Project Management Institute

In a different light




A museum is more than just a building. It's the sum of a culture's ideas, dreams and imagination—its heart and soul. So, when trustees at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a Kansas City, Missouri, USA, institution since 1933, decided to expand the gallery space, they wanted to create an addition that dazzled the senses and transformed the mind. The new building not only had to complement the existing neoclassic structure built of rose cast limestone, but be so very extraordinary that it would make the city, the nation and even the world take notice.



Opened: 1933

Place: Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Annual Visitors: 350,000—and that number is expected to jump to 500,000 for the opening year of the Bloch Building

Expansion and Renovation Budget: $200 million

Project Span: Approximately 8 years

Number of Firms Working on

Project: More than 30

“One goal was to design and construct something spectacular that would stand the test of time,” says Dana Knapp, director of planning for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The result is a 165,000-square-foot (15,329-square-meter) series of five glass pavilions that cascade across a series of small hills to create intriguing and unusual light and visual patterns.

Architectural critics have hailed the new Bloch Building a resounding success. The project has put the museum on the international map and brought accolades and attention to the low-profile Midwestern U.S. city.

“As you stroll down the slope, the building unfolds in surprising episodes,” wrote Richard Lacayo, a critic for Time magazine. “There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the United States.”


Actually getting the addition built is a story of inspiration and innovation.

“The construction of the Bloch Building and renovations of the Nelson-Atkins Building was an eight-year, $200 million project that involved new materials, untested approaches and numerous challenges,” Ms. Knapp says.

Once museum director Marc Wilson and his trustees decided to expand in the late 1990s, they solicited ideas from different architects with the understanding that this was not to be just another attractive building. The group eventually decided on Steven Holl, a New York, New York, USA-based architect who has designed buildings in Beijing, China; Copenhagen, Denmark; Beirut, Lebanon; Paris, France; and Los Angeles, California, USA.

“[Mr. Holl] was selected because his concept was absolutely ingenious,” Ms. Knapp says. “He was respectful of the existing building but not afraid to do something bold.”

Innovative doesn't necessarily translate into simple, however. From the beginning, the project required creativity, persistence and communication.

Rather than a single structure attached to the existing museum, the design called for a series of five pavilions using translucent glass enclosures to surround gallery spaces located mostly underground. Described by Mr. Holl as “lenses,” the structures would create unconventional shapes, glowing from within at night and displaying an unusual milky translucence during daylight hours. Inside, the gallery space would provide bold lines and eyecatching geometry.

The ambitious nature of the project translated into numerous challenges for architects, engineers and construction crews.

“Many of the materials and building techniques had never been used in combination before,” explains Casey Cassias, principal at BNIM Architects, the Kansas City firm responsible for overseeing the architectural integration. “Transforming the ideas and concepts into a physical form was extraordinarily difficult. On top of this, from a project management perspective, we had an extremely conservative client asking to do something risky and bold.”

After breaking ground on the project in April 2001, architectural, engineering and construction crews began tackling the complex web of tasks that revolved around geology, structural engineering, lighting, environmental sciences and more. Specialists pored over materials and components—from Terrazzo tile to paint to metals—to ensure they would actually integrate effectively within the museum environment.

This included perfecting the glass “skins” that surround the buildings. Each has a unique shape, and more than 30 different types and combinations of glass were used in the construction. Portions of the building's structure required unique pre-loading to simulate the weight of the glazing system so that dead-load deflection was in place before the glass installation. To test the plan out, the team created a 30-foot (9-meter) mockup of the wall system. “We had to be certain that the engineering for the glazing system would work before we started putting the building together,” Mr. Cassias says.

Project teams also constructed a half-scale mockup of the gallery to gauge the lighting and devoted hundreds of hours to the environmental system. All artwork must remain at 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) and 50 percent humidity year-round. So engineering teams tested the climate and environmental systems for a full year before the museum began installing its artwork and artifacts. They also measured the impact of cleaning materials and other substances. In some cases, engineers had to reduce the exposure of certain substances from tens of thousands of parts per million to a few hundred parts per million.

At the same time, the team tried to transform even the most mundane elements into major statements. That included the parking garage—the entry point for the vast majority of visitors. Here, the designers and engineers used glass lenses positioned underneath a reflective pool to create ethereal-looking skylights.

“It was extremely important that the garage be unique and special,” Mr. Cassias says. “The idea was to create undulating wave patterns that would prepare visitors for the museum.”


To integrate the Bloch Building into the existing site, designers faced the additional complexity of renovating and restoring the original Nelson-Atkins building and making an array of other improvements to the 22-acre (9-hectare) site.




The Bloch Building is earning rave reviews—now.

But it wasn't so popular with the locals in the beginning. Much of the controversy centered on the addition's modern look, a stark contrast to the original 1930s building. Many community members and some architectural critics felt the two structures would conflict and that the Bloch Building would look out of place. One writer went so far as to describe the design as “grotesque.”

It was up to the project team to win over the skeptics.

“During the design and construction process for the Bloch Building, the museum did listen and respond to community members and neighbors regarding various aspects of the design,” says Dana Knapp, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “The Nelson-Atkins is a beloved institution in Kansas City, and we believe the vigorous discussions reflect the commitment and sincere investment the community has in the art museum.”

The team hosted neighborhood gatherings throughout the process, including one meeting where architect Steven Holl and museum leaders met with more than a thousand local citizens.

It seems to have worked. Along with a glowing reception for the finished product, the museum expects to pull in 500,000 visitors during the Bloch Building's opening year—a big jump from the usual 350,000.

“Putting everything together was an iterative process. We had to make constant changes along the way,” explains Peter Lacy, president of Lacy & Co., a Kansas City project management firm that represented the Nelson-Atkins Museum. “Sticking with the museum's budget and keeping the project moving forward required constant oversight and ongoing teamwork. It was an ambitious and lengthy schedule.”

The team also had to contend with another, more elusive, factor.



Almost every project involves budget, schedule and program oversight. This project added a fourth element: aesthetics.


“Almost every project involves budget, schedule and program oversight. This project added a fourth element: aesthetics,” Mr. Lacy points out. “The museum directors and trustees really wanted this to be a world-renowned building.”

Needless to say, that made matters more complicated. “It was an experimental project so we had to provide a lot of schedule leeway for testing new design concepts and making changes,” he says.

That meant maintaining total transparency with the budget so everyone on the project team had access to cost data throughout the project life cycle. Mr. Lacy and other project managers also kept a close eye on ongoing changes to the plans and construction costs.

More than once, “we had to reign in a few ideas that could have led to cost overruns. We were constantly checking cost estimates through the general contractor and outside consultants,” Mr. Lacy explains. “A couple of times we had to bring things to a halt until we had clear answers and good visibility.”

One way the management team ratcheted up efficiency and productivity was to establish detailed protocols. Lacy & Co. set up a methodology for every ongoing action or process involving the owner, the architectural engineering team, the general contractor, and the 25 specialty consultants and firms involved with the project.

“We worked hard to keep everyone in the loop, including those that weren't involved in the project from beginning to end,” Mr. Lacy says. “We wanted to make sure that all the information was available so that people could make the right decisions.”

Part of the problem with a project that spans so many years, he says, is that “you wind up, several years down the line, trying to remember what decisions were made and why.”

Tracking processes wasn't always simple with the large number of parties involved. For one thing, e-mail was not in widespread use when the project kicked off. And many of the team members still used mail and faxes to shuttle designs, contracts and information back and forth. To manage the project in an organized way, all of the principal firms involved with the project relied on spreadsheets, detailed paper-based notes and frequent verbal communication.

At the museum, Ms. Knapp and an internal staff of two had to stay atop of everyone and everything. Although the contractor, JE Dunn, used a custom project management system for the construction critical path, the museum managed the internal critical path and actions items with punch-lists and standard schedule software, she says.

All of this made constant and close communication a necessity. “There were times when we felt that we were living in meetings,” Mr. Cassias says. “We would have two or three meetings each day, five and sometimes six days a week.”

The project was completed nearly one year late, mostly due to the complexity of assembling the glass panels and perfecting the lighting.

But the working relationships between all the project players remained sound from start to finish—and the museum finished within budget. “We faced countless challenges and obstacles but the project team worked together to find suitable solutions,” Ms. Knapp says. In fact, many of the same companies remain on site as the final phases of the campus renovation unfold.

“The project took on the pace of a marathon,” Mr. Cassias says. “The intensity never let up and challenges constantly appeared. But, ultimately, everyone worked together in a thoughtful manner and we solved the issues and problems one at a time. We made it through all the peaks and valleys until we had completed a remarkable new museum.”


Number of major design awards the project won from the American Institute of Architecture


The Bloch Building officially opened on 9 June 2007—instantly redefining Kansas City. Since then, the once controversial addition has emerged as a high-profile landmark, capturing a total of 10 American Institute of Architecture design awards. And Mr. Lacy says the Kansas City skyline is now undergoing a renewal as other renowned architects attempt to put their stamp on the city.

Meanwhile, the Bloch Building's 165,000-square-foot (15,329-square-meter) gallery space is doing the job it was intended to do: helping attract more visitors to the museum's collection.

“The Bloch Building is more than an example of remarkable architecture,” Ms. Knapp says. “It is a tool that helps us fulfill our mission. We want to connect great art with as many people as possible.” PM

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