As museums seek to improve their record on sustainabilit y, conservators worldwide are grappling with reevaluating environmental control guidelines and other elements of the exhibit and storage environment. Museums are a challenging building type with diverse programming, from preserving and displaying collections to providing and maintaining visitor facilities, each with its own climatic requirements. The complexities involved in building or renovating a museum, combined with undertaking a sustainable design certification effort, can be daunting for someone unfamiliar with the process. To ensure that preservation concerns are integrated into the design, conservators must both understand the process and be an effective part of it.

the building process

In any building project, there are multiple design phases that begin with large-scale programming and concept design and conclude with detailed construction drawings, construction, and commissioning of the building. An early step is the selection of the architect. The background research the museum does on an architect is as important to the final outcome as the working relationship itself. Previous projects and references will speak volumes about what can be expected from your architect. The museum should remember that architecture is a service industry, and that the museum is the client. A good architect balances the client’s requirements with a design that satisfies all parties.

Effective project management is critical in creating a successful in-house, collaborative process that includes all museum stakeholders. Museum building team members should understand the basic design phases, the activity that occurs at each stage, and the people involved. In the cacophony of voices in a building project, it can be difficult for conservators to be heard. Because conservation requirements and related building systems may be complicated and can necessitate extensive knowledge and hands-on experience, it is critical for conservators to be integrated early into the design process to ensure that this knowledge is transferred accurately to both the museum building team and the architect. Collections needs should be assessed within a larger framework of risk management and overall sustainability goals. Conservators must ensure that the guidelines they give to the architect and building team are coherent and specific to the particular project—not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Conservators at institutions that have undertaken recent building projects offer colleagues the following advice: (1) be a leader in preventive collections care projects, (2) learn who the project team members are and their areas of expertise so it is clear who is responsible for what, (3) respect the design team hierarchy and do not, intentionally or unintentionally, subvert the chain of command, (4) be an ally, not a critic, and (5) pick your battles wisely.

sustainable building certification

Institutions are increasingly volunteering—or are required—to enroll in an official sustainable building certification program, of which there are several worldwide. In the United States, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a program managed by the US Green Building Council, is one of the benchmark models, guiding the design, construction, and operation of highperformance green buildings.

LEED certification is sought by museums undergoing renovation or new construction, for the environmental benefits derived from achieving it as well as the cachet it lends. LEED design goals are used as tools for fund-raising, and certified ratings are trumpeted in post-opening press releases. At the same time, LEED participation inevitably adds complexity to the creation and management of suitable museum environmental and lighting conditions.

The LEED program and the Green Building Certification Institute provide third-party verification of green buildings. The LEED overview states, “Building projects satisfy prerequisites and earn points to achieve different levels of certification.”1 LEED ranks buildings according to four levels of sustainability— Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum—and distinguishes projects according to five building types, each of which share the same credit categories (Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality), with a range of prerequisites and credits worth up to a total of 110 possible points. Working with a project architect to achieve Platinum, Gold, or Silver certification shouldn’t feel like an Olympic medal event. Conservators with a basic understanding of the program’s goals and methods are better prepared to discuss with colleagues and architects the implications of various “green” choices for the long-term care of museum collections.

While LEED is not perfect, the program is regularly updated to more accurately measure sustainability. Conservators and architects who have gone through a LEED process make a number of suggestions. First—don’t chase points. There are 110 possible LEED points, but only 60 are needed for Gold certification. It is vital that an analysis of the desired LEED certification level, the points required, and the best practices for preservation is performed early and holistically. Don’t pursue points that are inconsistent with preservation needs. For example, achieving the Indoor Environmental Quality credits of LEED can be challenging for conservation laboratory and exhibition prep spaces. These might not be the easiest places to look for LEED points. The daylight credit is also a frequent cause of contention between architects and preservation professionals.

It is worth noting that because historic building materials generally are not renewable, low volatile organic compound (VOC) emitting, or locally sourced, historic preservation projects can be challenging within the LEED system. There are ways to gain points involving rigorous record keeping, but everyone must be on board from the beginning to ensure that documentation is accurate. In addition, it is highly recommended that a museum hire an independent commissioning agent to oversee the final stage of a project, when systems are tested to ensure they are performing as designed. In a LEED project, the commissioning agent reviews each operation to make sure that the building does not use more energy than required to maintain the specified conditions. Finally, while it is commonplace to face minor adjustments when moving into a new facility, it is inadvisable to rely on later retrofitting to solve lighting, environmental control, or pollutant issues that should have been properly addressed during the design process.

Green, sustainable building choices need not be at odds with the mission of a museum or the requirements of conservators. Sustainable design, if properly understood and coordinated as part of the design process, can benefit everyone. Conservators don’t need to be experts in the building process or the nuances of sustainable building certification but must understand enough to be able to communicate their needs effectively. By being a constructive part of the process, preservation professionals can help sustain our planet, our heritage, and our collective sanity through the rigors of a building project.

Rachael Perkins Arenstein is currently the conservator at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem and is a partner in A.M. Art Conservation, LLC, a private practice she cofounded. Scott Raphael Schiamberg is an associate principal with Perkins Eastman Architects in New York. This article is based on a paper, “A LEED Primer for Conservators,” presented by the authors at the 42nd AIC Annual Meeting in May 2014.

1. www.usgbc.org/leed