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Hide in Plain Sight

Powerful slopped columns, folded metal panel skin, and a pleated glass veil comprise the International Spy Museum

International Spy Feb19 5

Spying and espionage are typically covert, not celebrated functions. But the Washington, D.C.- based International Spy Museum, a private, non-profit museum dedicated to the tradecraft, history and contemporary role of espionage, does just that with the largest collection of international espionage artifacts anywhere. More than 750 artifacts, 900 archival photographs, interactive displays, film and video are currently on public display. The permanent collection traces the complete history of espionage, from the Greek and Roman empires, the British Empire, the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, both World Wars, the Cold War, and through present-day espionage activity.

The privately held museum was first conceptualized in 1996 and opened to the public in 2002 in D.C.’s Penn Quarter. But, the organization grew over the last two decades and was in search of an iconic location within the District to meet its needs as a world-class facility. “We wanted a space where we could fully expand the museum and have our own footprint,” says Jason Werden, public relations manager for the museum. London-based design architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) and Washington, D.C.-based architects Hickok Cole made this happen.

Now relocated eight blocks south to a new home, this permanent cultural resource is situated on the L’Enfant Plaza, a retail and transportation hub. Designers at RSHP wanted a continuation from 10th Street through to the new office buildings within the Plaza. RSHP’s design positions the new 140,000-square-foot landmark museum as a catalyst to not only reinvigorate the concrete canyon of 10th Street SW, but to also connect the National Mall to the future developments south of the site.

Twice as big as the old museum, it is nestled within a collection of 1960’s I.M. Pei buildings. The eight-story museum has three floors of exhibit space above a double-height lobby, an interactive theater, a gift shop, and educational, office and event spaces. A roof terrace gives views across Washington, D.C.’s cityscape and waterfront.


Hickok Cole’s design concept for the museum conveys espionage-related themes of revealed and hidden secrets emphasizing: “hidden in plain sight.” The mystery and intrigue of the exhibits are obscured and contained behind the museum’s most prominent element: a dark metal black box. Designers at RSHP call this box a “dramatic, diagonal-walled ‘box of secrets’ with opaque translucent walls, articulated by bright red fins.”

The metal supplied on the building façade comprises over half the building envelope and a portion of the interior west façade behind the glass veil. The black box perimeter is clad in 10,800 square feet of Davidson, N.C.-based 3A Composites USA Inc.’s Alucobond PLUS picture framing the 50,000 square feet, one-piece, custom-fabricated, louvered 0.080-inch-thick metal panels with a perforated horizontal

surface, post-finished in custom Grey Velvet Mica color. The perforations allow back lighting through the panel to light up the façade. The Alucobond PLUS panels are installed at the roofline coping and at its lower perimeter, and also used to cover all horizontal and vertical beams. Beams on the first/second floor ceiling/soffit areas—both interior and exterior—also were covered with the Alucobond PLUS in Custom Grey Velvet Mica.

The museum’s “shell building” is clad in 12,500 square feet of Alucobond PLUS in Custom Spy Dark Grey, including all building panels located at the first floor area below the black box as well the sides of the building and its penthouse area. Glen Rock, Pa.-based Tecta America East Architectural Metals (TAE-AM) was the installer of all the metal cladding and fabricated the Alucobond panels.

Clark Construction Group, Bethesda, Md., was the project’s general contractor. “Clark Construction Group issued a design-build contract to TAE-AM to begin working with the owner and design team to [jointly] develop the details for the building’s metal panel façade,” says Brian McClelland, vice president, TAE-AM. “With the design-build aspect TAE-AM was able to be a part of the design, offer technical expertise to the design team and in turn receive positive compromises to bring the project to fruition, on budget and on time.”

TAE-AM worked on the design details, structural analysis, shop drawings, mock-up builds, in-house fabrication, coordination and complete install of not only the panels but these other metal façade components:

• 4-mm fire-resistant core ACM rainscreen and wet-joint panel systems supplied by Alucobond and fabricated by ACM Excel, May’s Landing, N.J.

• Corrugated metal panels in 0.040-inch aluminum: two profiles supplied by NB Handy, Hanover, Md., and fabricated by Fabral, Lancaster, Pa.

• Flush metal panels in 0.040-inch aluminum: soffit supplied by NB Handy and fabricated by Fabral.

• Column covers in 0.125-inch aluminum supplied and fabricated by Metalwërks, Kennett Square, Pa.

“In order to choose the correct lighting system to work with our perforated louvered panels, a light mock-up was requested,” McClelland says. “Also, due to maintenance, there was a requirement for access panels that could not be seen within the façade. We fabricated a plumb mock-up and sloped mock-up including the substrate and supports for the panel. For access we provided hinged panels and removable panels using piano hinges and locking fasteners painted to match the panels. For the black box façade’s eight different corner profile cuts, 3-D software created the profiles in flat; and we utilized our perforator (Accurate Perforating, Chicago) to profile cut each corner miter which in turn created the mitered corner condition after brake forming. To keep costs at budget, the steel members supporting the louvered panels were spaced over 4 feet, 0 inches on-center.”

ACM Excel was the project’s fabricator for the 4-mm FR core panels. “Fabrication of the Alucobond PLUS panels was completed in phases—one elevation at a time—through the course of a year starting in March 2017,” according to Geoff Berns, president, ACM Excel, who said the sloped areas of the black box were the most challenging to fabricate. “The coping area of the black box is clad in a three-panel section that is built on a sloped angle, which proved to be very challenging, especially at the outside corner transitions. A lot of bending of the Alucobond was required.” Lancaster, Pa.-based Fabral fabricated the 0.040-inch corrugated aluminum panels.


Falls Church, Va.-based SteelFab Inc. was the structural steel fabricator with a design-assist relationship with the design team. It oversaw production of structural steel shop drawings, designed the structural steel connections in house, helped the design team with some steel design challenges, fabricated the steel and oversaw erection in the field. SteelFab project manager David Smith says that in Washington, D.C., where the majority of new construction seems to be concrete framed, the International Spy Museum is a crown jewel of the city for steel construction.

“Not only is the structure steel framed, but the structural steel is proudly on display as part of the architectural appeal and centerpiece to the design. The steel you see is the actual load bearing structure and not a structure that has been clad to look the part.”

Using architecturally exposed structural steel presented a challenge. “The sloping columns in particular required a lot work to make sure they stayed within erection tolerances (half of usual AISC tolerances), while also being aesthetically pleasing,” Smith adds.


A structural glass veil curtainwall is suspended in front of the enclosed exhibition space, which reduces glare and reflection. The veil also encloses an atrium and ground floor lobby and circulation space. Clandestinely revealed is the internal movement of museum-goers on a hanging monumental stair visible from both inside and outside.

New York City-based Eckersley O’Callaghan (EOC) is the façade engineer that worked withRSHP on design phase engineering of the veil. Yalin Uluaydin, senior associate at EOC’s New York office, claims there aren’t any structures or facades in Washington, D.C., as unique as this museum.

“To reduce lead times and cost, we avoided the use of a triple-pane laminate and limited options to glass thicknesses like 10-mm or 12-mm, which are more readily available,” he says. “To achieve this, we took advantage of the veil’s geometry and used what RSHP have called the ‘stitch’ detail; where we used stainless steel stitch angles profiled to the architect’s design. These stitches are bonded to the glass with structural silicone and run about two-thirds the length of the vertical edge and are connected together. With the undulating geometry, this resulted in very stiff panels of thinner glass.”

Thermal displacement and displacement due to self-weight had to be accounted for and adjusted during the construction of veil’s hanging tensile system, because the structure begins to move and stretch as it is loaded. “We have accounted for this with steel detailing that allows adjustments to be made, not only for the steel moving, but also for field and construction tolerances,” Uluaydin says.

“Many of the joints were designed as pinned connections, creating a fulcrum that facilitates differential movements between the primary structure and the veil. This was all achieved through careful detailing of joints, with consideration of the architect’s design intent.” Once the design was completed, EOC conducted a rigorous preconstruction and pre-installation phase with the glazing subcontractor, Roschmann Metal & Glass, New Haven, Conn. It vetted the design through a mock-up and made factory visits as part of the project’s quality assurance program.

Behind this veil, the prominent façade of the box angles out over the street and public space to one side, breaking the building line to create a disruptive landmark at the crest of 10th Street, visible from the National Mall at one end and Banneker Park at the other.

Uluaydin says the main support system of the veil consists of structural steel horizontal framing that is hung by stainless steel hanger rods. The steel design and metal stitch detail eliminated the need for vertical framing customary on steel and glass façades like this, resulting in a unique design and façade system. “Where the glass is supported for lateral load like wind pressure, the supports are a special hook type-clip structural silicone to the glass that becomes completely concealed after installation—this allows the glass to appear to float off the steel frame,” he adds. “The weight of glass is supported by stainless steel button point fittings, particularly at the bottom of the panels, allowing the glass to extend downwards and cantilever below the soffit.”