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Underground Arts Scene: Updating the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Underground Arts Scene: Updating the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


By Luke Carothers

The old saying is true when it comes to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH): everything is bigger in Texas.  One of the largest museums in the United States, MFAH services the fourth largest city in the country, with its wide array of programs being utilized by a staggering 1.25 million people every year.

The oldest museum in the State of Texas, it was first constructed in 1917 and in 1924 it allowed its first visitors through the doors.  Since then, the site has seen its fair share of construction.

MFAH has recently undergone renovations in the way of new building construction.  In December 2020, construction was completed on the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building on the MFAH campus.  The project was split into two phases with the first focusing on construction of the 102,500 square foot Glassell School of Art; this phase nearly doubled the space available for the school, which currently serves 7,000 students per year.  The teaching arm of MFAH, this space allows the Glassell School of Art’s students to access fully digital workspaces and classrooms as well as expanded exhibition space.  This space replaces the previous building that housed the school since 1979.

Phase two of the project consisted of the construction of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, a 183,500 square foot exhibition space to house modern and contemporary art made after 1900.  The building features a translucent glass cool jacket exterior, three-floors of galleries circling a three floor atrium, a 225-seat theatre, a street-level cafe, a restaurant overlooking the sculpture garden, an underground parking garage with 115 spaces, and tunnels connecting the building to both the Glassell School of Art as well as the Caroline Weiss Law Building.  When completed, this building increased exhibition space at the MFAH by 75 percent.

One of the more interesting aspects of the project was the construction and utilization of an underground tunnel that connects the new building to the older parts of the campus.  The plan was to create a 150-foot tunnel to connect the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building to the Caroline Wiess Law Building.  This tunnel, while primarily designed to facilitate pedestrian traffic between the buildings, also serves a gallery space for the MFAH.  The building site itself included a number of unique obstacles that required the team at McCarthy to come up with creative solutions and utilize innovative techniques to complete the project.

Plans for these tunnels had to account for several challenges that are posed by the site’s unique human environment.  Being located in one of the oldest parts of the city of Houston, this meant that there was a possibility the team would encounter an unmarked, buried utility line. Winston Hesch, project director for McCarthy,  says ground utilities in this part of town can “sink over time”.  Additionally, because the tunnel is located 2-3 feet underground, engineers had to waterproof the site not only for rainwater, but also for ground water.

Typically, tunnelling in the Houston-area is done a particular way: a trench is dug then a cover is added, thus forming a tunnel.  However, because the City of Houston would not allow the team to close Bissonnet Street for an extended period of time, as well as underground utilities, the team opted for a different, more traditional route: excavating the tunnel six inches at a time.

This process proved time consuming, taking the team six and a half months to complete while excavating the tunnel six inches at a time.  Additionally, in order to connect the two buildings, the tunnel had to change in elevation and offset horizontally.  In order to achieve these parameters while also keeping a shape with a curved top, straight sides, and flat bottom the team opted to install a series of interconnected plates approximately every six inches of excavating.  To support this plate system, the team installed an I-beam approximately every six feet and injected the system with grout.

Challenging this process was the high presence of water at the site.  The team had to deal not only with rainwater, but also groundwater as the tunnel was constructed close to the water table in the area.  They were able to overcome these challenges by using PREPRUFE 400T, which is a Grace Waterproofing Project.  In order to account for the thousands of anchor bolts being drilled through the waterproofing every day, McCarthy’s team met with manufacturers to come up with a plan of action.  The result was a hand check of every seam and penetration of the system to ensure proper installation. Once the system was fully completed, the team encountered no leaks.

The months of excavating and tedious checking have paid off.  Unlike most tunnels, this project has systems like mechanical, electrical, and lighting installed.  More than just a pedestrian walkway and art gallery, the space and project have become a work of art of themselves, adding yet another dimension and element to one of the most storied public institutions in Texas.

Project Contributors

McCarthy Building Companies–General Contractor and Concrete Subcontractor

AR Daniels–Tunneling Specialist Contractor

Chamberlin Roofing and Waterproofing–Waterproofing

Hayward Baker–Shotcrete

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.

This article was originally published in March 2021.