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November 30, 2017
Living Computers: Museum + Labs in Seattle's Sodo district is a playground for people who love all things bits and bytes. Its restored vintage computers and mainframes aren't just on display — visitors can actually use them.
The museum is housed in a concrete 1930s warehouse that underwent an extensive renovation completed last year.
Despite being booted up by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the museum had a decidedly low-key vibe when it first opened in 2012.
Executive Director Lath Carlson said about 10,000 people a year would find their way “to this kind of out-of-the-way, nondescript museum where they'd ride a little elevator to the second floor and get off and just kind of see a collection of old computers.”
The renovation doubled the museum space — it now includes the first floor as well as the second — and allowed the institution to expand its scope to include current and developing technologies. So visitors can not only check out Steve Jobs' Apple I desktop, they can explore exhibits related to robotics, virtual reality and self-driving cars.
The changes have been a hit with museum-goers. Attendance has doubled since the renovation and memberships are up tenfold, Carlson said. Field trips and events are also way up.
“Some of those things are directly attributable to the spaces that were created,” he said.
The Living Computers museum is just one of a number of museum projects that are underway or have been recently completed in the Puget Sound area.
Others under construction include the new Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus, the new Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard, the Seattle Asian Art Museum renovation in Volunteer Park, and the new Benaroya Wing at Tacoma Art Museum.
Though museums aren't a significant market, particularly on the local level, there's an ecosystem of designers, contractors and fabricators that supports such projects.
John Hayduk, president of JTM Construction, said only a handful of local contractors regularly pursue museum contracts. He includes JTM in that mix. The company is building the Tacoma Art Museum expansion and completed the LeMay car museum in Tacoma in 2012.
Hayduk said going after museum projects is not a financial decision. His company can make far more money doing other types of work.
Rather, the rewards are internal, he said.
“That opening ribbon-cutting ceremony gives you a great feeling inside. You've given people something they will enjoy forever.”
Sam Stevens, a senior project manager for Skanska USA, sounded a similar note. He's overseeing the company's construction of the Burke Museum, which is slated to open in mid-2019.
“We really look at projects that make a difference in the community,” he said.
Both contractors compared museums with other showcase projects meant for the general public, such as concert halls, hospitals and school buildings.
Stevens described the need for museums to have a “higher-end user experience” and separate back-of-house spaces for staff and maintenance.
Practically speaking, that means working with designers and exhibit installers to ensure that things like lighting, sprinklers, HVAC and exit signs are installed where they're needed without interfering with the exhibits.
Hayduk said museums can also be like hospitals, where renovation contractors need to worry about controlling dust and humidity.
A few companies specialize in exhibit design, which involves figuring out how museum content will be displayed and how visitors will interact with it.
Andrea Weatherhead of Weatherhead Experience Design said that as an exhibit designer she works with the architects to shape the environment that visitors experience. The most successful projects involve tight collaboration with other project team members, including the general contractor, she said.
After exhibit designers finish the drawings, it's up to the fabrication companies to build the exhibits. Fabrication companies generally have large shops where they construct the exhibits before assembling them onsite.
Weatherhead said fabricators have a special skill set, which they use not just for museums, but for retail and other industries.
Ken Burns, principal of Curious Beast, which was responsible for the exhibits in the Living Computers museum renovation, said his work didn't extend to altering the building itself.
“But the (visitor) experiences — we have a lot to do with that,” he said.
The design for the Living Computers museum took the museum-going experience seriously.
“If you look at traditional museum design, much more of it had to do with the conservation and security of the artifacts, and not so much about the basics of human needs of the visitors,” said Carlson, the museum's executive director.
People who come to museums want to know how to find their way around, and whether there's Wi-Fi, and where they can charge their phones.
“So we put a lot of thought, actually, into those aspects, particularly in the architecture of the building, and really making sure that we made it a really easy-to-use space where people are really comfortable,” he said.
The first floor has a lounge area with a custom-made coffee table surrounded by comfy chairs.
“We regularly see people relaxing in that space during the day, even sleeping quite often on the couches, which is great,” Carlson said with a laugh.
“That's a great sign of how comfortable people feel in the space.”
Tiscareno Associates was the architect for the renovation, and Abbott Construction was the general contractor.
Carlson, who has a background in museum exhibit design, joined the Living Computers museum in 2015 after overseeing a renovation of the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.
He said he wanted to work with Tiscareno because they weren't interested in transforming the museum's industrial building into a “shiny, white cube of a museum.”
The museum is involved with restoring computers and making things in workshops, “so being in an industrial building makes sense,” Carlson said.
The architects also liked what they had to work with.
“The bones of the building were just great,” said Jim Cade, a principal and partner at Tiscareno.
He said the firm saw good opportunities to show off the building's concrete and its subtle art deco influences, and create a flexible space inside.
But with a tight budget — reported to be $1.4 million — and a nine-month timeline from design to completion, the project faced a few challenges.
Cade said discussions with Abbott Construction started early so they could provide their input on things like sequencing, materials and pricing. Other team members and museum staff were also brought in early to help with decision-making, and joined in group meetings that met weekly for several months.
The meetings helped everyone develop a shared sense of the project's direction, Cade said, which encouraged their buy-in and made it easier for team members to make decisions.
“So when it all comes together very quickly in the end, (the museum) actually reads as ‘one' rather than a building with objects placed in it, ” he said.
Bob Tiscareno, founder and principal of Tiscareno Associates, said the project resulted in a huge transformation for the building.
“This is a good example of how a simple, very plain building can be used and re-energized through new uses,” he said. “I think this is one of the strongest examples in Seattle.”
Alas, the steady flow of local museum work won't necessarily go on forever. There are reasons for both optimism and pessimism. In the plus column, noted JTM's Hayduk, “there's money in this town and it helps.”
But Stevens at Skanska said that although there's been a lot of museum projects in the last few years, “it's a trend that'll die off. It's not sustainable” compared with other sectors such as office construction.
Carlson of the Living Computers museum said even with Seattle's booming economy, museums don't respond to market forces the same way other types of business might — the planning process is simply too long.
“Most new museums that I've worked with have been in the planning stages for 10, 15, 20 years before actually breaking ground,” he said.
“So what I think you're seeing in Seattle isn't so much a reaction to the fast-paced growth of the city as it is a number of institutions that have just been around for a long time are reaching kind of natural points to either expand or remodel.”
Jon Silver can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.