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Designing on our National Treasure: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Zena Howard, AIA
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
6:00 p.m. 
Location: UW Seattle campus
Presented by: the College of Built Environments

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Zena’s presentation will focus on how the design team behind the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture realized the owner’s vision for creating a distinctive new cultural experience on the National Mall.  In designing many of the museum’s unique features, the team was inspired by familiar imagery and experiences from both African and American history.

Zena Howard AIA, LEED AP

Zena is a Principal and Cultural Practice Co- leader with Perkins+Will. Her planning and design work is focused on museum and cultural institutions, libraries, civic buildings, and higher education facilities. Her projects typically involve specialized design goals such as environmental stewardship, LEED Certification, historically-significant building preservation, and community economic development.

As Senior Project Manager for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, she was the point person for the Smithsonian Institution in executing multiple decades of planning to create this important national museum. Zena directed the Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group team of four architecture firms and 29 consultants throughout pre-design, design, construction documentation, and fast-track construction. 

A native of North Carolina, Zena earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from the University of Virginia.  She currently serves on the North Carolina State University School of Architecture Advisory Board and the University of Virginia Alumni Association Board of Managers.

Read more: Meet Zena Howard, The Architect Behind D.C.’s African American Museum

Zena’s representative project experience include:

  • Anacostia and Tenley Friendship neighborhood libraries in Washington, DC
  • Motown Museum in Detroit, MI, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall
  • The new Brooklyn Village neighborhood initiative in Charlotte, NC
  • International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, NC

Building Details for the National Museum of African American History and Culture:
Washington, D.C.
Size: 397,000 SF on
10 levels (5 above and 5 below ground)
Tracking LEED GOLD 

The museum, designed by the collaboration known as Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroup, honors the significant social, economic, and cultural contributions that African Americans have made to this country over the last several centuries.

The design includes exhibition galleries, an education center, a theater, an auditorium, a cafeteria, a store, and offices, was one of the largest and most complex building projects in the country.

The museum is the most sustainable national museum ever built, and the greenest of all Smithsonian Institution buildings. It features such design elements as rainwater harvesting, roof-mounted photovoltaic solar panels, extensive daylighting, and high efficiency mechanical systems. It is tracking LEED Gold certification.

The distinctive three-tiered building exterior is inspired by the Yoruban caryatid, a traditional West African wooden sculpture that bears a crown, or a corona, on top. The resulting upward-reaching form is both a contrasting and complementary presence among its neighboring structures on the National Mall. The pattern on the bronze-colored corona, made up of 3,600 cast-aluminum panels weighing a total of 230 tons, was inspired by the ornate ironwork of Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana—much of which was created by enslaved and free African Americans.

With 60 percent of the structure underground, designers and engineers had to create a continuous retaining wall around the perimeter of the site—extending 65 feet down at its maximum height—to secure the building’s foundation in the tidal marshland below Washington, D.C.