Climate Action for Museums: You can manage what you measure

Museum institutions, whether they be major tourist attractions or small house collections, are part of our knowledge sphere from childhood through adulthood. Museums are viable, and often valuable, community enterprises whose boards are frequently headed by community and business leaders.

There are an estimated 35,000 museum institutions in this country. The larger buildings, with expressive, iconic design and blockbuster exhibits, can also be critical economic engines occupying prime locations in cities. What is often not on display, however, is their energy use.

“Benchmarking museums provides us an opportunity to better understand how these cultural buildings perform during day-to-day operations, as well as through extreme weather events — actionable information and intelligence about ways to reduce operational costs, identify anomalies in building performance, measure and verify savings from recent retrofits and renovation, improve occupant comfort, and reduce our environmental impacts,” says Chris Castro, Director of Sustainability at the City of Orlando.

Science Museum of Minnesota

Until a decade ago, sustainability and museums were rarely in the same sentence. Now over three hundred museums have registered for LEED certification, no small feat for this building type with stringent temperature and humidity requirements. The American Alliance of Museums’ Environment and Climate professional network is supportive of energy benchmarking. The International Association of Museum Administrators has an annual survey workshop each fall. The Association of Science-Technology Centers pointed to United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals during its International Day. Regional museum associations, from Texas to Pennsylvania have museum specific energy benchmarking workshops and webinars. The resulting carbon footprint measured through benchmarking is an international metric that organizations like the International Council of Museums could embrace. The international ARC Platform is also paying strong attention in this area.

With increased interest among the museum community, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Frequently Asked Questions added content for museum participation. Aiding this effort has been the rapid growth of the City Energy Project and 2030 Districts, as many leading museums reside in these cities.

Thanks to the transparency afforded by benchmarking legislations, our firm, in collaboration with IMT, conducted energy consumption reviews in this unique building type. These institutions, selected out from various cities’ reporting documents, were assembled into a single museums’ list, shown below (Fig 1) .

Source: J. Lee & A. Namnum


The Energy Use Intensity (EUI, energy use per square foot) of museums in cities with public benchmarking and transparency laws is generally well above the EUI of other buildings. As larger museums have cafes and restaurants, energy and water consumption could be especially significant on a per square foot basis. In Figure 1, the high end of EUI is 6 or 7 times of the lowest consumers. This wide performance range, from under 50 to over 300, points to multiple opportunities for efficiency improvement and design innovation.

Another takeaway: There is no significant difference in energy efficiency among asset sizes (under 100K sq. ft., 100K-400K sq. ft., over 400K sq. ft.) or building age. For example, an older building could have upgraded efficient systems while newer buildings may have inefficient envelopes or building facades. Moreover, operational protocols could yield “low-hanging fruit” savings. The types of museums (History, Science, or Art), however, could vary in energy use.

Unique Challenges in Museums

Museums possess many building characteristics different from other public assembly buildings such performance halls, convention centers or libraries. While energy efficiency may not dominate any staff or board meetings, dollars saved could become a revenue source for mission-driven budgets. When a donor is making a gift to a museum, resource consumption is a perfectly legitimate question for its board and staff.

As feedback from museum leaders, here are some common observations to start:

  • Museums may not have adequate facility staff or the budget to handle aging infrastructure or deferred maintenance.
  • Not all museum staff may be aware of the benefits of energy and water efficiency.
  • Lack of building system zoning controls may point to degrees of waste.
  • Unexpected visitor surge could add burden to systems designed for different parameters.
  • Due to collection care requirements, many museums need to maintain tight control of air quality.
  • Energy efficient, quality LED lighting and daylighting inside galleries and public areas are moving beyond nascent practices.
  • Green tenant leases could help overall performance.
Large windows provide views and daylight at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. [Image: Torphong Uaprayoovong]

What’s Next?

While developing the 1-100 ENERGY STAR Score for museums is a major undertaking, voluntary reporting of energy and water use and other key data from museums – of different types, sizes and in different U.S. climate regions – would support such an effort. For example, the Field Museum in Chicago and the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, both from benchmarking cities, have been active in spreading the benchmarking message. The Cultural Institutions Working Group of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission provides peer learning at the city level. Outside of cities where benchmarking and transparency is required, individual institutions are contributing voluntary efforts. Leaders include the Ohio History Center in Columbus; the Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit; the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul; and the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Grand Rapids. To reach a critical mass for scoring analyses, three to four hundred museums would be necessary.

If your museum is already using Energy Star Portfolio Manager (ESPM) and is willing to share data for this Museum ENERGY STAR project, please contact us here. If you need help to enroll in ESPM, please engage with a local US Green Building Council chapter, a local American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (COTE) supporting AIA 2030 goals, or a local workshop offered by IndigoJLD.

Climate Action for Museums was contributed by AMM member Joyce Lee, FAIA, LEED Fellow. Lee is president of IndigoJLD providing green health, planning, benchmarking and design services on exemplary projects. She is among a group of 300 LEED Fellows worldwide and is on the University of Pennsylvania faculty, Joyce served under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, as Chief Architect at the New York City OMB. Her work has received numerous professional awards.  Her practice continues to assist cities to establish 2030 Districts and assist companies to reach sustainability and wellness goals. The author would like to thank Peter Bardaglio of the Ithaca 2030 District and Aurora Namnum of Cornell University for their assistance.