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News and Media

A Masterpiece in Green Renovation: Art Museum Earns Gold LEED Certification

Sep. 26, 2011

Amanda Nagy

AMAM Facade

Inscribed across the elegant façade of the Allen Memorial Art Museum is a quote by designer William Morris, circa 1884: “The cause of art is the cause of the people.” Today, the same sentiment could be expressed about environmental sustainability.

Built in 1917, the Cass Gilbert-designed Italian Renaissance-style building is no less impressive than the works inside. The two-year renovation project is a rare undertaking for a historic structure because of its emphasis on sustainability. With geothermal wells and new energy-efficient mechanical systems to meet stringent climate control requirements, the project improves the way art collections are cared for while preserving the appearance and footprint of the building. The museum has been awarded LEED gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, confirming that the building now meets rigorous standards of efficiency and environmental responsibility.

The museum had a critical need for new infrastructure, including heating and cooling, fire suppression and security systems, and sustainability was at the heart of the renovation, says Stephanie Wiles, director of AMAM. “A renovation that emphasizes energy savings is directly aligned with Oberlin’s long-standing commitment to sustainability.”

Wiles says temperature and humidity control is critical to maintaining a safe environment for works of art, particularly paintings on wood, wooden sculpture, and works on paper or vellum, which are most susceptible to changes in climate.

“Humidity levels that are too low can cause cracking, while high humidity can cause mold growth,” Wiles explains. “The museum's former climate control system had continual abrupt and dramatic swings in temperature and humidity and wasn’t able to maintain steady levels over time. The new mechanical systems can provide the stability required for a safe museum environment.”

The other driving force behind the project was the museum’s commitment to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold rating—an ambitious goal for this type of renovation. While a handful of newer museum buildings have undergone LEED-certified renovations, the AMAM overhaul is setting a precedent for historic museum structures.

“I am not aware of other historic museum buildings that are being renovated while attempting to achieve LEED gold certification,” says Mandi Lew, project architect with New York-based Samuel Anderson Architects. The firm is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council and specializes in museums and sustainable design. Museums are inherently not energy efficient, Lew says, because strict humidity and temperature control must be maintained at all times. “This is just one of the obstacles to achieving LEED certification for this building type.”

Pursuing LEED accreditation is a worthy goal, but equally impressive is the innovation behind the museum’s new mechanical and electrical systems, which are invisible throughout most of the museum, says Jim MacMillan, the renovation team’s lead sustainability consultant. Elements that the public can’t see represent the lion’s share of the work.
“From a sustainability effort, it’s always a challenge when you set your goals high,” says MacMillan, with Karpinski Engineering in Cleveland. “The most important objective was to protect the museum’s collections.” The designers “looked at energy savings from every possible angle, and the systems that were installed are so efficient that we went above and beyond the requirements for LEED gold. The design team was very creative to perform the work without compromising aesthetics of the building and its galleries.”

McClure Engineering in St. Louis designed the new HVAC systems. The project was awarded 43 points, exceeding the 39-point minimum required for gold rating. With the systems now in place, the museum uses no more energy than a typical office building that is open and operable only one-third as long each day. Highlights of the project include:

* A geothermal well field with 18 units installed 300 feet deep. Compared with a new structure built to comply with today’s energy efficiency standards for heating, cooling, and lighting, the renovated museum uses only 28 percent of the energy cost, in part through the geothermal system.
* Museum standard control of temperature and humidity trends at very low energy use.
* Preservation of the building’s footprint and protection of vegetated, open space.
* Use of materials with recycled content and/or manufactured locally wherever possible.
* Use of only low-emitting, low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) adhesives, sealants, paints, carpets, and wood products.
* All wood products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
* Elimination of environmentally harmful refrigerants for heating, ventilating, and cooling the museum.
* New electrical, fire detection and suppression, and security systems.

The museum’s galleries reopened to the public on September 6. Read more about the renovation process on the AMAM blog.

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