The new 50,000 ft² museum and screening facility on Liberty Island had to be iconic. The building would sit in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and host millions of visitors every year. It also had to be durable enough to sustain that level of traffic, and to handle the increasingly destructive storms and waves that periodically batter the East Coast. Precast concrete could meet both of these goals, providing a durable and flexible material that could accommodate complex designs while delivering a sustainable, low-maintenance structure that will last for generations.
The decision to use precast concrete for this project was originally made for logistical reasons, says Dan Piselli, director of sustainability and senior associate at FXCollaborative Architects. “This building is on an island in the middle of New York Harbor, so the process of getting anything onto the site is complicated.” The project team rented a dock space in New Jersey, where all construction materials had to be checked by security personnel before being carried by barge to island—when the tides were right. If the team gone with a fresh concrete approach, it would have added huge time delays because the concrete trucks could only make one trip a day, he says.
Instead, they used precast concrete for everything but the foundation, and this approach delivered multiple benefits. “Going with a prefabricated solution meant less time on site, and it accelerated installation,” says Bob Pabst, vice president of sales for High Concrete Group. “Assembling a building enclosure from multiple materials on site would have taken a lot longer, with more field labor and more waste generated.”
The precast concrete materials also brought significant sustainable benefits. The high thermal mass of the concrete panels helps maintain interior temperatures and minimizes the effects of outdoor temperature swings; additionally, special connection details minimize thermal bridging between interior and exterior building components. “Sustainability was key to this design, and precast concrete was there to meet that need,” Piselli says.
To accommodate flooding risks on the island, the design team created a hollow space at the lowest level of the museum and created 84 rectangular cutouts to allow floodwaters to flow freely into the base. This reduces the risk of pressure on the structure during extreme weather events while creating temporary storage for floodwater. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we set the museum above 500-year flood levels and built it to withstand hurricane-force winds,” Pabst says.
Rising from the Earth
Precast concrete may have been a logistical choice, but it also gave the design team the freedom to create a building that stands out from the traditional granite structures on the island. They took their aesthetic inspiration from the Palisades Cliffs along the Hudson River. The precast concrete sandwich panels feature an irregular vertical design that reflects the dramatic setting of the island and changes as visitors move around it. The sandwich panels range in thickness from 24 in. at the base to 16 in. at the top.
The design suggests that the museum has been lifted fully formed from its surroundings, with all vertical surfaces rendered in irregular patterns suggestive of a tectonic shift. The museum also features a sustainable “green” roof, adding to both the earthy design aesthetic and the project’s sustainability goals. “The solid walls are allegorical to the exposed rock dragged up from the earth,” Piselli says. “It also reflects the fact that this structure was built to stand the test of time.”