The National Museum of African American History & Culture by Elijah Northen


    The National Museum of African American of History and Culture tells a story in the design of the building, in addition to all of the galleries it houses. This museum has been debated for its contemporary design; mainly the idea that this design did not fit within the context of the national mall. While the architects considered a traditional building to house the museum, they felt that the traditional European design to which many of the national buildings have subscribed, many of which were built on the backs of slaves, did not fit this museum, and therefore fought for an innovative and inspirational design. The way in which one proceeds through the museum was designed to evoke the emotion of the gallery, be it heartache or hope, something that would not have been achieved as effectively if done so in a traditional building.

    The architects of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, David Adjaye and Philip Freelon, worked together to create a monumental piece of art that would reflect the history of its contents and connect the people who visit the national mall. The designers had the challenge of deciding whether to design the museum to fit the context of the other museums on the national mall (traditional Greek and Roman influence) or design a contemporary, relevant building to reflect the paramount history it houses. Although facing much backlash, the designers were eventually able to leverage their design concept with its inspiring symbolism. While the design evolved from conceptual design to the final design, the core ideas remained. The designers knew the importance of their site and wanted to ensure that visitors were not separated from the Washington Monument. In doing so, they looked to African roots for inspiration. For the top half of the structure above ground, one sees the seemingly floating corona, “inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa”1 perched off of a glass curtain wall to allow for visual connectivity to the national mall. Similarly, the design of the main entrance to the structure is the welcoming porch, which can be connected back to roots in Africa and throughout the Diaspora, with a focus on the Caribbean and American South. The ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice was designed by Adjaye, inspired by “the intricate ironwork that was crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere,” where he elaborates:

“[W]e are looking towards the guild traditions of the South. The freed slaves would move into professional guilds, including the ironworking guild. There were very skilled African-American casters— a lot of the early architecture of Louisiana and the South was built by black people. So what we wanted to do was somehow acknowledge that important beginning of transition from the agrarian to the professional class, and to reference this powerful casting tradition.”2

    The screen also plays a functional role in the design of the building, filtering the sunlight as it enters the building, while also “symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogues about race and to help promote reconciliation and healing.1” It allows the occupants to enjoy the museum at a comfortable temperature throughout the year by filtering the light entering the building; one of the aspects that make this museum the first Smithsonian to achieve LEED Gold.

 The promenade was based on the simple concept of "progress". Understanding the history of African Americans and knowing some of what would be shown in the galleries, the architects wanted to ensure the gallery was evoking the proper emotions in the visitor experience. This meant keeping the earlier, darker history until the underground in a darker, heavier and colder structure, made of thick concrete and allowing no natural light to enter. From there, one proceeds through and upwards to the concourse for the main lobby area where one can bask in the prominence of the structure and decide where they would like to proceed. From the main lobby area moving upwards, one circulates around the perimeter of the building and around an inner core of galleries, which allows the public to see close up the glass curtain wall, steel structure and bronze frame. All of this frames a panoramic view of the national mall and curated views of other monuments. This inner core of galleries based on the upper levels focus on the contributions of African Americans in the fields of music, film, television, fashion and more. Upon reaching the top level, visitors are greeted with a clear view of the sky from underneath a glass ceiling, symbolizing the future and progress. The progression of the building from subterranean to light and air physically gives the visitor the sense of progress, ascension and ultimately, hope. The designers looked not only to history for inspiration, but the present and future to guide their design for the museum which sits boldly on the national mall.  

National Museum of  African American of History and Culture not only tells a story in the design of its galleries, but reinforces it with the design of the building. While some debate over the design, I believe its contemporary design fits the program of the building and its roots. It deserves to stand proudly. 


  1. Bunch, Lonnie G. "The Building." National Museum of African American History and Culture. National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2016. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

  2. Stromberg, Joseph. "Q&A: Architect David Adjaye On His Vision for the New Museum." Smithsonian Institution, Feb. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

  3. National Museum of African American & the Washington Monument, National Museum of African American. Personal photograph by author. 8 Dec. 2016.


The National Museum of African American History.  Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

The National Museum of African American History.

Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Welcoming Porch of the National Museum of African American History.  Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Welcoming Porch of the National Museum of African American History.

Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Close op of curtain wall and rain screen.  The National Museum of African American History.  Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Close op of curtain wall and rain screen.

The National Museum of African American History.

Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Art displayed in gallery at the National Museum of African American History.  Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Art displayed in gallery at the National Museum of African American History.

Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Comtemplative Court.  The National Museum of African American History.  Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Comtemplative Court.

The National Museum of African American History.

Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Concourse.  The National Museum of African American History.  Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects


The National Museum of African American History.

Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Ideas behind the building.  The National Museum of African American History.  Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

Ideas behind the building.

The National Museum of African American History.

Photo by: B. Clzianoski of EN Architects

A Community Comes Together to Save Local Landmark by Elijah Northen

EN Architects has joined with a community group to propose alternate solutions to the demolition of historic Catonsville Elementary School. The goal is to preserve and restore the structure as a vibrant arts & community center in the heart of downtown Catonsville. Want to get involved? Join the Friends of the Former Catonsville Elementary School on Facebook.

Check out the article here.

"Just the Basics" by Elijah Northen

Every project has a budget. Often times, an owner begins with "just the basics", "no frills", or "bare bones" to gingerly request minimal design services. The implication is the general contractor and client will "figure it out as they go". Understandably, the misconception is that he or she is asking for a Ford rather than a Mercedes. A more accurate allusion, however, is the choice between a fully assembled car and a pile of automotive parts. The upfront cost of the pieces is less, but the time and money spent assembling (and reassembling) them is seldom worth the initial savings. 

In the end, a complete set of documents better serves the client, providing a more comprehensive design and cost-efficient process. Below are some Construction Document excerpts from a small, seemingly simple bathroom and mudroom addition. This followed an extensive design and pricing exercise. Small projects benefit immensely from thorough planning. Our design-build contractor was thrilled with the documents as well, and commented that they will probably save about $5,000 throughout the course of construction - consequently, our fee. 

Click on image for larger size

Click on image for larger size

Click on image for larger size

Click on image for larger size

How to build a Roof Deck in Baltimore by Elijah Northen

Building a roof deck in the rapidly redeveloping neighborhoods of Baltimore has become a pillar of home ownership. Weekly (it seems daily), we're approached by folks looking for some guidance on this process. So, here's a little cheat sheet below to help guide our neighbors through their projects. Though it can vary on a case by case basis, these steps should help you navigate through most situations you'll encounter. The primary caveat being historic districts, which often have restrictions greater than those enforced city-wide. 


Design it

Hire an Architect or Engineer. Nope, we're not trying to drum up work for our friends. You'll need drawings bearing the seal of an Architect or Structural engineer, licensed in Maryland, to proceed though the permitting process. Required drawings are published here, along with a few others we've learned though trial and error...and error...and error. Along with a site plan, floor plan, and section, be sure to clearly include property lines on all drawings, as well as a stair detail and a structural detail illustrating the railing and post connection to the house. Between 2-4 weeks is a reasonable time frame in which to expect completed drawings for a deck, assuming your designer has time in his or her schedule.

Hire a builder (contractor). Again, he or she must be licensed in Maryland. Make sure this is someone with whom you're comfortable, and be sure to obtain a quote based on the architect's design before proceeding. As with architects, there are some great ones and some lousy ones, so vet your options wisely, and remember, you get what you pay for.


Do Your Homework

Before rushing in for permits, verify you've filled out the permit application to the best of your ability. They're sticklers for nuance. The more you can do upfront, the less time you'll spend when you get there. The application can be found on the city's website along with a list of requirements to which you and your architect/builder team must adhere. Of note are the certified letters you must send any adjoining neighbors. You must have this letter in hand, along with the green certification slip given to you by the post office. No slip, no permit. No exceptions. If your home was recently purchased, it's a good idea to grab your closing papers before you head out the door. I've been told on more than one occasion that I didn't own my own home. No joke.


Head Downtown

More specifically, 417 E. Fayette St. Rm. 100. Walk in the building, turn left, get in line. Wait. Go mid morning or early afternoon if possible. Wait times drastically increase first thing in the morning, mid day, and late afternoon. You should have with you 4 sealed & signed copies of your drawings (as listed in the link above), permit application, $25 permit processing fee, and your letters to your neighbors (along with proof of certified mail). Upon the successful review and approval of your drawings (don't be surprised if it takes a little back and forth) you'll be given a ticket and told to wait for processing - an experience reminiscent of central booking with a splash of MVA.

If your deck design raises any eyebrows (zoning, historic preservation views, etc, your day will likely end here) If you have a good architect on your team he/she probably brought this to your attention ahead of time. Your drawings will then go through a more formal review process which can take several weeks. If you've cleared all the requisite hurdles, however, you'll pay your fee and be on your way, permit in hand. Your permit fee hovers between 1%-2% of the total construction cost from your application. And remember, YOU'RE the one who wrote that number on your application. Just saying.


Build it

During construction, be sure to have your building permits displayed at all times. Remember, additional permits may be required for electrical work or other trades, but those will be handled by the individual subcontractors during the course of construction. Also keep in mind that your drawings (Construction Documents) are contract documents and bear the weight of a contract. If the work does not appear to be in compliance with the design as it was bid by the contractor, consult your architect. You have the contractual right to request the work be amended to conform with the agreement. 




AIRCRAFT, WELL BUILT by Elijah Northen

The Udvar-Hazy Center, a member of the Smithsonian Institution, houses an impressive array of air and space craft spanning the last century of flight. What makes these craft so pleasing to the eye, is that every detail has a function supporting the greater function of the machine. Often, these details are allowed minor embellishment, but never so much to dillute the purpose of the whole. 

So how much do you cost? by Elijah Northen

Let's step away from architectural discipline and discuss a pragmatic reality of the practice. There's an inevitable moment 10-15 minutes into greeting a new client (shortly after they joyfully relay their dreams for the project). We'll exchange a glance, a short pause, and I'll break the ice with the frozen gorilla in the room.

"So you need to know how much we cost, right?"

"yes", they'll reply sheepishly.

Unlike many services, price tags for architectural expertise aren't widely publicized, as it's a highly customized endeavor. Pricing and quality vary greatly and are subject to many factors, but there are three common strategies we'll begin to demystify - each with its own set of benefits and risks for both the owner and architect. Understanding your architect's approach to providing a proposal for services will help you cater his or her offerings to your needs, and compare various proposals on an equal playing field. It goes without saying that the architect's collaborative personality, reputation, and his or her experience and design expertise play a large role in the decision making process. Each owner must weigh his or her willingness to pay for service against the quality of work they wish to receive.  Someone will ALWAYS be cheaper. The question is, "why?".

Let's assume, for the sake of comparison, that you're seeking full services including Schematic Design, Permitting Documents, Construction Documents, Specifications, etc. Engineering and other consultant fees are NOT included in these figures. At a minimum, a structural engineer will generally need to be part of your team for load calculations and framing plans.  In many jurisdictions, though not all, your residential permit drawings must bear the seal and signature of a licensed architect and/or engineer. Lastly, let's assume you're hiring a licensed architect for a residential project. We mean no ill will towards our drafting and interior design colleagues, but those are distinct services, and in the interest of a level playing field we must provide a baseline standard of expertise.

1 - Hourly Billing

This method is frequently deployed for smaller projects, or projects on which the scope is subject to change. The approach is beneficial to the architect, to whom it guarantees payment for all work furnished, but is less advantageous to owners, who (rightfully so) are skeptical of signing a contract with a fluid ceiling. Frequently, a "not to exceed" number is placed in the contract by the architect as a means of protecting the owner from payments beyond their means. Billable rates vary greatly, from $75/hour for a draftsperson or intern to upwards of $250/hour for a high level design Principal (As an aside, EN Architects charges $90/hour for our Principals, as our small size allows us to keep multipliers low and overhead down [hey, we get to plug ourselves in our own article.]).  These figures can quickly add up for a home owner, whose three-week design project for a kitchen expansion mushrooms into an $9,000 bill for service. Unless you simply need to consult an architect for a limited time, we recommend steering clear of hourly service contracts in most cases.

2 - Percentage of Construction Cost

This method has been industry standard for years, though it's popularity is declining in favor of our third approach (stay tuned). A common range for architectural fees within this approach is 8-15%. Experience of the firm, reputation for design excellence, region, and scale of the project all factor into the aforementioned spectrum. There is an economy of scale to larger projects that allows for a slightly lower percentage fee, while small additions and renovation work are typically upwards of 10%. (For the sake of this exercise we're sticking with residential figures, but very large projects can dip as low as 4-5%) The math is quite simple: if an architect charges 10%, your $100,000 addition will cost you $10,000 in architectural fees.

There are two soft spots in this approach, however. Foremost, more expensive doesn't always mean more complex. On the contrary, projects with a highly limited budget often require a more creative and time consuming solution from the architect, and thus the construction cost may be inversely related to design effort. The other hiccup is that owners seldom have their budgets fully cooked when seeking an architect. The architect's drawings are often the first means the owner has of procuring construction cost data, and the architect cannot draft an agreement based on numbers that are yet to exist. This method can be effective in the case of an owner with a firm budget and clear scope, but can otherwise be challenging.

3 - Fix Fee Based on Estimated Time

This hybrid technique is becoming more common, combining the effective attributes of both of the above mentioned approaches. The architect will (based on project scope and experience), multiply his or her rates by the number of hours anticipated to complete the project. This method is heavily reliant of past experience, but if done correctly can provide both the owner with the security of a fixed figure, and the architect with the guarantee of payment for work performed. For this to be solvent, it's crucial that a detailed contract is furnished to explain both what IS and IS NOT included in the scope of services, so that all parties understand the time commitment as it relates to estimated hours. Additional services can be listed as "line items" in the contract, should there be scope which remains unclear or yet to be determined. Oftentimes, the numbers furnished are similar to fixed fee figures, but fine-tuned to suit the needs of the specific project.

Each one of these agreement methods has its place in the spectrum of design services, and it's important to understand how your architect is procuring his or her figures as services relate to your project. These techniques may be hybridized even further in the case of more complex projects, particularly in the later phases of construction administration. Most importantly, never shy away from asking your architect for a thorough explanation of the cost.  


Typical residential detail drawing sheet,  ©   EN Architects

Typical residential detail drawing sheet, © EN Architects

Enlarging a small space by Elijah Northen

More and more people are looking towards home renovation these days as a means to grow their families without uprooting their lives (and budget). We often work within these existing conditions, and examine details carefully to determine how best to maximize space. The example below shows recent construction photos from a small master suite renovation. The existing walls were fixed due to budget concerns, creating a long narrow bathroom. A four foot wide barn door will serve as the transition between master bedroom and bath, allowing for visual connectivity, and extending the bathroom into the bedroom space. The toilet was placed in a separate compartment so the door may stay open. We brought natural light into the shower by utilizing the pitch of the roof to lift the ceiling, allowing clerestory light to filter in from the bedroom. At seven feet in the air, the glazing strip sacrifices no privacy and provides a glow of light at the end of the room. Final shots are coming in a few weeks.


BRAND IDENTITY by Elijah Northen

EN Architects strongly believes in a brand identity that coincides with our office mission. A long overdue "thank you" goes out to our immeasurably talented graphic designer and marketer, Jillian Erhardt for helping us establish our visual presence in print and online.

Thanks Jillian!



Church on the Square by Elijah Northen

We're pleased to announce that EN Architects has been selected to renovate the former Messiah Lutheran Church on the East end of O'Donnell Square in Canton. The new "Church on the Square" has a dynamic young staff, poised to reestablish the building as a true community center. If you're in the area, check them out. This is going to be fun.

Project Update - 1720 Fleet by Elijah Northen

Our Fleet St. addition is moving along: the existing building is painted, wood screen is built, and masonry is going up quickly. If you're in Fells Point, stop by and take a look. It's right across from the market on the corner of Fleet & Register.

Baltimore's Edifice Complex by Elijah Northen

There's a great street in South Baltimore. It's neither new, nor historic; traditional, nor contemporary; modern, nor classic. And it's not pretty. It's a potbellied Elvis of an edifice, cinching polyester form stone and vinyl sideburns over sweaty brick.

Andre St. elevation looking east, showing various roof treatments

Andre St. elevation looking east, showing various roof treatments

Andre Street in Locust Point slinks heterogeneously beneath the decidedly modern Silo Point housing project pulsing overhead. There's evidence of organic growth in its patchwork that can't be replicated through clever variation of misguided architectural form. The Swiss cheese form stone that once sealed Baltimore's notoriously leaky brick mortar joints has devolved into an obsolete, wafer-thin pastiche, doing it best Christo impression on bay windows, dormers and (the epitome of vernacular Baltimore architectural tradition) the mansard roof.  

Form stone clad dormer window and mansard roof

Form stone clad dormer window and mansard roof

Like the aging King himself, symbol and symbolized have fused into a single self referential caricature - the simulated stone, in unintentional postmodern fashion, defying nearly every intrinsic property of masonry construction; suspended, cantilevered, thin. A stone wallpaper, revealing its fraudulence at every 1-3/8" edge. It's unapologetic for its lies, and in candid duplicity establishes an honesty of its own. Self-parody is its value.

With each passing day time ripens this old zeitgeist into genius loci. And genius loci trumps zeitgeist. There's no new form stone, and less old every week. And though rapid gentrification seems not to find value in its contribution to the spirit of place, it's lucky to call Baltimore home. For if any city can see retention value in an outdated, gravity-defying bee hive of a "stone" surely it's this one.

Andre St. elevation illustrating the clad bay window with Silo Point in the background

Andre St. elevation illustrating the clad bay window with Silo Point in the background