Virginia Museum of Fine Arts | Expansion

When the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts set out to transform its space with a “bigger, brighter, and more welcoming” program, it did so from a very specific vision: transparency through major expanses of glass. There is no better building material than glass to provide optimum transparency in the building envelope, and London based architect Rick Mather, in partnership with Richmond-based SMBW Architects, designed the largest expansion in the museum’s history to shower occupants with natural light.

“Many building materials and techniques in this project are fairly innovative — like the high performance exterior glass — that create a better environment…At the same time are energy efficient…more appropriate and sustainable.”

Rick Mather, Rick Mather Architects, March 8, 2011 VMFA interview

The new VMFA showcases 44,000 square feet of Enclos’ design/assist services on its exterior walls — what the museum is calling a “virtuoso handling of transparency and natural light” in pursuit of it’s bigger, brighter, and more welcoming renovation program.


VMFA is a state-supported, privately endowed museum whose current expansion trumps that of its humble origins. Amidst the Great Depression, VMFA opened the original museum in 1936 with a brick and limestone building designed by Peebles and Ferguson Architects. The structure was built upon the ideals to collect, preserve, exhibit, and interpret art, and has been sharing these ideals for three-quarters of a century with steady growth in both attendance and exhibit material. With the most recent expansion having occurred in 1985, additional space was needed to match the growing number of visitors and artwork on display.

Mather’s renovation includes a 165,000 square foot expansion that integrates with the museum’s already existing 380,000 square feet. The new facility doubles museum space for traveling exhibitions, and adds 53,500 square feet for the museum’s permanent collections. It is the largest renovation in the museum’s history.

The James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing is the largest of the redevelopment structures. The building includes 120,000 square feet for traveling exhibitions and can accommodate up to three exhibitions at once. The McGlothlin Wing includes a 150-seat lecture hall and 4,000 square foot Art Education Center that will provide educational programs for nearly 50,000 Virginia children, or 129 of the 132 school districts within the state.

Enclos skinned VMFA’s new campus style complex with a diverse collection of exterior walls. Our design team spent many hours throughout the design/assist phase working alongside project architects determining what worked structurally versus the limitations and availability of materials, with particular attention given to custom unitized curtainwall with handset limestone infill, custom stick built systems consisting of structural stainless steel T’s with oversized glass, and skylights. Custom exterior glazed window wall systems include a combination of stainless steel and glass fins. Wall unit modules varied throughout the project, with the largest unit measuring 6´ x 24´, and oversized glass spanning 8´ x 16´.

“The Enclos engineering team could write a book on the design/assist phase of this project, especially when you consider the various wall types and complex designs.”

Bill Smith, Enclos project manager for the Museum

Enclos has long been utilizing the design-assist process with leading architects on landmark projects throughout the world. The service has proven to be effective in mitigating the risk posed by unique and complex facade design requirements, and the use of emergent materials and specialized technology, such as what appears at VMFA.

Prior to installation, Enclos conducted testing to confirm the custom designed wall systems performance. A 16 step testing regiment included air and water infiltration, structural, wind load, and thermal testing. All cladding systems successfully passed these performance requirements.

Throughout the procurement process, Enclos flexed the muscles of its global supply chain to bring the best materials to VMFA’s extraordinary facade. Offshore sourcing includes satin finished stainless steel fins incorporated into the stick built system, oversized and typical insulating glass, piano shaped overhead glazing and elevator E1 glazing, buff Indiana limestone that wraps the exterior facade, and granite skirting. Enclos’ Canada shop assembled the unitized curtainwall assembly with aluminum back pans.


At the heart of Mather’s redesign was the idea of maximized transparency. By utilizing a balance of expansive glass and limestone to blend the new structure with the existing, equilibrium was reached between the new and old.

“Major expanses of glass allow natural light to pour into the heart of the museum and will welcome visitors with a look at three floors of art and activity inside.”

Alex Nyerges, VMFA director, March 8, 2011 VMFA interview

This three-story look at art and activity from outside comes from a 40´ tall glass wall — aptly titled the “East Window” by VMFA — which overlooks North Boulevard and stands as an open invitation from the museum to passerby. A glass-enclosed stairwell located on the north façade — appropriately referred to as the “Glass Beacon” — glows from artificial lighting at night to draw attention to the museum’s entranceway. Both the East Window and Glass Beacon were initial designed with the glass wall’s dead load at level one, but redesigns called for the wall systems to be suspended by the roof structure in order to maintain a low profile for the glass wall’s stainless T’s. In addition, the McGlothlin Wing’s third floor includes a 9,500 square foot Conservation Center that is clad with glass windows and skylights to maximize daylighting.

The anchor between new and old building sciences is the Indiana limestone, which blends the original 1936 building structure with the recent expansion. But this same stone cladding required unique considerations from of its ashlar pattern. Because the stone’s joint locations did not lend itself to shop assembly for the unitized panel system, they were instead set in the field by Enclos’ seasoned field operations team.

More Welcoming

When the museum expansion was opened to the public on May 1, 2010, VMFA’s building structures shared the same welcoming, public persona as the exhibits on display within for the first time. At the heart of this welcoming is the new three-story, natural light filled Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Atrium. The atrium acts as the museum’s main thoroughfare, connecting the McGlothlin Wing to two existing wings and entranceways to a library, gift shop, restaurant, café and art galleries.

The atrium’s glass skylight roof distributes natural lighting throughout the museum’s main thoroughfare. Enclos again provided design/assist services for this custom glazed skylight system. Our contract also included furnishing and installation of exterior entrances and stainless steel canopies. An extensive interior package, including all glass doors and glass railings, rounded out Enclos’ scope of work.

VMFA’s expansion program also includes a 3.5-acre sculpture garden, outdoor plaza, and parking deck for 600 vehicles (partially hidden by the sculpture garden). The museum anticipates its membership to grow or surpass its all-time high of 20,000 by 2012.

Mather, Rick. “Architect Rick Mather Q&A.” Virginia Museum of Fine Art. April 4, 2010. Web. March 8, 2011.



Facade Area:

44,000 sq ft


Richmond, VA




90 ft


Commonwealth of Virginia

General Contractor:

The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company


Rick Mather Architects, SMBW Architects


H&A Architects & Engineers

Facade Consultant:

Carl M. Hensler Consulting Services


2011 International Awards
The Royal Institute of British Architects, 2011

Society Award for Excellence in Architecture
American Institute of Architects - Boston, 2010

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