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Human Rights Museum Set to Open in Canada

Exterior rendering of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Engineers relied heavily on sophisticated modeling programs to design the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which will open on September 20. Graham Dunk, Architecture 49

Up-to-the-minute design technologies assist in the design and construction of a museum with a fluid, sculptural form inspired by the shapes found in nature.

July 29, 2014—Canada’s newest national museum is scheduled to open in a few months in Winnipeg, Manitoba, featuring an iconic design that took years of innovative modeling and construction to execute. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a nearly 25,000 m2 shrine celebrating the history and evolution of human rights in Canada and throughout the world.

The CAN$351-million (U.S.$327-million) museum features an exterior that evokes elements of nature, including a series of ground-level spaces that resemble tree roots and cloudlike tiers of curved, overlapping glass panels on the building’s facade. The museum was designed by Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Antoine Predock Architect PC, which won an international design competition for the project in 2003.

The museum’s unorthodox design—full of curves and slopes, barely a true vertical line to be found—required engineers to use advanced three-dimensional modeling to design the building’s structural framework. A flexible construction approach allowed for overlapping construction on multiple aspects of the building. Even as crews faced environmental challenges that arose from the site’s foundation in a floodplain and from Winnipeg’s famously cold and icy winters.

Museum officials have spent this summer building exhibits to fill a structure that Canadian engineers say is one of the most complicated they have ever built. “It was more like constructing a sculpture than a conventional building,” says Robert Duerksen, P.Eng., the project’s construction manager for Edmonton, Alberta-based PCL Construction. “Compared to other jobs, this is off the charts in terms of geometric complexity.”

The Predock design for the museum was chosen in 2003 from among 62 entries. After several years of fund-raising, structural engineers began developing the schematic design for the building in 2007, says Neb Erakovic, P.Eng., a principal of global buildings for the Toronto-based firm Halcrow Yolles, which provided structural engineering services on the project. The firm was acquired in 2011 by the Englewood, Colorado-based engineering firm CH2M Hill.

The architecture called for the museum to be composed of a series of layers, starting with ground-level entrances, topped by an exhibit hall featuring numerous crisscrossing ramps, gallery space, and offices, and finally the Tower of Hope at the top that would hold an observation deck. The museum galleries were to top out at the equivalent height of a 12-story building, and the tower would peak at 100 m from ground level.

The structural engineers used such advanced modeling programs as CATIA, Rhino, and Grasshopper to design the museum’s steel framework, and the layout proved far more complex than what would be used for typical buildings. With few flush lines or right angles, various unique structural elements were required to support the museum’s endless number of curves, bends, nooks, and crannies—resulting in structural schemes in which as many as 15 steel members would be joined at a single node.

Different structural approaches were used for each layer of the museum. The ground “roots” level was constructed using reinforced concrete, while the “mountain” level above it was framed using steel members made into five, separate irregularly shaped boxes within a stone facade. The “cloud” portion built on the museum’s south and west sides used steel members running adjacent to its glass façade, and a similar approach was used to construct the 50 m tall Tower of Hope.

“The challenge here was that there was no typical column and there was no typical beam, so every single piece—no matter how small—was a custom piece,” Erakovic says. “If you look at a standard design, you probably design about 20 percent of the elements and the rest is sort of recycled. In this case, we had to closely watch and detail the design of every single element.”

Construction of the museum began in 2009, as crews broke ground on a 24,000 m2 site in the Forks, a low-lying historic district in downtown Winnipeg. The site is located in a floodplain atop a supercharged aquifer, meaning that engineers had to equip construction caissons with numerous pumps to keep out groundwater.

In addition, crews had to contend with a sometimes brutal climate in Winnipeg, where temperatures can dip as low as –40ºF in the winter and rise to more than 95ºF in the summer. While such conditions can be uncomfortable for workers, Erakovic says that the greater issue is that such extreme temperatures can damage a building over time.

“Good structures show how good they are in this climate,” Erakovic says. “This weather wears and tears anything, so attention to detail in the structure is key and understanding the climate is key.”

As construction began, engineers worked with one another and with museum architects to turn what started as an idea into massive building unlike anything the city had seen before. Materials were delivered from all over the world—glass for the museum’s 5,400 m2 cloudlike façade came from Germany, 5,400 metric tons of steel were shipped from Ontario, and 17,800 m3 of concrete was made locally.

Cantilevered elements of the museum required temporary supports during construction, and crews used scaffolding inside the museum’s main hall to complete its ceiling before beginning the finishing work on its 770 m network of ramps.

In many cases, the engineers had to manage overlapping projects while keeping track of scheduling and safety requirements, but they say that communication and teamwork between the firms made the task relatively easy. They add that effective planning and use of 3-D modeling beforehand resulted in the relatively stress-free completion of what Erakovic called “the easiest complicated job” that he has ever done.

“I didn’t hear of any significant problems that we had with any of the structural steel connections,” Duerksen says. “Everything just fit together perfectly.”

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has won numerous design and engineering awards, including the 2014 award for Global Best Cultural Project from the Engineering News-Record, and two awards from the Ontario division of the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction (CISC). The museum as well as its builders and designers will receive two CISC Ontario steel design awards of excellence in the “projects constructed outside of Ontario” category.

“This was a long journey, but it was very enjoyable in the end,” Erakovic says. “There were a whole bunch of challenges, but everything got resolved.”


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    This was a fascinating account to read. When I saw the headline, however, I expected to read about some integration of the design with the mission of the building -- something about the architects' and engineers' new breadth in considering the social aspects and impacts of their designs. This might be another angle to discuss for this project that I think ASCE readers would enjoy reading.

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