A new stone panel installation system is just one highlight of a new museum in Kansas.
By Cory Sekine-Pettite

All photos courtesy of Sam Fentress (unless otherwise noted)

Museum at Prairiefire 41,000-square-foot complex masonry glass
Overland Park Kansas Museum at Prairiefire

The official city slogan for Overland Park, Kan., is “Above And Beyond. By Design.” A quick review of the area’s recreational facilities, entertainment complexes, museums, and other architectural gems, and one realizes that Overland Park’s planners, architects, and engineers take this slogan seriously. For example, this town of about 180,000 people (the second most populous city in Kansas) boasts the unique Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex, the 300-acre Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, and a beautifully restored downtown area. The most recent addition to this impressive lineup is the Museum at Prairiefire, a 41,000-square-foot complex of masonry and glass that celebrates the natural and cultural history of the region.

Museum at Prairiefire masonry glass structure
The museum lobby is an open and inviting space.

Light shines dichroic glass Museum at Prairiefire masonry structure
Light shines through the dichroic glass.
Photos courtesy of Michael Robinson
Museum at Prairiefire masonry glass structure

Designed by Verner Johnson Museum Architects & Planners (established in 1978), the $17.3-million Museum at Prairiefire opened in the spring 2014. Its main exterior feature is a wall of colorful dichroic glass that is meant to reflect the imagery of the tallgrass prairie, including one of its most unique aspects: the prairie fire burns. According to Verner Johnson, “The expansive lobby is enclosed by ‘lines of fire,’ facetted vertical planes composed of tinted vision glazing, dichroic glass, and iridescent stainless steel panels, set in a composition invoking flames. The glass and steel are color shifting, depending on the viewing, creating a vibrant animated glow of color around the building.”

The interior features red Utah sandstone at the main stair. And according to the museum’s architect, Jonathan Kharfen, AIA, LEED senior associate, “For the fire elements, we used Light Interference Color (LIC) stainless steel metal panels (from Millennium Tiles), dichroic glass – used as insulated glazing units for the first time in North America and developed with Goldray Industries from Calgary – and grey-tinted glass. The metal panels and dichroic glass were selected for their light and color-changing properties, to emulate the dynamic properties of fire. I [was familiar with] these materials beforehand and knew they would be the most appropriate to evoke fire. At different angles, time of day, and light conditions, the colors of the building change and move in the way that flame flickers.”

The building wings on either side of the lobby are clad in locally quarried limestone cut into thin panels. Verner Johnson says these wings are clad with contoured parapets evoking the softly curving sculpted hills of the prairie. The stratified stone forms a gradient, from darker “charred” stone at the base, to near white stone at the parapet. The stones colors are mixed in varying band heights to achieve the gradient.

“I wanted to use materials that illustrated both the prairie landscape and captured the properties of fire,” said Kharfen. “For the rolling prairie forms, we used a combination of local Kansas limestone veneer and engineered Cordova Stone veneer. We used five types of limestone (all local Kansas limestone from US Stone) with two different finishes (split face for most and sawn face interspersed for the top bands). We had five colors in the Cordova Stone veneer, including two custom colors. The Cordova Stone was used in place of limestone in order to achieve the color effect that we wanted, as well as to be located at and partially below grade – the landscaping forms berm around the stone forms to make them appear more embedded in the ground.”

IBP Fast Track™ Stone System soffit Museum of Prairiefire Kansas CityFast Track Stone help builders architects LEED objectives Aluminum channels clips 25 percent post-consumer recycled content system dismantled re-purposed building’s usage change. Innovative Building Products
The IBP Fast Track™ Stone System made this stone soffit happen for the Museum of Prairiefire near Kansas City,  Kan. According to project architect Jonathan Kharfen,  AIA,  LEED senior associate: “Everyone, including the client and myself, are thrilled with the way the balcony looks. It really looks exactly as I imagined it!”Fast Track Stone can help builders and architects achieve LEED objectives. Aluminum channels and clips have at least 25 percent post-consumer recycled content, and the entire system can be dismantled and re-purposed as the building’s usage changes. Photos courtesy of Innovative Building Products

Kharfen’s original design utilized more natural stone and had a greater variety of stone types, and stone mixing to achieve the gradient effect. But because of budgetary constraints, he said, some of the natural stone was replaced with Cordova Stone. The stone bonding pattern also needed to be redesigned to incorporate two (in lieu of four) stones mixed per band to reduce installation costs.

unique structure won multiple awards Museum at Prairiefire masonry glass structure
This unique structure has won multiple awards.
Photos courtesy of David Arbogast

Also, regarding the masonry, it was imperative to Kharfen that the balcony be entirely clad in the same stone as the adjacent elevations, to evoke a stone promontory overlooking the wetlands located west of the building, he said. During construction there were concerns about the weight of the stone and how to properly secure the stone on the underside of the balcony where the surfaces slope down at varying angles back to the building facade. “I learned of the Fast Track Stone™ System. The stone mason, D&D Masonry, who was excellent, built a mock-up and we were all very satisfied with the technical and aesthetic results,” Kharfen said.

The Fast Track Stone System (FTS) is manufactured by Innovative Building Products (IBP), an Acme Brick company. IBP is known more for its glass block and glass floor installation systems, but its latest development is a patent-pending system used for installing thin pre-cut stone panels. The company says its new masonry support system, FTS, can transform a basic building into a structure of elegance and warmth – and save time on the installation method. This system combines the use of extruded aluminum support channels, clips, and stone panels for a complete installation package.

Museum at Prairiefire masonry glass structure
The exterior of the museum changes colors as the light shifts throughout the day.

Because FTS uses thin, lighter weight stone panels, concrete footings aren’t necessary. FTS allows for non-sequential installation of stone panels, thus speeding up the installation process, IBP says. These features make FTS an ideal product for cladding of both new and retrofit construction, as well as entries of high-end residences and interior accent walls for both residential and commercial spaces.

Museum at Prairiefire masonry glass structure

The Fast Track Stone pre-engineered system utilizes masonry panels in both 1-1/4” and 1-1/2” thicknesses. Stone panels are available in standard and custom sizes along with corner units that give the appearance of full-bodied stone units. IBP’s sister company, Texas Quarries, fabricates a range of natural limestone panels for use with FTS. Manufactured stone panels in a variety of sizes and colors are available as well.

Fast Track Stone can help builders and architects achieve LEED objectives. In fact, the Museum at Prairiefire is expected to receive a LEED Silver rating. Aluminum channels and clips have at least 25 percent post-consumer recycled content, and the entire system can be dismantled and re-purposed as the building’s usage changes. Additionally, the system offers all the longevity and minimal maintenance of traditional laid-in-place stone.

Few, if any, projects are completed without complications. The Museum at Prairiefire was no exception, but Kharfen explained how the team persevered. “The greatest challenge on the project was the schedule,” he said. “This project had a very short design and construction schedule that required very careful and organized project management. Many details were documented in ASIs issued in a timely manner during construction, in order to not negatively impact the schedule.

“A second challenge was that the project was designed with geothermal as the main HVAC system,” Kharfen continued. “However, during construction natural gas was found when digging the wells, which rendered that system infeasible. This required a redesign in construction of the HVAC system that would not impact the architecture and could utilize the distribution system, which was already designed and under construction. The only architectural impact of the new system was the expansion of the planned equipment yard.”

Awards/Recognition for the museum

  • Architecture Podium International Architecture Award – Cultural Building Built
  • Rethinking The Future Sustainability Honorable Mention – Public Building Built
  • Associated General Contractors of Kansas Award of Excellence – Judge’s Choice
  • Kansas City Business Journal Capstone Award for Architectural Design
  • USA Today, Road Trip USA: 50 states, 50 must-see stops
Museum at Prairiefire masonry glass structure

There’s no doubt that Jonathan Kharfen and Verner Johnson went above and beyond to achieve the remarkable design for the Museum at Prairiefire. It will stand for decades as a testament to brilliant design and as a reflection of life on the prairies – a life filled with picturesque views of vast and colorful landscapes, and of course, the prairie fires.

About the Museum at Prairiefire

Museum at Prairiefire masonry glass structureThe new, 41,500-square-foot museum was designed to exclusively feature traveling exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. It also has a Children’s Discovery Room, modeled on the AMNH children’s programming. The Grand Hall features permanent exhibits (some real specimens, as well as interactives), and changing exhibit areas, and the facility functions as a popular event venue. The museum is the centerpiece of a 60-acre, mixed-use suburban development. Verner Johnson, Inc. was the architect only for the museum, from concept through construction administration. RMTA, a Kansas City firm, assisted with construction administration. Learn more about the design of the museum here, and visit the museum’s website to explore its many exhibitions.