towards collaboration.