Mastering the art of energy conservation at the Barnes

The city of Philadelphia is in a race against other major cities like Boston and Chicago to achieve the most “green” buildings.

It just got a major feather in its cap.

The new Barnes Foundation building on the Parkway has been issued the highest honor for environmental sustainability: LEED Platinum. It’s one of the very few museums to attain the award.

Museums, generally, suck energy. Art collections must be kept in absolutely controlled environments, regarding temperature, humidity, and light.

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“We treat paintings a lot better than we treat people,” said Bill McDowell, who oversaw the building project for the Barnes. “The mechanical requirements for any kind of cultural institution — partiuclarly one with a improtant collection — are tremendous. They are heavy energy users.”

The reknowned collection of Impressionist paintings at the Barnes cannot be compromised, but the building manages its energy consumption by having a green roof and solar panels on top. It also has a 40,000 gallon cistern collecting rainwater below the building.

The art on the walls is illuminated mostly with daylight instead of artificial incandescent light. Many visitors and ciritics have noted how much better the paintings look in this setting. The windows are UV treated to filter harmful rays from damaging painting surfaces.

McDowell has a list of small ways the building is environmentally friendly, from recycling two million pounds of its construction debris to installing electric car charging stations in its parking lot.

“The LEED process changed during the time we were in, to accomodate the demands of different types of buildings. So it wasn’t one size fits all,” said McDowell. “That helped us, because they instituted a cultural institution category so we could reasonably fit into that.”

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, issued by the U.S. Green Building Council. Both the Council and the City of Philadelphia were paticularly interested in the Barnes building earning the award. The innovative design by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and the international controversy surrounding moving the collection from Lower Merion, trained the eyes of the world onto the corner of 20th and the Parkway.

“In doing a building like this, it now takes away anyone’s abilty to say, ‘you can’t do an art museum that LEED Platinum,'” said Rick Fedrizzi, president of the U.S. Green Building Council. “This breaks that argument in half.”

The City of Philadelphia had approached the Barnes Foundation early in the planning process to urge them to design for sustainabilty, as it fits into Mayor Michael Nutter’s Greenworks initiative.

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