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Most institutions feel that the strict conditions needed for housing art are incompatible with environmental demands. But compliance with eco-friendly requirements can pay off in the long run

Why it pays to go green

Buildings in the United States consume 68% of the country’s electricity, produce 40% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and use nearly 40% of its energy according to statistics compiled by the US Green Building Council.

It is not surprising then that a growing number of art museums in the US are incorporating sustainable technologies into their multi-million dollar expansions. Yet for every environmentally conscious museum, there are several leading art institutions that have given limited attention to ecological issues. A number of museum professionals have never even considered the idea of environmentally sound systems. Some cite the requirements of light and temperature sensitive collections as incompatible with green design, while others are put off by the five to ten percent higher costs of environmentally friendly buildings.

According to Ric Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects in New York: “When you talk to museum directors, one of their main goals is to gain more gallery space and additional room for ancillary functions that financially support the institution, like the café and bookstore. It’s not that green systems are antithetical to these goals, but it takes a far-sighted director to recognise this.”

Maintaining the strict conditions necessary for collection management is the primary reason museum officials give for not building green. A spokesperson for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which is currently undergoing a $500m expansion and renovation project led by British architect Sir Norman Foster, says: “As stewards of fragile and irreplaceable art, the museum has a unique set of requirements with respect to climate and light control. These conditions must be maintained around the clock. Because of the functional requirements of the Museum of Fine Art’s physical plant, we are not seeking LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification.”

This certification is a quantitative point-based rating system developed by the US Green Building Council that evaluates the environmental function of a building according to six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, ?material resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design process. Very few US museums have been certified and around 77% of all recent and planned museum expansions have not requested approval. Achieving certification requires rigorous planning from the beginning of the design phase and can be restrictive. Recent major expansions that did not seek official certification include the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, both in New York, and the Denver Art Museum. In fact, only a handful of art institutions across the country have received certification. They include the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Contemporary Art Museum in St Louis, the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan and the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin.

The Art Institute of Chicago is perhaps one of the most environmentally sound museums in the country. The institute is seeking a silver certification for its $285m expansion by Renzo Piano, which is now under construction and integrates a range of green features including a photocell lighting system that dims as ambient light gets brighter and a double-window façade that provides natural ventilation and light. Nearly ten years ago, the museum had the foresight to install solar panels on its roof and it recently hired a consulting firm to assess if it can save energy by overhauling its heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems.

Some architects such as Renzo Piano are known for using natural lighting and energy-efficient systems having been trained in continental Europe where fuel costs are significantly higher and where energy-related building codes are much stricter than in the US. Since museums require 24-hour humidity and temperature controls, an initial investment in energy-efficient systems could significantly reduce operational costs in the long-term.

The Center for Architecture in New York, for example, installed a geo-thermal heating and cooling system for $100,000. Although the technology was initially more expensive than traditional equipment, the investment paid for itself within three years and today the centre saves an estimated $30,000 annually. The centre also received a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for the cost of the installation; in other words it saw an immediate return on investment that it would not have received had it used traditional technologies. MoMA in New York received a $400,000 grant from the same organisation to defray costs for a chilled water plant that saves the institution an estimated $300,000 a year. Several city and state agencies across the US offer incentives for green design and private organisations such as the Kresge Foundation offer grants to support sustainable environmental design.

With projects currently in design by Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron for the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Miami Art Museum respectively, one wonders what path they will take. These projects offer institutions an opportunity to build for the future while having an impact on the organisation’s public perception. According to the American Institute of Architects’ Ric Bell: “Building green shows that the institution is thinking about the future not just on an ethical but on a practical level as well.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Why it pays to go green'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 176 January 2007