Trendswatch | Energy efficient buildings - Museums Association

Trendswatch | Energy efficient buildings

Adopting the Passivhaus system is making an active difference to museums’ energy consumption
Deborah Mulhearn
Leventis Art Gallery in Cyprus has high levels of insulation Hufton + Crow

Over the coming decades, museums will need to improve the efficiency of their buildings. Last December, the UK government set out a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 68% by the end of the decade, becoming carbon neutral by 2050.  

For museums, especially those in older buildings, it may be difficult to imagine achieving these targets. But globally, many organisations are already on the path to substantially reducing their carbon footprint.  

It’s easier to start from scratch, and new buildings are embracing the German Passivhaus system, which can cut energy consumption by up to 80% by combining high levels of insulation with heating and cooling systems that require minimal energy.  

Hull Maritime Museum will be one of the first cultural buildings in the UK to achieve rigorous Passivhaus energy-efficiency standards when it reopens in 2024 following redevelopment.  

Other Passivhaus-certified buildings in the sector include Hereford Archives and Records Centre and a new paper-storage facility for the Imperial War Museum (IWM) at Duxford. 

Greater challenges 

Older buildings present greater challenges, but small changes add up. “We have water-saving devices on our taps and an excellent waste-management system that produces zero landfill,” says Lindsay Flood, the head of project delivery at IWM.  


In terms of the building fabric, the roof is the easiest element to upgrade. “If you are re-roofing, add far more insulation than you think you need, and this will take you up to Passivhaus standards,” says Peter Clegg, the senior partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, an architectural practice that specialises in sustainability and has designed the “planet-friendly” Leventis Art Gallery in Cyprus and the extension for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. 

“Next, look at the walls,” he says. “In the Cyprus gallery, we used extremely high levels of insulation – 100mm to 150mm thick –  to keep the building cool in summer and warm in winter.”  

Ill-fitting windows can lead to massive heat loss. “It’s often easier in historic buildings to secondary glaze, as long as it’s removable,” says Clegg. “Even something as simple as draught stripping can be very effective.”  

Environmental systems are the biggest carbon-zero challenge, but Clegg says simply upgrading the kit that drives an air-conditioning system can cut emissions. Many museums run on gas and oil-fired boilers that will soon become obsolete, so a new heating system will provide an opportunity to install technology that runs on electricity. 

Whole-building approach 

Last year, the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London announced it would be carbon neutral by 2040. “It’s important to take a ‘whole-building approach’,” says NHM environment and sustainability officer Kimberley Lewis. “Lagging pipework, optimising natural light, switching to LED lighting and installing presence-detection systems can all help.”  


Raising awareness among staff and visitors is also crucial. “It is important that our visitors and other interested parties trust that our ways of working reflect our vision for a future where people and planet thrive,” says Lewis.  

Help is at hand from outside the sector. “Include environmental sustainability as an integral part of collection care, conservation and management strategies,” says Graciela Melitsko Thornton, creative green consultancy programme lead at Julie’s Bicycle, a non-profit organisation that advocates for sustainability in arts and culture.

“When planning new exhibitions, design out waste and reuse and repurpose displays. Gain an in-depth understanding of the carbon footprint associated with art shipment for touring exhibitions and art loans to help you to find low-carbon transport options.”  

Local authorities are also working towards carbon neutrality. Lisa Broadest, the head of operations at Leeds Museums and Galleries, says: “Recent improvements include upgrading lighting systems to LEDs, replacing the Victorian glazing in the roof of Leeds Art Gallery for more heat-efficient glazing with in-built UV protection, and installing a biomass boiler at one site.  

“We’re also connecting  two sites to the city’s heating network of underground pipes, which saves 89.4 tonnes of carbon per year, per site,” says Broadest.  

From planet-friendly building materials such as hempcrete and “clean” fuels to recyclable cups in the cafe, there are lots of ways to cut carbon emissions.  

Even where resources are negligible and reductions seem meager, museums are committing to such measures. 

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance writer 

Comments (1)

  1. Alexander Goodger says:

    If you are a museum in Scotland you can get a free report from Zero Waste Scotland that gives you details on retrofitting your building and the payback period of each investment, and the kind of money you can save.

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