New York City
Region New York
Project Team
Owner Whitney Museum of American Art
Architects Renzo Piano Building Workshop; executive architect, Cooper, Robertson & Partners
General Contractor/CM Turner Construction Co.
Engineers Robert Silman Associates (structural), Ove Arup & Partners (civil) and Jaros Baum & Bolles (MEP)
Flood-Protection Rehabilitation WTM Engineers and Walz & Krenzer

The new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art was a challenging project even before October 2012, when Superstorm Sandy hit. It sits just 10 ft above sea level on a tight site near the High Line Park and the Hudson River in lower Manhattan. Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s high-profile design includes an 18,000-sq-ft, column-free gallery and a glass cable wall system around the lobby, so passersby can see the art and be drawn inside the museum.

Construction started in September 2011. When Sandy’s storm surge arrived, the foundation was complete and structural steel was up to the fifth floor. At the time of the storm, a project superintendent tried to put the job’s weather plan into action using small pumps, says Joseph R. Byrne, vice president and operations manager for general contractor Turner Construction Co. But, eventually, he had to race up the stairs as 6.5 million gallons of Hudson River salt water started flooding in. “We had envisioned a water leak or a faulty sprinkler head, not salt water!” Byrne exclaims. And equipment was floating in the water: “Switching gear, air-handling units—anything not strapped down got stuck to the underside of the first floor,” Byrne says.

The team pumped out the water, ripped out the damaged elements and evaluated the most cost-effective, long-term path forward for the Whitney, Byrne adds. Turner, also CM on the job, brought in flood-protection consultant WTM Engineers, Hamburg, Germany, which recommended protecting the rehabilitated structure against a future water level of 16.5 ft. For the lower-level loading dock that would have to close quickly, WTM suggested floodgates, adapted from battleship technology and custom-fabricated for the Whitney by marine closure specialists Walz & Krenzer. The building perimeter at grade is protected by a movable post-and-log system that is common in flood-prone Hamburg, says Maren Luft, a WTM engineer on the job who now works for project structural engineer Robert Silman Associates. Amy Hwang, Silman senior engineer, notes that a lot of structural changes were required to resist potential future floodwaters, but “we were limited by what was already in place.” Steel columns were encased in concrete, and an entire waterproof reinforced-concrete wall was added on the north side of the building.

“The Whitney has become a poster child for resilient buildings around the country,” adds Scott Buxbaum, Turner project engineer. And Byrne put crews to work seven days a week on an aggressive critical path to complete the project by its original turnover date so that the Whitney could move from its former East Side location on time.

This story was updated on March 23, 2016, to add the name of the executive architect.

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