150 year old museum renovated to make it sustainable

150 year old museum renovated to make it sustainable

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The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, located close to White House in Washington DC was the first purpose-built art museum in the country, built in 1859 to the design of architect James Renwick, Jr. and was last renovated between 1967 and 1972. The 2015 upgrade by DLR Group and Westlake Reed Leskosky, sought to preserve and respect the historic character of the National Historic Landmark building, while modernising its infrastructure and systems with state-of-the-art sustainable and energy-efficient technologies. The museum has been named a recipient of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) annual Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award.

The 21st century renovation replaced and improved major building infrastructure, enhanced historic features, and improved flexibility for exhibits. The project included restoration of two long-concealed vaulted ceilings; re-creation of the original 19th-century window configuration; replacement of all building systems; and improvements for accessibility. The project achieved a 50 percent reduction in annual energy use, while welcoming more than 500,000 visitors and 180 million social media impressions in its first six months.

Following its renovation 45 years ago, the facility had begun to reach functional obsolescence. “The tight temperature and humidity control requirements for an art museum are challenging to begin with, yet the project team succeeded in dramatically improving the Renwick’s environmental footprint. The measured net EUI is a 49 percent reduction from national average, and the renovation provides daylight to 90 percent of the staff,” the Jury commented. This project represents a complex historic preservation performed with a broad group of stakeholders; including the Smithsonian, the arts community, visitors to DC, and local, regional, and federal governmental agencies. Priorities were integrated to meet a tight budget, a schedule driven by minimising closure of the museum, and a strong commitment by the Smithsonian to institutional sustainability. Flexible and predictable environmental control for 21st century exhibits was a top priority. 

Reuse of the air conditioning condensate, typically a wasted byproduct, helped significantly reduce the potable water use. The success of the Renwicks improvements demonstrate that museums and historic landmarks can deliver comfort energy savings with creative retrofits and will hopefully encourage similar projects.