National Building Museum
Inside the National Building Museum's visitor center; Credit: Sarah Marloff

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There’s a large blemish on the conference table in Aileen Fuchs’ fourth-floor office in the National Building Museum. 

“This is our claim to fame here,” says Fuchs, pointing to the scar. “Princess Diana, she came to an event here and her people needed to iron her dress quickly.” The outfit was ironed on the unassuming oak table in the mid-1990s, but in everyone’s haste, the table was burned. It still bears the iron mark, as if memorializing the princess’ visit.

Of course, that’s not the Building Museum’s only “claim to fame.” Built between 1882 and 1887, 401 F St. NW was designed to house the U.S. Pension Bureau’s headquarters and create a glamorous space for the city’s major social functions. In 1885, before the roof was finished, the building held President Grover Cleveland’s inaugural ball (a temporary wooden roof was constructed in an effort to warm the space). Since then, the grand building, complete with massive gold-topped columns, has been the site of many presidential balls well into recent years. (Both Presidents Obama and Trump hosted events there.) But the National Building Museum of today opened in 1985, seven years after Congress called for historic preservation of the building and five years after it mandated the museum’s establishment as a private, nonprofit educational institution. 

Now, after being closed for nearly a year and a half due to the Great Hall’s floor repair, which began in Nov. 2019, and COVID-19, the museum is going through a new transformation that seeks to tackle climate change while also pushing for greater equity in the design world. Fuchs was named the fifth president and executive director in March 2021, and she officially took the reins in May following the mid-2020 retirement of Chase Rynd. At 41, Fuchs is the youngest person to lead the Building Museum, and is its second woman executive director. She’s also among a collection of people who stepped into leadership roles in the midst of the pandemic. It’s no wonder that change is taking place within the museum’s storied walls. 

“I think there’s a license and a runway to throw out the old rule books,” Fuchs says of current times. She calls the creation of a new rule book “both scary and exciting,” but she exudes excitement. Museums are rarely described as energizing, but that’s the undeniable feeling inside the museum these days. 

Aileen Fuchs, the National Building Museum’s new executive director

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation was responsible for 14 percent of global emissions in 2010. While cars and other motorized vehicles are usually targeted as a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, materials in the museum’s new visitor center note that “the built environment is responsible for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions worldwide.” The three-room visitor center offers a grounded starting point for exploring the museum. The second room, in which the skylines of 14 major U.S. cities are on display, introduces guests to the basic ideas of the built environment—buildings, landscape, public space, and transportation. It also highlights some data about the realities of the building industry. “Just the amount of fossil fuels you burn in these buildings for electricity is like 13 percent of carbon emissions,” Fuchs says. “I don’t know if people know that—a big part of what I want to do here is make all these things more accessible.” 

The final room of the visitor center is clad in gray wall panels displaying various building materials (including the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s siding). But what’s most fascinating is the table covered in more than a dozen sustainable materials, including a low-carbon, hemp-based cement and colorful IceStone, a sustainable surface made from recycled glass (like beer bottles) that’s handcrafted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Fuchs previously worked as the executive director of exhibits and programs.

Though lovely to walk through, the visitor center is the museum’s launching point into greater climate issues. On Nov. 16, the museum kicked off Climate ABC, an ongoing program that focuses on the three crucial areas that must be addressed in order to limit the effects of climate change: action—by individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and policy makers; the building of physical structures and landscapes; and the communities battling to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s called ABC for a reason. Fuchs hopes referencing the alphabet signifies the virtual program’s accessibility. The idea is to create a two-pronged approach: an engaging curriculum aimed at further educating the general public about the impacts the built environment has on quality of life, as well as changing industry practices for a sustainable future; and roundtable B2B discussions between various professionals focused on encouraging identifiable change within the building industry.

Recent conversations have focused on metrics around the tools and language used to understand what it means to have a net-zero building, or how to accurately measure the impacts of a sustainable development or a “healthy building” on a community. But Fuchs says the conversations are also addressing what those buzzwords really mean. Climate ABC will share new technologies and best practices taking place around the globe, including urban regeneration, adaptive reuse, decarbonized development, and rainwater recapture. Within these talks, Fuchs sees opportunities to connect people in different professional silos by getting them on the same page sooner to create an incubator for action. She explains, “We’re thinking we can convene [topics and people] that might connect dots in new ways.” 

Climate ABC’s potential for impact depends on the museum’s connections to leading developers, designers, and the American Institute of Architects. The work Fuchs is setting in motion is not “revolutionary” but “evolutionary,” she says. NBM has been committed to addressing climate change for much of its existence; Fuchs points to a 2003 exhibit on sustainability to emphasize the museum’s legacy of caring about climate. What’s changing now, Fuchs says, is more and more people—including entities on the museum’s board—realizing their contribution to climate change and deciding to be part of a collective solution. 

It’s a lofty goal for a museum, but that doesn’t seem to deter Fuchs, who points to the institution’s biggest fans: kids and building industry professionals. That connection is a key part of the museum’s plan to drive climate action. Through Climate ABC, NBM is also building out its education department for students and budding climate activists. “To me, part of what we do is inspiring the next generation—people who are going to have even more on their shoulders,” Fuchs says.

It’s also a major component of a pipeline of sorts that NBM hopes to create for children of all identities to see themselves as designers, architects, and builders, professions dominated by White cisgender men. Stepping into the role of ED, Fuchs has made her leadership philosophy clear: “You bring your whole self to work every day … I’m a woman, I’m a mom, and those elements of who I am are going to inform my priorities right now.”

To have a real impact on the building world—not to mention lay claim to caring about creating a more equitable society—Fuchs says it’s important the museum recognize that, systemically, women and people of color have been frequently kept out of leadership roles. “So, what are we going to do about it?” she asks. For starters, she wants to continue the museum’s legacy of hands-on, experiential learning exhibits for kids, which can lay the groundwork for “transformative sparks” that might someday lead to careers. She also sees the museum getting more engaged with STEAM learning to complement workforce development initiatives prioritizing the hiring of women and people of color. “I want to make sure we’re doing everything to make sure those professional opportunities and mind-set—that we’re doing our part to make that feel accessible,” she says. 

Making the profession and the museum feel more accessible also means exhibiting work that some fear is too political for a museum with no political affiliation, such as the current The Wall/El Muro: What Is a Border Wall? exhibit, which looks at the infamous border wall between the U.S. and Mexico through the lens of architecture and design. It also examines the wall’s impact on the environment and includes objects found along the border, such as tampons and toothbrushes. The exhibit was originally scheduled to open in the spring of 2020 under Rynd, but due to the pandemic it opened last month, one of the first exhibits under Fuchs. 

“I feel very clear: It is not our place, nor our role to be political,” Fuchs says. “It’s our role to advance knowledge, share new perspectives, and I fundamentally believe that the wall is one of the most defining, biggest, challenging built environment issues of the past century.” As an institution telling a national story about the built environment and its impacts on lives and communities, Fuchs says, “We have to do this.” 

According to the exhibit notes, The Wall/El Muro argues “for a more nuanced understanding of the borderlands and new ways for visitors to think about this issue moving forward.” Considering only the environmental impacts, the wall bisects six eco-regions, causes increased flooding, and interferes with animal migration, food supplies, and habitat, among other issues. To those who say the wall is political, Fuchs says the exhibit reframes the issue and believes, just maybe, the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders can help people relate to what happens at the wall. “A lot of people felt a sudden, heart-palpitating fear of being trapped, controlled. Welcome to the border. This is happening all the time,” Fuchs says. “Because of this unprecedented time in human experiences right now, maybe there’s also an opportunity for empathy around receiving that story that previously wasn’t there.”

Fuchs reiterates how current times—the ongoing pandemic and ongoing crisis of racial and social inequity amid the climate crisis—is making people care more about building a better world. “It sounds a little Pollyanna, but it’s not. I really believe that. And I really believe that people are awake to the world that has been built around them … in a way that they never have been before.”

The National Building Museum is open Fridays through Mondays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Wall/El Muro will be on display through Nov. 6, 2022. $7–$10.