Three Material Stories: Steel. Courtesy Lindsay Wikstrom and the Embodied Energy Pilot Project at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

How Much Energy Does It Take to Run a Museum?

An architect and an expert in sustainable real estate strategies discuss sustainability at the new MoMA.

MoMA’s recent expansion was no small task. A lot of time and effort were needed to plan and program 40,000 square feet of new space with galleries, a performance studio, and a brand new lobby. Some of the most important changes are the hardest to see. Jean Savitsky, MoMA’s director of Real Estate Expansion, was charged with ensuring that the museum grew as sustainably as possible. She and her team explored how a building with high energy needs should function in 2020.

In conjunction with her exhibition Energy, which explores how design can help conserve energy in its myriad forms, senior curator Paola Antonelli gathered Savitsky and David Benjamin, an associate professor at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, to discuss MoMA’s environmental footprint.

This excerpt from a conversation that took place at MoMA’s Creativity Lab has been for length and clarity.

David Benjamin: We think of energy and architecture as divided into two categories: operational energy and embodied energy. Operational energy is the energy for heating, lighting, and cooling. Embodied energy is the energy required to extract, produce, transport, and assemble materials that go into creating buildings.

By 2050, the global population is expected to increase from seven billion to 10 billion. That will require rapid urbanization and the construction of 13,000 buildings every day for the next 30 years. Buildings contribute 30% to 40% of global energy consumption and global carbon emissions, and embodied energy has been increasing over time. It now makes up about 20% of global energy consumption. Reducing energy consumed by these buildings is a critical factor in things like the Paris Agreement. Thinking of all buildings as an embodiment of energy, and also an embodiment of things like carbon, water, and labor, may allow architects and building owners to discover new ways of making—but also new ways of living.

Three Material Stories: Wood. Image by Lindsey Wikstrom and the Columbia GSAPP Embodied Energy Pilot Project.
Three Material Stories: Wood. Image by Lindsey Wikstrom and the Columbia GSAPP Embodied Energy Pilot Project.

There are many ways to think about and measure embodied energy. Like all buildings, The Museum of Modern Art required energy to be constructed, and different materials contributed different amounts of embodied energy. Materials like concrete, stone, and wood contributed a little bit, while metals like steel and aluminum probably contributed the most, comparatively. In this project, we thought that one interesting measurement was embodied energy per square foot. So a building like MoMA, which has been expanded over time—preserving and extending additional architecture to make new architecture—has less embodied energy per square foot than some other buildings.

If a traditional way of thinking about architecture is designing single, solitary objects, maybe a new way is thinking about dynamic systems of interconnection. Maybe we can also think about architects not just designing the building and its form, but designing the site of extraction of raw materials and the process of factory production. Maybe we can design with more time in mind. Not just designing from the day the building opens, but designing all the way back to when the tree was planted. We can think about the continuing life of renovation, reconstruction, and eventually decommissioning a building.

Paola Antonelli: Jean, what does it mean to get the Platinum LEED certificate? How does that translate outside of the United States?

Jean Savitsky: It’s a globally recognized rating system. For us at the Museum, the important thing about achieving the highest level of LEED was thinking about what the ongoing impact of the building would be in the neighborhood, and in the world. We focused on energy reduction and energy efficiency. Looking at how the museum operates, air conditioning is on 24 hours a day, and there are environmental requirements [in order to protect the art on view] that you don’t have in probably three-quarters of new buildings that are going up. We can't shut the lights off on the weekends, because people are here.

Acknowledging what was going to happen in this building—and then learning how to mitigate that impact on the rest of the environment—was paramount. Following that thread got us to LEED Platinum.

Embodied Energy at 45 West 53 Street. Image by the Columbia GSAPP Embodied Energy Pilot Project.
Embodied Energy at 45 West 53 Street. Image by the Columbia GSAPP Embodied Energy Pilot Project.

PA: How old is embodied energy?

DB: People have been thinking about embodied energy for a while, but its urgency is relatively new. There’s an increasing recognition of buildings and architecture playing a role in the climate crisis, and increasing efficiency in things like heating, lighting, and cooling make embodied energy a bigger target. As materials become higher tech and higher performance, more energy goes into them. I think it’s become a bigger deal.

PA: Did you have to answer questions from the public or from trustees or people that were involved in the project?

JS: I think people in general are just so much more knowledgeable about sustainability. The question is on everybody’s mind. We can’t help but look outside and ask, why is it warm right now in January? Why are there fires in Australia? It’s just so topical. People do ask about it, and I think when people see our LEED certification, they’ll be able to understand how important it was to the museum to embrace these principles. If you look at our energy-use intensity score in EnergyStar, I thought it was pretty good compared to our peer group of hospitals and other high energy using buildings.

PA: I was also thinking about the life cycle of buildings. In some parts of the world, many architects don’t think about buildings aging. In other parts of the world, like Japan, buildings [are often] being torn down and then rebuilt. So buildings, and the materials used for their life cycles and embodied energy, is a calculation that could become part of the way architects build. What conversations have you noticed among architects that think about embodied energy here in the United States?

Stone being installed in the MoMA lobby
Stone being installed in the MoMA lobby

DB: Students in particular are leading the climate movement and have also been really interested in reimagining architecture in the context of sustainability, life cycle, materials, and embodied energy. Some of my students have been looking into concepts like design for disassembling. When you design the building, you’re imagining that one day it’s going to be disassembled. It can either be easy to disassemble or hard to disassemble, and its materials can either go into a landfill or they can potentially be reused. Forty percent of our landfills are construction waste. That allows for design strategies like using bolts rather than glue to be able to take things apart. I think there’s also been an interest among students and architects in reusing buildings in general. That we don’t have to start every project from scratch. MoMA’s a great example of that. It’s been gradually adapting what it already has rather than knocking it all down.

JS: That’s definitely true. The best way to be sustainable and the best way to approach a building is to reuse what you’ve got.

PA: Is it more costly to be sustainable?

JS: Not anymore. The first project that I did, which started in the early 2000s, was probably an 18% premium on the cost of construction because we just couldn’t find the materials. We couldn’t find what we needed in the market. Now everything is super competitive. There are so many more providers of construction materials and so many different ways to get materials to the site that it’s cost neutral.

PA: So it’s not hard to convince clients anymore?

JS: No, not at all. The clients I’ve been fortunate enough to work with are interested and want to do it.

For more on embodied energy at MoMA, check out this video.