An Artful Approach

DPR Wraps Up San Francisco Bay Area’s Newest Landmark: The $160.5 Million Asian Art Museum

What does it take to transform a historic library, built in 1917 and then condemned in 1989, into a world-class museum to house a $6 billion collection of Asian art?

According to Greg Johnson, project manager for DPR Construction, it requires teamwork, open communication and approximately 1,300 laborers, carpenters, ironworkers, glaziers, plasterers, masons, plumbers, fitters, electricians, and other professionals working together to skillfully and safely complete more than one million hours of construction over the course of nearly four years. The high-profile rehabilitation and adaptive re-use Asian Art Museum project, located in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center, also consumed:

  • 26,000 cubic yards of concrete,
  • 6,000 tons of steel,
  • 30,000 sq. ft. of glass,
  • 50 miles of electrical wiring,
  • 11,000 sq. ft. of Italian Basaltina stone flooring (the same that is used in the Vatican), and
  • some 200 base isolators designed to allow the new landmark to withstand an 8.3 magnitude earthquake.

“Building a project of this size and scope always presents a number of challenges, even under the best conditions; having to build it without any record drawings definitely added to the complexity,” said Johnson. “We uncovered hundreds of concealed conditions that were unknown to the designer when the drawings for the new museum were developed, and each one called for us to stop work in that particular area and wait for direction on how to proceed to ensure that we maintained the integrity of the original design.”

The design team included Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, LDA Architects and Robert Wong Architect in association with internationally renowned museum designer Gae Aulenti, FAIA, of Italy. Forell/Elsesser served as the structural engineer and George Sexton as the museum display designer. DPR teamed up with Lem Construction Inc. in a joint venture to serve as the general contractor for the $160.5 million project, which featured the restoration of the exterior granite skin façade and interior renovation of the great hall and grand stair case and loggia, as well as the addition of a new floor and a more than 50-ft. tall skylight—a signature of designer Aulenti that now floods the once dark library with natural daylight.

“The structural work alone took a full two-and-a-half years and the installation of 14 shear walls up to 3 feet thick that ran from the ceiling to the basement,” said Project Engineer Paul Erb. “We also had to hand-rig the majority of the steel, rather than use a crane, due to limited site access in the highly dense Civic Center area.”

Crews also placed approximately 200 base isolators, 21 inches tall and 38 inches in diameter, beneath some 160 columns throughout the building. The sequenced process involved raising each steel column one at a time with a hydraulic jack to weld one or more base isolators to the bottom. In some cases, new columns and foundations were installed and the old ones removed from the building.

“The base isolator system puts the entire building on rubber bearings and viscous dampers that help absorb and minimize the impact of an earthquake,” said Erb. “It was an extremely complicated procedure that required subs, working side by side in a compacted area, and multiple inspections. To keep track of the nearly 200 installations that were all at different stages at various times, we created a detailed check list and attached it to each column so that subs and inspectors knew the current status of each isolator sequence throughout the project.”

Project Engineer Ian Pyka noted that the project also encountered many “layers of history” during the excavation process. “Prior to 1870, the site was an old Italian Irish graveyard and then home to a portion of San Francisco’s City Hall until the 1906 earthquake knocked it down, and then the main library was built on top of the old foundation. The history of the site made it a very detailed excavation process that included hauling out chunks of the old city hall foundation and having archeologists come out whenever we uncovered a grave,” said Pyka.

Despite the numerous challenges on this unique project, the DPR and Lem team wrapped up construction in time for the March 20 public grand opening.