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Museums sprout 'green' architecture

A wave of energy-efficient architecture – and ecofriendly retrofits – is sweeping through public showcases.

By Yvonne ZippCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2008

Low impact: Grand Rapids Art Museum received a Gold certification last month from the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Other museums around the US are poised to follow.

Courtesy of Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing

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Grand Rapids, MIch.

Museums tend to be famous for what's on their walls. But at the new Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) in Michigan, the art has taken a back seat to the walls themselves.

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Last month, the $75 million, 125,000-square-foot building became the first art museum in the country to receive a LEED Gold certification from the US Green Building Council in Washington. (LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and En­­viron­­mental Design, is considered the benchmark for green construction.)

The fact that a second museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, will soon gain Gold status is just one sign of the greening of US museums.

Forget Corinthian columns: Today's museums have features like green roofs – such as on the new wing at the Institute of Fine Arts in Chicago – or goats as part of the maintenance team, as at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the first facility in the US to qualify for LEED certification on an existing building.

"I cannot count the number of institutions that are doing serious green stuff. That's how huge it is," says Sarah Brophy, coauthor of "The Green Museum," to be published later this spring. Ms. Brophy says that green construction started becoming a serious consideration for museums about six years ago – with zoos, aquariums, and children's museums leading the way.

"There were concerns about walking the talk – if you're educating about the environment, you should be caring for it," she says. Fine art museums, she says, have caught on to the concept after being introduced to it by architects who had worked on green projects for the for-profit sector, which – with its focus on the bottom line – was faster to adopt energy-cutting construction.

That bottom line has become more attractive as green-building costs have fallen, explains Ashley Katz, spokeswoman for the US Green Building Council.

Rapid payback for ecodesign

A 2006 study by Davis Langdon, a construction consulting firm, found that building an environmentally friendly project costs, on average, as much as a traditional one. A Gold- or Platinum-ranked LEED-certified building costs more, Ms. Katz says, but the energy savings means that an organization should be able to recoup those extra costs within two years.

While green building may originally have had a reputation as the unbleached cotton T-shirt of the architecture world, that has changed.

How one museum worked conservation into its design

The developers of Michigan's Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) planned to conserve energy while also providing a climate-controlled venue for the works it houses. Among the new building's features:

•The roof, painted white to reflect heat, collects rainwater and snowmelt and sends it down drains to collect in giant cisterns in the basement, where it is used for everything from washing dishes in the cafe to watering the lawn to replenishing the reflecting pool.

• The ultrasmooth, sandy-colored architectural concrete was made from local materials, and local and organic food is used as much as possible in the cafe.

• Museums need strict temperature and humidity controls to protect their holdings. The GRAM solved this by funneling outside air underground, where the temperature is a consistent 55 degrees F. Humidity and heat can be added before the air is pumped into the museum.

• Developers leveraged local weather: Because Grand Rapids has so many overcast days, museum director Celeste Adams explains, the museum was able to rely on natural lighting without worrying that intense sun would harm the works of art. (Filtered glass, louvers, and layering are also employed.)