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Forum purchased land in Washington, DC, for the Newseum at 555 Pennsylvania Ave, the last buildable site on the presidential inaugural parade route between the Capitol and the White House, across from the Smithsonian Institution museum complex on the National Mall.
Over the next six years, the Freedom Forum planned, designed and constructed its Newseum, formally opening it in April 2008. This 250,000-square-foot museum of news has seven levels of galleries, theaters, retail spaces and visitor services. It has 14 major galleries and two television studios, with a mile-and-a-half-long exhibit route. Its 15 theaters range in size, the largest of which seats 535 visitors and another that has a 90-foot-long video news wall.
The main entrance opens into a 90-foot-high atrium with a 40-by-22-foot media screen that shows breaking news, historic news events and Newseum films. The Newseum will use that screen, as well as other spaces, to hold special events for big news events, such as the 2008 United States visit by Pope Benedict XVI, the Beijing Olympics and the political conventions.
Between the Smithsonian and Disney World
Newseum chief executive Charles Overby said that it is an interactive museum “somewhere between the Smithsonian and Disney World.”
For example, the large Annenberg Theater offers an original, high-tech, four-dimensional feature that combines museum-quality content with theme-park excitement. The 13-minute film uses 3-D effects combined with environmental effects, including motion, air gusts and squirts of water to take visitors on a time-travel experience through great historical news events.
The NBC News Interactive Newsroom is a 7,000-square-foot gallery where visitors can select any of 48 interactive kiosks or experiences that simulate the news reporting. Those locations, as well as others throughout the Newseum, required dedicated electrical and low-voltage cabling.
“The feeling is kinetic, even frenetic, like the pace of news gathering itself. The challenge for museum-goers is to decide just which of the 14 galleries … to head for,” writes Judith Ritter in Toronto’s National Post.
The Newseum also features a food court and a two-level store. The building includes a two-level, 24,000-square-foot conference center; the Freedom Forum offices; a three-level restaurant; and more than 140,000 square feet of residential apartments. The building’s total area is 643,000 square feet. Design and construction costs came to approximately $450 million, which includes the site cost of $100 million.
“In a way, this was really two projects on a single contract,” said Richard Carmona, project executive for Mona Electric, the electrical contractor for the project. “The apartments’ portion was a more traditional, routine project. It was the museum portion that was unique.
“The residential portion was vertically aligned for relatively easy power distribution, but the museum was not,” Carmona said. “None of the walls lined up. Most of the ceilings were different, and there was almost no opportunity for stacking any of the electrical systems.
“Mona has a strong preconstruction design department, and we typically preassign all of the major electrical pathways, conduits, racks and that sort of thing. We also do the same for the other trades’ pathways in the building so that most of the figuring is already completed before any crews get on site. The museum’s unique design made this a real challenge for our engineering department.”
Each of the two portions of the project has a separate electrical system, complete with separate utility feeds, electrical rooms and distribution equipment. Three 4,000-amp main panels service the nine-level museum portion. Three panels of 2,000, 3,000 and 4,000 amps service the residential portion, which has 12 floors plus a penthouse.
“Another significant challenge on this project,” Carmona said, “was that it was bordered by three streets and the Canadian embassy. That meant that the building’s footprint did not allow for any storage or staging areas.”
Of course, Mona wasn’t the only contractor to face that difficulty. It affected all of the trades. And since Turner Construction, the general contractor, had known working space would be a challenge, it set up a thorough scheduling board with a crane for all deliveries.
“That meant that there were times we did not get what we wanted when we wanted it,” Carmona said. However, the solution was well-thought-through, with highly effective planning and coordination. And it is not hard to see why that was so important.
“I had 100-plus guys on that job at times, and I couldn’t have them waiting around for materials because I didn’t get my delivery scheduled properly,” Carmona said.
As with many parts of the project, the lighting in the Newseum portion was anything but traditional. Carmona and his team identified three types of lighting environments: theater, house and exhibit. Of course, there were variations within those categories at many of the specific locations.
The museum portion required approximately 8,700 fixtures plus approximately 8,500 linear feet of track/linear/LED lighting in ceilings, ranging from 8 to 50 feet. The residential portion required approximately 4,300 fixtures. But in many of the artistic Newseum ceilings, which were a combination of metal, wood and fabric, the Mona crews could not install the fixtures unless they were working in actual physical tandem with the ceiling-installation contractors. That was another coordination hurdle.
Mona Electric also performed much of the low-voltage work in the Newseum. However, that was not part of the traditional electrical contract, for Electrosonic Systems Inc. (ESI), out of Minneapolis, had won the low-voltage contract.
“ESI sought out Mona’s voice/data/video group on this project,” said David Howell, a VDV project manager for Mona Electric.
Mona’s work for ESI included installing and terminating approximately 500,000 feet of various audiovisual cables, including 22-gauge audio conductor, coaxial cable and Category 5e. It also installed a 560-speaker paging system.
“A majority of the cabling in the exhibit areas, as well as some of the terminations, had to be done from lifts due to the high ceilings throughout the museum,” Howell said. “And since there was only one cable tray system for all of the low-voltage systems, each cable had to be pulled and laid in separately in order to avoid crosstalk and interference problems later on.”
Overall, various Newseum contractors and subcontractors installed more than 525,000 feet of two-strand multimode fiber optic cable, of which the Mona low-voltage crews installed 25,000 feet and made more than 300 field terminations.
The Mona electrical crews were responsible for the low- voltage fire alarm system, as Mona Electric is a certified SimplexGrinnell installation contractor.
“We are experts in Washington, D.C., fire alarm system requirements,” Carmona said. “We installed, tested and certified the entire system. It was an extensive system in multiple environments. As a result of project delays, the facility opened in phases, so we had to approve ‘islands’ in the fire alarm system. Then as other areas came online, we had to tie them all in together without creating disruption in the live portions of the project.”
Second to none
By the end, Carmona was proud of the Newseum work.
“It was really hard to wave goodbye once it was complete,” Carmona said. “There are always headaches on a project, but when it was all done, it was a lot more fun than headache.”
The Newseum is a showcase project for Mona Electric and general contractor Turner Construction, the Freedom Forum, the District of Columbia and the free press. Mona Electric’s work there earned a 2008 Washington Building Congress Craftsman Award for Lighting Systems.
“We had a choice to build an average museum of glass cases or try to put together a state-of-the-art experience that people would remember when they went home,” Overby said.
Michael Grotticelli of Broadcast Engineering magazine appears to believe the project achieved the latter, as he writes, “The Newseum has become a showplace for what the news business is all about. ... It’s a highly advanced broadcast facility project, on top of a compelling museum.”
MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.