Energy Efficiency Pays Off

November 7, 2016
Index Magazine

Energy Efficiency Pays Off

As the 2016 fiscal year concluded, leaders of the Harvard Art Museums facilities team were pleased to report a significant savings in energy usage and utilities costs, down about 30 percent from the previous year. © Nic Lehoux.

Sustainability doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen by accident. At the Harvard Art Museums, achieving an environmentally friendly and energy-efficient facility (evidenced by our LEED Gold certification for the building’s renovation, among other honors) has been the result of concerted, continuing effort over many years by numerous individuals.

Just recently, the museums reported another success on this front: in fiscal year 2016, the museums saved over $400,000 in composite energy costs for the building at 32 Quincy Street, down about 30 percent from the total cost of $1.4 million from the previous year. To put the news another way, in the course of one year, the price to run the facility was reduced from $6.72 per gross square foot to $4.72.

The savings benefit the museums (and visitors) in multiple ways. Besides representing a lighter carbon footprint for the building, the saved dollars bolster overall financial health; and extra funds can be reallocated to other priorities, according to Peter Atkinson, the museums’ director of facilities planning and management.

Changes in Operations

Not long after the museums’ 2014 reopening, senior facilities manager Jim Moisson led efforts to conduct an “energy grooming” exercise with outside consultants. The energy expense of $7 per square foot (as predicted by an energy model) seemed too high to Moisson, considering past performance of climate-controlled buildings. Thus, he wanted to identify inefficiencies in how the building’s systems were being run—from dehumidification to air handling to water and sewer usage—and determine improvements.

The cost of this project, for both analysis and resultant actions, was substantial: about $400,000. However, it proved immediately worthwhile as each adjustment was made. By the time the financial year concluded, the Facilities Department had reported cost reduction by a similar amount. “It was essentially a one-year payback on our investment,” Moisson said.

One major improvement that contributed to the savings was the separation of humidity control from temperature control. By controlling humidity only in the fresh air stream (and not in recirculated air, which is about nine times greater by volume), the museums have avoided the unnecessary cooling and re-heating of a significant portion of air. 

Another important step was the adoption of seasonally variable set points for climate control, in keeping with evolving national and international standards, such as those put forth by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the Bizot Green Protocol. Previously, many museums had sought to maintain the same temperature and relative humidity levels throughout the year (70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent relative humidity). With general agreement concerning new set points, the museums instituted more flexible targets as of September 2015:

In the winter (November through March), the air temperature is set to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relative humidity of 45 percent.

In the summer (May through September), the air temperature is set to 73 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relative humidity of 55 percent.

Between these two periods, the air is automatically “ramped,” or gradually adjusted, to correspond with changes in the outdoor temperature and humidity values.

Moisson credited the strong partnership among museums staff with the successful implementation of new set points. “There’s a move worldwide for facilities, conservation, and collections management teams to work together, and we’ve had a great relationship here for a long time,” Moisson said. “The collections managers and conservators are the experts who know what a work of art needs physically, while the facilities staff are the ones who institute and achieve the climate control values that are set. It is a collaborative effort.”

A number of other factors have also enhanced efficiency. Lighting, provided in the galleries exclusively by LED bulbs, generates less ambient heat—and therefore requires less cooling. Water conservation strategies, such as collecting rainwater for non-potable uses (such as toilet flushing), also has helped lower expenditures. And reducing overall air flow using adjustable-speed motors contributed to a significant reduction in electricity usage.

Ongoing Efforts

Facilities managers believe that this new and improved level of efficiency for 32 Quincy Street will be the norm. But they continue to make adjustments in order to become even more sustainable, and, potentially, see further savings down the road.

“We are proud of our LEED Gold certification, for instance, but sustainability doesn’t stop with a certification,” Atkinson said. “We want to remain energy efficient going forward.”

Next on the horizon is a project to install solar panels on the building’s roof. Once these are in place, the panels could further reduce electrical costs. Another initiative will be broadly engaging museums staff in the cause by asking them to turn off lights and computers when not in use, for instance.

Though future modifications may be smaller in scope, Atkinson and Moisson anticipate that payoffs will continue to emerge. In fact, said Moisson, they must. “Ethically, I believe it’s the only path—that we must conserve energy both for the good of the environment and for Harvard and the Harvard Art Museums,” he said.