Managing Complexity

The renovation of the iconic Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego required careful coordination and collaboration among design teams, engineers, contractors and the museum.

By Peter Damore and Juliet Crowder
LPA, Project Architects

You never know what you’ll find when you start a project, especially one as complex as the $105-million renovation and addition of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) La Jolla.

MCASD is a treasured local institution founded in the former home of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, designed by Irving Gill in 1916. The project called for the renovation of 28,000 square feet of existing space and the addition of 46,400 square feet of new space, effectively doubling the museum’s existing square footage.

New York-based Selldorf Architects was the Design Architect with LPA as Executive Architect responsible for bringing Selldorf’s vision to life. Selldorf’s design called for adding significantly more gallery space for the collection, creating a more welcoming and clear entry and providing greater coherence to the site, thus enhancing the museum’s connection to the community and its spectacular coastal setting. Two view corridors to the ocean were provided at the north and south extents of the property to enhance visual access for the public looking west from Prospect Street, and a former parking lot at the north end of the site was transformed into an Art Park that is open to the public and used for events.

The project included the demolition of an existing residential structure to the south providing enlargement of the cultural site. This allowed for the addition to expand to the south with excavation to accommodate an enclosed parking garage, loading dock, mechanical and electrical and storage support spaces. The coordination of shoring, underground utility routing and access along the south property line required many discussions between the contractor and the design team due to tight design and construction constraints.

With many renovations of this scope, unforeseen existing conditions can lead to construction cost increases and schedule delays. On MCASD, we were able to mitigate these complications by keeping all disciplines informed and involved, clearly delineating responsibilities and establishing a clear-cut process for construction document revisions.

Managing Complexity 02
The renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego required careful coordination between designers and the construction team.

As Executive Architect, LPA was responsible for translating Selldorf’s design vision into detailed construction documents and ensuring that the plans were built by the contractor as prescribed. Selldorf representatives visited the site regularly, but LPA served as their daily eyes and ears on the ground and conduit between the New York-based design team and the contractor, Level 10 Construction.

LPA participated in constructability reviews with the contractor and reviewed early findings from exploratory demolition. After full demolition began, we found elements in the owner-provided record drawings from past renovations that didn’t match up with as-built conditions. As excavation proceeded, a few discoveries caused concern. A wall appeared to be out of plumb, potentially impacting the design’s seismic expansion joint. We found less rebar than expected in structural masonry features, which required shoring up and strengthening the existing building in a few locations. And, while digging to install new footings, contractors discovered a hard stone layer that delayed excavation.

Irregularities were quickly communicated to key members of the project team, and were documented by the contractors and subcontractors, allowing LPA the opportunity to evaluate and issue revised construction documentation to the field. We worked closely with the contractor to evaluate possible solutions. If the contractor needed to make significant changes, they had to inform us promptly.

At every step, we evaluated the effect of California’s building code on Selldorf’s design. The existing structure required significant seismic retrofit. It was a difficult task, so much so that at one point we questioned whether it was worth saving the existing structure.

There was an essential reason to retain it, though. The 55-foot-tall building exceeded California’s current 30-foot height limit for coastal structures, but its grandfathered status provided a wonderful design opportunity and therefore had to be preserved. Retaining the existing auditorium building shell would provide the much-needed height and volume required for a new series of spacious exhibition galleries and adjoining special-event spaces on two levels that had not been possible before.

Managing Complexity 03
Museum visitors enjoy art exhibitions in an integrated, contemporary and spacious setting.

As a result, the contractor and its engineers had to shore up the structure’s walls and provide a roof diaphragm over multiple phases with temporary steel supports as the construction progressed to excavation below the existing auditorium building.

Structural seismic analysis determined a certain amount of space between existing and new structures so that the buildings could better withstand movement during a seismic event without negatively impacting each other. As a result, the out-of-plumb wall could have forced us to shift the new addition a couple of inches or reduce the size of the adjacent gallery space to gain addition separation. Fortunately, this condition was discovered and documented early enough by the contractor, with the use of a laser point cloud scan, for us to evaluate and diagnose the problem with the structural engineer without impacting the schedule. This eliminated a potentially significant redesign effort.

Other discoveries had more impactful repercussions. Excavation for the addition’s footings uncovered a thick layer of stone that took about two weeks to chip out, forcing the contractor to adjust the construction schedule and sequencing.

Coordinating closely with Level 10, LPA’s team implemented design changes to account for unforeseen conditions, while the contractor evaluated and adjusted construction sequencing as necessary. All design and construction disciplines were engaged in this process. Responsibilities were assigned for different tasks.

Working from the same Revit (model) documents, LPA and our consultants adhered to strict coordination and documentation protocols. Multiple design iterations and sketches needed to be conformed into a single cohesive document.

Managing Complexity 04
A new courtyard takes advantage of the amazing views of the Pacific Ocean.

LPA’s role included helping Selldorf convert design concepts into the Revit documents used for construction. As the primary interface between Selldorf and Level 10, LPA was responsible for enforcing design deadlines when the project approached critical stages. Indeed, our overall challenge was to keep the project — which was operating on a tight budget — progressing efficiently while coping with unexpected conditions and respecting Selldorf’s design intent.

To keep the process running smoothly, LPA facilitated regular meetings with the multidisciplinary consultant teams on the East and West coasts, discussing and documenting technical aspects of the design. Elements such as code analysis, fire sprinkler design, smoke control analysis for an atrium condition with open stairwells, smoke baffles, fire doors and smoke curtains all required extensive interdisciplinary input for design solutions. The solutions prioritized Selldorf’s design intent of maximizing gallery volumes, while strategically routing and concealing systems to reduce visual clutter.

A critical strategy — providing construction tolerance within plans and details — benefited the project on multiple occasions. By anticipating issues, we did not design elements simply to meet minimum requirements. This offered flexibility to adjust to unforeseen conditions, design changes and constructability comments from the contractor.

Timely feedback from the contractor was also crucial to keeping the project on track. Level 10 brought its “A team,” including multiple engineers, who communicated closely with LPA throughout the design and construction process.

The renovation and addition resulted in a transformed home for contemporary art at MCASD that successfully expands and enhances the 106 years of onsite building history. Visitors will enjoy exhibitions in a bright, spacious setting unaware of the focused effort it took to construct it. It proved to be a great case study on how to effectively bring teams together to solve complex problems and achieve great shared goals.

Peter Damore and Juliet Crowder are Project Architects for LPA Design Studios. They are based in the firm’s San Diego studio.