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Case Study—

Hirshhorn Museum Seasonal Inflatable Pavilion Feasibility Study


Taylor R. Boyd



When the Smithsonian proposed a seasonal event space located in the courtyard of the Hirshhorn, design and cultural communities greeted the concept with enthusiasm. The design of this highly visible project inspired commentary in the media and earned awards. However, once design reviews started, what was supposed to be a spectacular sculptural form, intended to celebrate innovation, was found to have numerous challenges in execution. With numerous participants involved in the design and budget review, including a “visionary” museum director and his board, conservative institutional capital projects bureaucrats, and an architect with a great deal of time and reputation invested, the process required to move the project forward was bound to be difficult.

Key Issues


Design and construction concerns which had the potential to hinder the Seasonal Inflatable Pavilion (SIP) project included the following.


  • The budget mingled construction, operations, and event costs. However, the design only included construction, and the question of whether the operational equipment would be purchased or rented had not been considered.

  • Museum curatorial and facilities staff were understandably protective of their building, an architectural icon itself.

  • Inflatable construction and theatrical consultants on the design team were accustomed to designing for temporary events, where applicable standards are quite different from those used in U.S. government buildings.

  • Though it was envisioned as a rapidly erected and dismantled “folly,” in the process of determining realistic methods of construction and connection to the existing building, additional prosaic but costly requirements were discovered.


Cost Consulting


This project was designed to be erected and dismantled repeatedly. Although the structure is temporary, it is fully outfitted with flooring, seating, HVAC, lighting, and life safety systems. The effort to modify the design to align with the budget and the process of tracking costs involved addressing the following.


  • The budget included the initial purchase and installation of the SIP, and the first season of operation, which added taking it down and a second cycle of erection and dismantling. The total was also intended to include additional funds to cover program and event costs. Initial cost estimates for just the first purchase and erection exceeded the budget by 40%.

  • Over a period of 3 months, the estimate was issued over thirty times, with the breakdown structure frequently being completely reconfigured to emphasize or segregate elements under particular scrutiny.

  • Conceived to be a structure that could appear and disappear almost overnight, the SIP with all its support and infrastructure developed into a project that would take weeks, not days, and the idea of having multiple annual installations was abandoned.




The design was eventually modified to where the project could be approved and moved forward. A construction management firm was brought into the process and confirmed the design estimators’ pricing. The owner began to consider a design-build process, since installing and dismantling the pavilion had so much influence on the cost. The project was delayed, and the owner started a supplemental fund-raising exploration, so the many possibilities for this striking building transformation were preserved for a time, though it was eventually essentially cancelled due to the funding issues.

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