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February 6, 2020

Here’s how the museum was protected during renovation

  • In some cases, historic components were replicated because of damage sustained over years of use or constructability requirements.


    Historic building renovations are distinctly challenging and different from new building construction. This is especially true when the building is a Seattle landmark located in the middle of a beloved public park. Such was the case with the renovation and addition to the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

    Originally constructed in 1933, this landmark art deco building is located in Volunteer Park atop Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

    Modernizing the existing facility and expanding gallery and education space became necessary in order to meet current museum and preservation standards. To achieve this goal, the MEP and structural systems required upgrades and additional space was added to the back of the building. However, maintaining the original interior and exterior design of the building through preservation or identical reconstruction was a requirement.

    Photos from BNBuilders [enlarge]
    The flooring in Fuller Garden Court was protected by sheets of plywood during construction.


    First and foremost, maintaining the integrity of the building’s historical elements was of critical importance. Parts of the building are protected under the city of Seattle’s landmark preservation designation and not subject to modification without approval. This includes the facade, interior galleries, garden court, entryway, auditorium and library.

    So, it was necessary to maintain the exact look, feel and construction of these spaces. In some cases, such as where the new addition connects to the garden court, changes required review and approval.

    In order to execute construction, many historic elements were removed or protected in place. Extensive documentation and cataloging facilitated reinstallation of these elements. All told, nearly 15,000 documentary photographs were taken, and numerous items moved to storage. Protection placed on remaining components prevented damage during construction.

    In some cases, historic components were replicated because of damage sustained over years of use or constructability requirements. These specialty items presented both procurement and installation challenges.

    All replacement components in protected spaces needed to be identical to historical components and be approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board. Ultimately, plaster cornices, theater seating, Masonite floors and scagliola (faux travertine) wall panels were identically reproduced.

    Given the specialized nature of the materials, finish quality and authenticity of replicated historical elements, identifying vendors and securing qualified installers presented challenges. For example, there are only two companies in the United States from which to source scagliola wall panels and very few installers with applicable experience.


    The project team laser scanned the entire building, developing point cloud data of existing conditions to support design and system coordination.

    The key to efficient and successful installation of new MEP and structural systems was developing comprehensive as-built data to facilitate coordination and determine construction means and methods. Having an accurate and reliable survey of existing conditions was the single biggest driver of efficiency once construction began.

    Early in design, the BNBuilders team laser scanned the entire building, developing point cloud data of existing conditions to support design and system coordination. This information was invaluable as new systems were located in very tight spaces near historical elements, above ceilings and behind existing walls not originally designed to accommodate such systems.

    Working with our subcontractor partners, VECA and Holaday-Parks, we fully modeled new systems and coordinated the model with as-built drawings during preconstruction. In some cases, augmented reality was used to overlay the model onto the actual condition in the field.

    Structural seismic upgrades including steel to support the concrete structure and fiberglass-reinforced panels applied to the hollow clay tile brought the building up to modern standards. As-built point cloud data and BIM coordination again proved invaluable in executing these upgrades efficiently and without extensive field changes or damage to in-place historic elements.


    One of the most challenging aspects of this project was working in Volunteer Park, which remained open throughout construction. Located on Capitol Hill amongst many of Seattle’s most notable estates, the park presents access and logistical challenges. The Olmsted-designed park also has a range of stakeholders in addition to those involved with the museum, including neighborhood residents, Volunteer Park Trust, Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks and Seattle Parks and Recreation.

    Clear and regular communication was important, especially early in the approval and planning stages.

    Logistics and construction execution planning and coordination were critical, and a series of public meetings allowed us to present our approach, solicit feedback and refine the plan. Top priorities included mitigating impacts to park users and the neighborhood, isolating the site and ensuring safety — all while still efficiently executing construction.

    Once construction began, weekly coordination meetings with Seattle Parks and Recreation ensured the ongoing effectiveness of our plan or dictated updates.

    Volunteer Park’s numerous exotic trees, especially near the addition on the building’s east side, also presented a logistical challenge. Our construction execution plan prioritized tree protection and an arborist was regularly on site to review and approve construction activities.

    Working on an iconic and beloved historical building is a unique challenge and there is no blueprint for success.

    The success of the Seattle Asian Art Museum renovation was the result of an integrated and collaborative effort between the owner, LMN Architects, our subcontractor partners and a wide range of highly qualified craft workers.

    Matt Lubbers is a project executive at BNBuilders.

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