ENERGY STAR Score for Museums: You can manage what you measure

Joyce Lee

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 key philanthropists 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.

Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA. [Credit: Exploratorium].

Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA. [Credit: Exploratorium].

Until a decade ago, sustainability and museums were rarely spoken in the same sentence. Now over two hundred museums have registered for LEED certification, no small feat for this building type. The New York Times in 2016 reported on green art museums. A Pic Green network is active at the American Alliance of Museum. The International Association of Museum Administrators conducts an annual survey workshop each fall. The Association of Science-Technology Centers pointed to United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals during its International Day. With increased interest among the museum community, the 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.


Figure 1. Museum Site EUI by Climate Zones [Source: A. Namnum and J. Lee].

Thanks to the transparency afforded by benchmarking legislation, 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 in (Fig 1).

Initial Findings

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.

“From the Paris Flood in 2016 affecting the Louvre Museum to the recent Hurricane Irma affecting our entire region, 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.

Another takeaway: There is not a 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

Renwick Gallery. Washington, DC. [Credit: Kevin Reeves, DLR Group]

Renwick Gallery. Washington, DC. [Credit: Kevin Reeves, DLR Group]

Museums possess many building characteristics different from other public assembly buildings such as 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 systems zoning control 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 a regulated range of temperature and humidity around the clock.
  • Energy efficient, quality artificial lighting and daylighting inside galleries and public areas are moving beyond nascent practices.
  • Green tenant leases could help overall performance

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. Outside of cities where benchmarking and transparency is required, individual institutions are contributing voluntary efforts. Early leaders include the Brinton Museum in Big Horn, Wyo.; Sciencenter in Ithaca, N.Y.; KMAC Museum in Louisville, Ken.; and Grand Rapids Art Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. To reach a critical mass for scoring analyses, a minimum of 300 museums would be necessary.

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

Note: The author would like to thank Peter Bardaglio of the Ithaca 2030 District and Aurora Namnum of Cornell University for their assistance. The three museums illustrated here have achieved LEED Silver, Gold or Platinum ratings.

Joyce Lee
Joyce Lee, FAIA, LEED Fellow, is president of IndigoJLD providing green health, 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 awards. She is on the University of Pennsylvania faculty. Her practice continues to assist cities to strengthen 2030 Districts, Better Buildings Challenge, and help companies reach sustainability and wellness goals.