Preserving History

Feb. 9, 2007
Archives building uses sophisticated, integrated technology in award-winning design

By Julie Eisele

When seeking requests for proposals, not many building owners shop for blast-resistant demising walls, cold storage vaults, technology that can provide huge internal variances in humidity and temperature levels, and modular construction that can be expanded as needed - without interrupting operations.

But those were the needs of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) when it built a new Southeast Regional Archives complex in Morrow, GA, which opened in April 2005. NARA, a federal agency, stores, preserves, and provides public access to important legal or historical documents that are created by the U.S. government. NARA oversees a network of 19 regional records facilities across the country and all presidential libraries.

About 10 years ago, agency leaders began to seek designs for a prototypical government archive design plan that would serve as a blueprint for future regional archival facilities. The concept was developed and it became a reality with the Morrow archives. The 115,000-square-foot, $28.5 million facility contains more than 115,000 cubic feet of archival documents from the period of 1716 to the 1990s - with a capacity to hold up to 230,000 cubic feet of documents. These are mostly textual records, but holdings also include maps, photographs, and architectural drawings

The Crown Jewel

The Morrow building - the first archival facility based on the prototype - has been called NARA’s “crown jewel” by Allen Weinstein, who heads NARA as the Archivist of the United States.

Why the “crown jewel” title?

“This is the first regional archives building in the entire NARA system that was designed and constructed from ‘day one’ as an archival facility as opposed to a retrofitted space,” says James McSweeney, regional administrator of the National Archives Southeast Region. “Here, we have appropriate and ample storage space for our records, we have wonderful state-of-the-art public research rooms and amenities, conference and training space complete with videoconferencing capability - everything that should be in a modern archival institution.”

The Southeast Region’s former facility was a military supply depot built in the 1940s. It did not provide an optimal environment for storing documents, and public use areas were almost nonexistent. Storage space was also limited, and NARA could no longer accept new transfers of archival records from agencies because of space constraints. But all that has changed. “I use the adage ‘We’ve gone from the outhouse to the penthouse,’ ” says McSweeney.

A grand lobby area welcomes visitors. This 5,000-square-foot area includes exhibit space that displays “Firsthand History,” a showcase of more than 500 facsimiles of regional holdings that document the lives of people who lived in the region. The four main types of spaces - public, private, research, and storage - are connected by a central spine, with each area branching off at a 45-degree angle. The sections are divided by thick walls that accommodate recessed items, provide fire protection, and help facilitate roof drainage systems.

In addition to the lobby, the public area includes a 3,000-square-foot training conference suite that can be subdivided into smaller meeting areas; featured amenities include videoconferencing equipment and public access computers, a public dining area, and outdoor public areas that include a patio, courtyard, and an amphitheatre. As part of its public outreach programs, the National Archives Southeast Region offers resources for genealogical and family history research, academic symposia, workshops on the use of primary resources for educators, genealogical conferences, and more.

Staff office areas make up the building’s private space. In its former facility, staff space was limited to 1,000 feet, says McSweeney. Now that is closer to 5,000 square feet. Employees now have cubicles, and specific space has been dedicated for volunteers.

The research area contains a 2,500-square-foot Finding Aids Room, a 5,000-square-foot Microfilm Research Room, and a 2,500-square-foot Textual Research Room. This room, where members of the public obtain access to original documents, is “the hub and epicenter of the new facility,” says McSweeney. “It is in this room where members of the public and researchers can put their hands on the actual documents, whether it’s the Rosa Parks case file, photographs depicting the relocation of families via the Tennessee Valley Authority, or the Tuskegee Syphilis study records - this is the only place in the world where these records can be viewed in person,” he adds.

The archival storage areas, which are not open to the public, take up 46,000 square feet. Known as “the stacks,” this area has a shelving capacity of 230,000 cubic feet. “It is one of the largest paper archives in the United States,” says Dianne Peck, executive vice president at Woodbridge, VA-based Peck Peck & Associates Inc., lead architect for the project. A Records Processing Area and a cold storage vault (containing photographs, negatives, and glass slides) are located between the staff offices and the stacks. The facility also includes a “clean room” where documents can be isolated or “debugged” to kill any possible damage from insects, dust, or mold.

The Brains of the Building

The one-story building includes a second-level penthouse, which contains mechanical equipment. If necessary, the facility can be expanded by adding blocks - modular buildings - to the footprint, says Peck.

Notes Cliff Wallace of Leach Wallace & Associates, Baltimore, MD, which provided mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering services: “It’s very flexible. The volume of storage can easily be increased. As blocks are added, the infrastructure spine is expandable. You can add the necessary cooling, heating, power, and infrastructure needs with minor disruption.” Wallace, an engineer, is the company’s executive vice president and director of quality control.

A chilled water cooling system includes three 250-ton Trane screw chillers with EvapCo counterflow cooling towers. One chiller serves as back-up. A separate unit - manufactured by Dryomatic - serves the cold storage room where the temperature is kept at 35 degrees, with 35-percent humidity. “The cold storage area is designed for documents that need to be protected above and beyond the documents in the storage area,” says Wallace.

Hot water boilers, manufactured by Burnham Commercial, meet the facility’s heating needs. Electrical service is backed up by an emergency generator.

Humidity levels vary throughout the building. For example, document storage areas have lower humidity levels than areas that are heavily occupied by people. “We have to maintain very specific humidity levels. And all the HVAC systems have built-in redundancy. If one system goes down, the other system goes online immediately,” says Peck.

Air-handling systems are customized depending on their location in the building. In the document storage area, outside air that is brought in for pressurization and ventilation is treated with carbon filters to prevent contaminants from affecting the materials.

Automated controls are integrated to constantly monitor system functions, temperature, and humidity conditions throughout the complex. Integrated controls, manufactured by Andover Controls, provide communication between equipment and also help maintain a refined energy management program. “The controls are really the brains of the building,” says Wallace.

Protecting the Past

The design of the various types of lighting systems was a complex task. Lighting, both natural and artificial, can have a significant impact on archived materials. Fading and degradation of stored materials can occur from many sources of light, but particularly ultraviolet radiation. Lighting was specially designed in some storage areas in order to protect materials from harmful rays.

Lobby lighting is primarily provided by daylight, which is used extensively in areas where artifacts are not displayed. Much of the facility was outfitted with fluorescent and halogen fixtures. The fluorescent lighting provides large amounts of uniform lighting, and the halogen option provides a dimmable source with good color rendering.

Public areas where documents are examined use two layers of light: cove and parabolic fixtures. Both can be dimmed to produce only the minimum amount of light required, thus protecting documents.

Among the storage stacks, where parabolic industrial fixtures are used, illumination is controlled by occupancy sensors to provide the minimum amount of lighting necessary. In areas where documents are stored or examined, natural lighting is kept to a minimum. In addition, all lamps are fitted with UV-reducing sleeves. The specially designed sleeves effectively block 95 percent of the harmful UV radiation.

Intense security is another feature. Visitors must present photo identification, and everyone must pass through a magnetometer and X-ray machine. Researchers are escorted by NARA staff members in and out of the Textual Research Room, and video surveillance is used both inside and outside.

The building has security guards on-site and it is monitored constantly. Internal security aspects include magnetic locks, a card reader system, and a duress alarm system. The security system is provided by GE Interlox, and the fire alarm system is manufactured by Notifier.

Design elements, interior furnishings, exterior elements, and landscaping were all selected carefully as part of a sustainable design approach (see A Green Citation - in the side bar). The project is under review for LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

A Local Leader

The new Southeast Regional Archives facility is magnificent on its own, but its location makes the facility even more attractive and useful for the public. The building is next door to two complementary institutions: Clayton State University and the Georgia Archives.

The three institutions are tied together with a NARA-owned Visitor Learning Center. This 3,000-square-foot facility is designed to greet visitors, though it also contains catering facilities (for public events that are held at the complex), lecture space, and a university-operated gift shop. A large outdoor patio area and an amphitheatre create attractive outdoor spaces.

“[The complex] has been identified as some of the greatest public-use space in the entire area, if not the entire region. We are so pleased to be able to share this with the public. We are now a recognized leader in the local community as well as a sought-after partner for other social, cultural, and academic institutions,” McSweeney says.

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