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August 1, 2017

Case Study: Making History

Project Management Institute
Lisa Anders and Charlie Yetter discuss a fast-track approach to accommodate changing requirements on a landmark museum project.

"We took the Smithsonian through a series of risk assessments and educated them on various delivery methods that would help them get to their goal."

—Lisa Anders, McKissack & McKissack, Washington, D.C., USA

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research organization, home to a vast array of artifacts from across eras and cultures. But until last year, its collection of museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., USA did not represent the country’s largest racial minority population.

The Smithsonian’s newest addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) now fills that gap. But the high-profile project faced schedule pressure from the start.

When the Smithsonian brought architecture, engineering and construction management firm McKissack & McKissack on board in 2008, the design competition was still in progress and the museum had a target opening date of November 2015. Right away, McKissack project leaders knew there wasn’t enough time to deliver the US$540 million project using the standard design-bid-build method the Smithsonian was accustomed to, says Lisa Anders, vice president of business development at McKissack in Washington, D.C., and project executive for the NMAAHC.

"We took the Smithsonian through a series of risk assessments and educated them on various delivery methods that would help them get to their goal," Ms. Anders says.

The company held a panel discussion that included public-sector and institutional project owners who had used alternative methods like fast-tracking and guaranteed maximum price construction. The education push paid off—and the Smithsonian signed off on taking a new fasttrack approach.

The team divided the project into eight packages designed and developed in tandem. The first revolved around site utilities. Civil engineers designed them, and the Smithsonian selected a general contractor to begin constructing and putting them in place before the team even knew the building’s final design.

"We had an initial concept design and the programming document—that was all," says Charlie Yetter, national operations manager at McKissack & McKissack and senior project manager for the NMAAHC. "But that let us get started with work that we had to get done in advance of the final design."

At the same time, the museum’s curators were identifying and acquiring the artifacts that were the institution’s raison d’être—like pieces of a slave ship hull and a plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American World War II pilots. As the team moved forward with construction while also working to accommodate changing exhibit requirements, deadlines loomed.

When the team was digging the foundation, for example, an exhibit designer realized the history gallery would need to be lowered an additional 20 feet (6 meters). That change required the team to rework the schedule, setting its sights on a new September 2016 opening date. All other shifts were then absorbed into this revised schedule.

"Sometimes the curators found huge artifacts that required us to change our construction logistics—the sequencing of work—and redesign the space to allow that artifact to best fit the story and the flow of the museum," Ms. Anders says.

When the museum acquired a 100-ton Pullman rail car, for instance, the team had to find a way to bring it into the museum’s basement before the construction of walls, floors and ceilings made the task impossible. To get the job done, the team coordinated with the National Park Service, the Secret Service, the local government and the FBI to shut down streets surrounding the National Mall.

The team prepared for this type of unknown from the outset by setting aside both contingencies and allowances for unanticipated additional tasks, says Mr. Yetter. "We already knew the design hadn’t been completed, so we held money to cover those issues," he says.

When the museum opened in September 2016, it delivered the emotional punch the Smithsonian was looking for.

When Mr. Yetter took a group of young students on a tour, he thought they’d be drawn to the sports or music sections of the museum. But the students were most interested in the history gallery, which educates visitors about the brutal reality of slavery in America.

"They said, ‘We hear it from our teachers, read it in books, but now it’s real,’" he recalls. "That’s what it’s all about: Those kind of moments are where you really get a sense of accomplishment."

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