Situated atop a silty bluff where aboriginal hunters once stood to look toward the Alaskan range, the Alaska Museum of the North at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks makes a stunning visual statement. Visible for miles in every direction, the building was designed to convey a sense of Alaska with innovative lines & spaces evoking images of alpine ridges, glaciers breaking up on the Yukon River and the Aurora. The museum director and board wanted to create a statement structure; much like the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, which has become a tourist destination on its own. The architectural team headed by Joan Sorrano of Hammel, Green & Abrahamson of Minneapolis, MN, in partnership with Anchorage-based GDM, flew over Anchorage, Seward, Glacier Bay, Juneau and Fairbanks to gather inspiration from Alaska’s unique landscape for the design of the Museum, which opened on September 10, 2005.
The project was one of the most interesting we’ve worked on,” said Bob Vanucci, the project manager for the John McDougall Co. The Nashville, TX-based company fabricated and installed the 65,000 sq. ft. of 4mm Reynobond® ACM used on the project. The panels have a fire resistive core and three coats of a custom finish white with mica flakes. “The many radii and sweeping curves had to be fabricated to exacting specifications–with allowances for the material to expand and contract as the temperature changes.” McDougall field dimensioned and fabricated the 1,674 panels needed for the project, with approximately 50% of them requiring rolled edges. The interlocking panels were installed in a stair-stepped pattern, with the joints lined up at all points on the façade. The sweeping radius of the swooping roofline was also complex to engineer as it rises in places to 50' and drops as low as 16' in others.
“Reynobond® ACM was specified because there are not a lot of materials out there that could adapt to the architectural design and sweeping radii,” notes Vanucci. “The custom finish also provides an additional feature...when the sun reaches a particular point on the horizon, the entire building takes on a rosy glow reminiscent of the Aurora.”
HGA/GDM engineered the building to remain at the temperature of 69° Farenheit with 35% relative humidity to preserve the artifacts inside even when the temperature outside drops to -50° or lower in the winter, and summer rains increase the humidity level. The installation was customized with additional insulation designed to withstand sub-artic conditions. The fastenings went through a 7” substrate of layered insulation, the Tyvek outer layer and two layers of plywood.
McDougall installed the rolled panels in their proprietary Series 500 attachment system. Series 500 is a rout & return dry gasket system offering a ½” wide x 1” deep open reveal consisting of continuous perimeter extrusions that receive the return edge of panels into pockets within the extrusions; and incorporate integral gutters, internal gaskets and weeps. For the Alaska Museum project, the gaskets were also made stronger to withstand the climatic variables. McDougall fabricated the majority of the panels in Tennessee, then shipped them via rail, barge, train and finally by truck to the site. The installation was started in May 2004, the crew worked through December then resumed again in the spring when temperatures became workable. Alaska Mechanical Inc. of Anchorage was the general contractor for the project.
The exterior of the Alaska Museum is a dramatic departure from big box architecture. The sweeping arch designating the entrance to the building was designed to replicate the tension of glaciers coming down through the mountains. And depending on where you look at it, the building silhouette appears to mimic the sweeping profile of a mother and baby Orca whales. Inside, triple pane windows rising 30' high provide spectacular views of the Denali and Tanana River Basin.
The expansion project included extensive renovations to the original building, which opened in 1980. Inspired by a $1 million grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, $32.75 million was raised from Federal, State and private sources to effectively double the museum’s interior space. Now, almost 90% of the museum’s more than 1.4 million objects are on display.
The project was completed in the Spring of 2006 and includes a 3,000 sq. ft. education center; state-of-the-art research labs for the various curatorial departments; expanded and visible storage areas; a living room with couches to combat “museum fatigue”, new offices for collections managers; a larger loading dock; an expanded museum store; and the Arnold Espe Multi-media auditorium. There's also a special earthquake-proof room with an enhanced air exchange system designed specifically for biological specimens stored in alcohol.