One of the most visited museums in the world, the National Air and Space Museum has a critical role in showcasing the legacy of aviation and space exploration for its millions of annual visitors. With its iconic atriums and pivotal air and space artifacts, including the 1903 Wright Flyer and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, it is of the utmost importance to preserve this space as a piece of our shared cultural fabric.
In 2013, we began designing a comprehensive renovation to modernize the museum, maintain its historical integrity, improve energy efficiency, and enhance the visitor experience. With the goal of renewing the museum inside and out, we completely replaced the exterior stone cladding, seamlessly integrated cutting-edge systems, and designed an entry pavilion inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Ornithopter. Construction is taking place in phases; approximately half the revitalized museum has reopened to the public, with the other half opening in 2025.
Our updates are transforming the museum into a high-performance structure for the future. Through purposeful design and creative innovation, we are taking the National Air and Space Museum to new heights, all while maintaining its irreplaceable history.
Designing with Purpose
For Richard Renaud, AIA, problem-solving is at the core of architecture.
“Architecture without purpose is just the accenting of space,” he says. “However many styles, attributes, forms, and embellishments change, the real focus should be on what it is there for, and adornment should follow. We build for a reason.”
During the work on the National Air and Space Museum, the problem we needed to solve was to house the museum’s artifacts safely.
“Not safely for us,” explains Renaud. “Safely for them.”
The original design of the museum allows for many of the artifacts and planes to be viewed by visitors against the backdrop of the sky. Instead of traditional ceilings and roofs, the three main atria feature glass curtain walls and roofs of glass skylight.
“This was great for the viewers, but terrible for the artifacts,” says Renaud.
Considering the age and sensitivity of many of the artifacts, environmental factors like humidity, light, and airflow have a significant effect. Working closely with conservators, we were able to determine temperature and humidity thresholds and ways to limit light that optimize museum conditions while yielding significant energy savings.
Controlling Natural Light
Natural lighting is a gift that many architects are thrilled to receive. For certain buildings and structures, designs incorporate direct sunlight and diffused skylight to use less electric lighting and save energy through daylighting.
“Daylighting is using the natural light we get for free in a way that creates good consistent light levels without excess glare,” explains Leora Mirvish, AIA, LEED AP. “It allows us to use less energy for electric lights and thereby emit less CO2.”
For the National Air and Space Museum, the unique challenge was to limit the amount of light entering the galleries through the glazed walls and roof. Some of the museum’s artifacts are so prone to light damage that they can’t be exposed to more than a foot-candle of light, similar to a dark theater. When we measured light on the floor, the exposure was 700-1000 foot-candles, a level where paint fades and wood begins to dry out.
“Our first thought was ‘we have to limit this light,’” says Renaud. “How do we do that in a sensitive way, rather than just roofing over the building’s skylight features?”
When we approached the design, we considered many options to reduce the amount of daylighting and use light more efficiently. Before restoration, the museum felt too dark, despite light levels being too high for the artifacts. By adjusting the window tint levels, we were able to add additional protection while keeping the backdrop for the planes neutral and clear.
After testing at least 11 different options for a shading system, we decided on one that controls the amount of light entering the galleries depending on the time of day and year. We added daylight sensors, which deploy the shades when bright and retract them when it's dim to maximize visibility. Each light fixture in the museum is individually controlled by a computer, and they turn on automatically when it gets dark to ensure that guests have optimal visibility for experiencing the artifacts.
Ultimately, this new lighting and shading system provides better light levels and protection for the exhibits while conserving energy by 17%.
Maintaining the Original Design
Throughout the process, we were focused on respecting and maintaining the original design intent of the museum. Transforming it for the future did not mean leaving its character-defining features in the past.
“Keep yesterday included in tomorrow,” says Renaud.
As a result, the National Air and Space Museum retains its mid-century design as well as its awe-inspiring use of the sky to frame its planes and artifacts as they were intended to be seen.