Copper facade beacon for human perseverance

by Ofentse Sefolo
Copper facade beacon for human perseverance

The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum was the subject of the recently announced AIA Film Challenge 2020 winner, and the team from Dallas-based Omniplan says: “Working on the design reinvigorated the design team to get the design of the building right, especially when several anti-Semitic hate crimes were recorded around the United States.”

Mark Holsinger, a principal at Omniplan who led the design of the museum, says working in this context added a sense of urgency to the project. “Any time there was an incident. Everyone sensed the importance of getting this building right.

“This is an important district in Dallas, and the client wasn’t interested in disturbing that fabric. At the same time, this is a museum for civil rights and human rights, and there was this idea that the building needed to be a beacon,” notes Holsinger.

Getting the construction right
The three-storey, 52 300 square foot, U-shaped building’s height, massing and earthy coloration echo those of nearby brick structures while reinterpreting individual elements to create something contemporary and monumental. But the building’s most eye-catching exterior feature is its faceted crown of copper panels, which tops expansive elevations of foreboding grey brick with punched windows.

From the beginning, copper was central to the building’s design,” Holsinger says. “It started to symbolise this idea of perseverance. Here is this material that can withstand almost anything. Yes, it changes and evolves, but it continues to persevere.” Visually separated by a recessed light cove, the museum’s brick and copper planes never quite meet, creating the sense that the copper crown is floating.

Upon entering the museum, visitors are directed to the top floor, where most of the exhibitions are located. Holsinger says Omniplan and the exhibition designers, Berenbaum Jacobs Associates, wanted visitors to have a sense of ascension—not only physically but also of “your knowledge and your awareness rising”.

On the exterior, the building’s copper cladding mirrors this journey. One proud facet in the copper traces a path upward from the northeast corner of the building – to exaggerate the sense of movement created by this facet, the staggered, different-sized copper sheets hang at an angle, following the facet’s path.

Unique process saves hours
To construct and install the copper cladding, Omniplan worked with Baker Triangle, a drywall, acoustical and metal fabricator with offices throughout Texas, who came to the table with the idea of unitising the sub-framing.

Using Omniplan’s Revit model, Baker Triangle prefabricated the sub-framing panels in its Dallas facility, which Baker Triangle’s vice-president of business development, Preston Pressley, estimates saved 2 560 man-hours over assembling and constructing them in the field. Prefabrication also reduced the likelihood of mistakes. “It would have been extremely complicated and time-consuming to create the geometry that Omniplan had created of boom lifts and scissor lifts,” Pressley says.

The team deployed cold-formed steel, with 40cm studs on the centre and what Pressley calls pyramid framing to create the running copper cladding facets. Because the facets occur at different locations for every stud, no two panels are alike. “It was one of the most complex geometries that we’ve worked with and one of those things that we love—nasty, complex, scratch-your-head, how-do-we-do-this projects,” he says.

Baker Triangle’s virtual design and construction team divided Omniplan’s facade design into 88 individual sub-framing panels, each approximately 9meters tall and 3m wide, and produced a digital model for each.

Copper sheets handled with gloves
Unlike the prefabricated panels, the building’s 3 500 copper sheets were fabricated and folded on site in sequence, using dimensions produced by Baker Triangle’s virtual design and construction team. To avoid scratches or dents, the crew followed strict protocols and donned white gloves while handling the copper, which was sourced from Finland. “The 567 gram copper was so malleable it was basically like a Coke can,” Pressley says. “You couldn’t stack one piece on top of the other because it would scratch.”

The flat-lock copper-sheet panels were then attached to the plywood using conventional clips. Baker Triangle foreman, Carlos Cabello, oversaw the installation. “This is one of those guys who has a unique way of understanding how things go together,” Pressley says. What was anticipated to take 50 days to complete on site without any prefabricated panels ended up taking just ten days.

Holsinger says the recessed light cove and building corners were the most challenging aspects of the copper system. A series of mock-ups built on site and at Baker Triangle’s facility helped to resolve the difficulties.

New momentum
The museum has already begun to adapt to its surroundings. The copper cladding has weathered more quickly than the architects expected, deepening from its original, metallic brilliance into a dark, leathery brown. It will never attain the characteristic green patina due to the lack of salt and humidity in the northern Texas air.

The new structure represents an evolution of a different kind for the museum, which was founded in 1984 by a local group of Holocaust survivors. “Previously, the institution was housed in an old warehouse a few blocks away and had a low profile,” Holsinger says. “Having this building, they are now able to have a louder voice within the city. Their message, and the lessons they have to teach, are rising in the city.”

For more information, visit https://www.archdaily.com/926223/the-dallas-holocaust-and-human-rights-museum-omniplan.

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