Beginning with the end in mind – in 1880

You have probably never heard of General Montgomery C. Meigs.  Meigs was born in 1816 and actually was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as Quartermaster General of the U. S. Army.  If you had heard of him, it may have been for this reason.

But there’s a reason he is appearing in EarthPM’s blog post series, and it has nothing to do with his serving as Quartermaster.

Instead, it has to do with his work as the designer, engineer, architect, and project manager of the building in Washington DC which was purpose-built for the US Pension Bureau and as a national memorial to the Union forces who fought in the US Civil War, but which now serves as the little-known National Building Museum.  The National Building Museum (according to this article from the Baltimore Sun) “might lack the fame of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum — which attracts as many as 8 million visitors annually — but more than 190,000 people manage to find it, taking in exhibits and programs that celebrate American achievements in building and encourage excellence in the building arts. The Museum occupies one of Washington’s most spectacular structures, the former Pension Building, designed by civil engineer and U.S. Army General Montgomery C. Meigs. ”

Designed and constructed between 1881 and 1887, the building, which originally housed the U.S. Pension Bureau and was later occupied by many government agencies, is widely recognized as a marvel of engineering.

So… okay, you get the project management part – this was a very interesting design and quite a project for its time, with a limited budget of under $1M and a schedule of just a couple of years.  How about the sustainability part?  There couldn’t have been any elements of sustainability back then, it wasn’t invented yet, was it?

Well, of course there was sustainability.  Always has been, always will be.  It’s a matter of how much it’s considered in design.

And considered it was.  Let’s look at what Meigs did.  His design uses 72 hollow, cast-iron Ionic columns.  Some (about 20) take advantage of the empty space inside storing – in true time-capsule form – information of interest (Meigs’ words here) “to historians or antiquarians of the age when ruins of this building shall be opened to the curious”.

Wow.  You realize that this means Meigs was considering the building in ruins before it was built.

Let’s stop here and remember that it’s about 1881.  And this designer is considering the building in somewhat of a cradle-to-cradle manner.  He is considering the end while working on the beginning.  He is not throwing the building’s completion “over the wall” to the Pension department, he is thinking about the time when building is not just done serving its purpose but is literally in “ruins”.  Pretty impressive.

To hear a young person narrating this part of the story, you can actually listen to a piece of the self-guided tour of the Museum right here.

And it doesn’t stop there.

An ingenious system of windows, vents, and open archways allows the Great Hall to function as a reservoir of light and air.

Built before modern artificial ventilation, the building was designed to maximize air circulation: all offices not only had exterior windows, but also opened onto the court, which was designed to admit cool air at ground level and exhaust hot air at the roof. Air vents (created by virtue of simply leaving out three bricks) under each window increased the circulation in the building, with a notable improvement in employee health  The recycling of air from the windows through the Great Hall and out through the top of the building (four floors up), took only two minutes and required no compressors or fans, thanks to Meigs’ taking advantage of the simple principle of “hot air rising”.

Ironically, even with the three missing bricks under each window, Meigs’ building used 15 million bricks and at its completion in 1887 was the largest brick building in the world.

In yet another innovation, the brick stairs were designed for the limitations of disabled and aging veterans, having a gradual ascent with low steps. In addition, each step slanted slightly from back to front to allow easy drainage: a flight could be washed easily by pouring water from the top.

We hope that if you visit Washington, DC, you’ll take in this excellent oft-missed museum.  And as you do, take a lesson from a very bright and very sustainably-thinking project manager – Montgomery C. Meigs.

We’ll leave you with this short video in which you can see for yourself the marvels of Meigs’ imagination.