Museums and Resource Efficiency

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Submitted by Joyce S. Lee –

Did you know that museums can be more energy intensive than hospitals? Luckily, there are opportunities to bring the world’s museum community together to work in the same direction toward climate goals.

Recognizing this, this past September the International Council of Museums (ICOM) unanimously adopted a resolution asserting that all museums have a role to play in shaping and creating a sustainable future.

Many of the strategies that make facilities more sustainable also make them more resilient and lower greenhouse gas emissions. As seen in the LEED project database, about 150 museums have earned LEED green building certification. Approximately 300 more have registered to go green. This is quite a feat for a complex building type.

Leaders Are Emerging

There is a growing number of LEED-certified museums around the world. This list includes projects in the United States, Canada, Greece, China, Korea, Brazil, Turkey, Palestine and the Philippines.

Pittsburgh has the most LEED rated museums of any city in Pennsylvania.  There is a proud tradition of sustainability literacy among Pittsburgh museum operators and the public. In Philadelphia, the local benchmarking law is raising awareness as well.  At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the new galleries’ LED lighting project is part of a much larger renovation project.  Replacing 11,000 bulbs gives new light to the artwork.  “Elegant and effective lighting is a key part of the visitor experience in an art museum,” museum director Timothy Rub said. Other HVAC and electrical upgrade of the building will yield close to 24 percent savings from its $3 million energy bills a year, as reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Solar-Powered Streetcar Project involves the installation of a 36 KW photovoltaic solar energy system at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum . The 12,000 square-foot photovoltaic array was installed on the south-facing metal roof (Featured Photo). Since 2009, it has been an educational opportunity to teach school children and visitors the importance of solar energy in electricity generation. “We have generated over 42,000 kilowatt hours the first year and have been awarded a Green Power award by PennFuture and an Award of Merit from PA Museums,” says Scott R. Becker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, PA. “And we are excited to see modern renewable technology powering 100-plus-year-old street cars.”

On Twitter, @MuseumsforParis highlights museums’ accomplishments in sustainability, from enhancing their own building environment to upgrading their in-house education programs and exhibits.

In North America, almost 150 museums have voluntarily put their energy consumption into Energy Star Portfolio Manager (ESPM), a platform that can generate a carbon footprint calculation. Energy benchmarking fulfills the pledge of those museums committed to We Are Still In while demonstrating they are “talking the talk and walking the walk.”

More than 300 other museums in the U.S. have reported annually on the ESPM platform as a result of the growing number of cities with benchmarking laws.

Unique to the Museum Environment

While ESPM is based in North America, where the majority of the 55,000 museums worldwide reside, Arc is becoming a global platform to track buildings interested in common metrics, whether it is measuring energy in KBtu/sq. ft. or GJ/m2. A universal carbon footprint is described in MTCo2e.  In addition to energy and water data that is easily exchanged between platforms, the carbon footprint associated with transportation and waste elimination is emerging as a pressing topic for public institutions such as museums.

Recognizing the critical balance between collection care and energy efficiency, the latest ASHRAE Chapter 24 on museums and associated facilities has issued new guidance this summer on humidity control with updated tables. This includes a larger temperature and humidity range tolerance that will help museums reduce their carbon footprints, while protecting valuable objects and archives.

Another important museum topic is indoor environmental quality. The ongoing schedules of changing exhibits in museums and their resulting paints, chemical compounds, and incoming exhibit materials constantly pose potential compromises on air quality. These significant museum functions would be best served by higher levels of air monitoring than are commonly in use. Not only would it enhance human health for the staff and visitors every day, air quality data gives the conservation department more opportunities to communicate with the facilities staff to ensure building envelope, lighting and HVAC maintenance will benefit the public, office and collection areas.

Opportunities for Museums Today and Tomorrow

Centuries-old cultural institutions can last well into the future. Longevity in museums can translate to a higher cumulative carbon footprint, so, considering that museums have a very long service life, “Design, Build, Operate Green” seems to be more important now than ever before.  Benchmarking in existing museums and tracking performance is an imperative. In new construction, the greenest design strategies could be embraced: minimizing environmental impact while inspiring the community to think of the future as waste-, energy- and water-positive.


About the author:  Joyce Lee, FAIA, LEED Fellow, is president of IndigoJLD providing green health, benchmarking, planning and design services on exemplary projects. Joyce served under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg as Chief Architect at the New York City OMB. Her work has received numerous professional awards. Contact:

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