42nd Annual Meeting – General Session, May 29, "A LEED Primer for Conservators: Or, What Should I Do When the Architect Proposes Daylight in Our New Galleries, by Scott Raphael Schiamberg and Rachael Perkins Arenstein"

Both Scott and Rachael emphasized the importance of working together.  This is NOT the attitude they endorsed.
Both Scott and Rachael emphasized the importance of working together. This is NOT the attitude they endorsed.

When I perused the list of talks for this meeting, the subtitle of this one immediately caught my eye. In fact, I used it as one of the justifications for my Museum to support my attendance. There have been many skirmishes in the ‘natural light in galleries’ tug of war at the Penn Museum lately. It turns out that the light issue was peripheral to the LEED discussion but I’m so glad I was drawn into this fascinating and useful talk.
Scott started off explaining that to be good clients for architects, conservators should have a basic understanding of LEED. Like all of us, I’ve been seeing LEED mentioned in every building project I read about or walk past but I never really knew was it was or how it worked.
From the US Green Building Council website: “LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. To receive LEED certification, building projects satisfy prerequisites and earn points to achieve different levels of certification. Prerequisites and credits differ for each rating system, and teams choose the best fit for their project.”
With gentle humor, Scott filled out this definition for us. He compared LEED to eating one’s vegetables: sometimes a challenge but good for us. Considering LEED factors is Doing the Right Thing (something conservators always strive for, right?). He explained that the system is constantly evolving and getting better. There are five different ratings systems but none of them is a perfect fit for museum buildings; he hoped that there might be a special system for our special needs. Until then, we need to understand how the system works and how it can be used for and against conservation factors. Scott explained that sometimes architects (not his firm, of course) ‘game’ the system – using LEED to justify things like the aforementioned natural light in galleries: “if you don’t give in on this, we won’t make our LEED rating”. But the LEED system is point-based and natural light only counts for 1 point out of a possible 110. Putting a bike rack outside the building gives you the same point with much less impact on artifact preservation.
Scott emphasized that it’s not our jobs as conservators to be intimately acquainted with LEED, just to understand enough to work effectively with the construction team.
Scott’s takeaways before handing over to Rachael included:

  • The reminder that the client is always right. The Museum is the architect’s client.
  • Do your homework; it’s important to select the right architect. Check with colleagues and previous clients. (Speaking of someone who has been working with an absolutely stellar architectural firm recently and has coped with the results of less successful choices, I can’t emphasize this strongly enough)
  • Work closely with the architect
  • LEED is not perfect but is a good starting point and is getting better.
  • It’s more important to get things right than to chase LEED points, if they don’t align with your needs.

Rachael began by pointing out that new construction should be exciting but in her and many colleagues’ experience, it turns out to be more stressful than joyful. She theorized that the problems many of us have faced are not inherent in the LEED system but in the design process. We (and she included in this pronoun conservators, facilities staff, administrators, and donors) make our lives difficult. Rachael suggested some strategies for reducing the stress for everyone.
The most important factor is probably effective project management. All the stakeholders should be involved early. Rachael referred to the trap many of us have experienced: being told that it’s ‘too early’ to be involved in the process then, when we are allowed a seat at the table told that it’s too late to change the problem items. She reiterated the importance of wise choice of architect; the right architect needs to be responsive to the client’s concerns and this should be just as true of ‘STARchitects’. To be an intelligent client we need to be prepared to sit through a lot of meetings and to have done our homework. Rachael provided some resources she’s found useful:

Both the books are available on amazon.
She suggested that we as conservators need to have a voice in broader preservation concerns and emphasized that this is best done by contributing positively: “be an ally not a critic”. [Later several of us were discussing this profound fact at the lovely evening reception and Terry Drayman-Weisser shared her technique for responding to suggestions from non-conservators that horrify her conservatorial instincts: “That’s a good idea, let me work with you to figure out how we can manage that” I may not have the quote exact but you get the gist.]
Rachael’s LEED specific tips included the insight that there were three of the six LEED rating categories that tended to have the most potential for contention with conservation concerns: Energy and Atmosphere; Materials and Resources; Indoor Environmental Quality. But these are only contentious if the team is choosing to chase LEED points without considering the Big Picture.
Finally Rachael reminded us that all the planning in the world will not help if the plans are not followed through or carried out properly. Perhaps the most important tip was to ensure that the construction plan included an independent commissioning agent. Building commissioning (Cx) is the process of verifying, in new construction, all (or some, depending on scope) of the subsystems for mechanical (HVAC), plumbing, electrical, fire/life safety, building envelopes, interior systems (example laboratory units), cogeneration, utility plants, sustainable systems, lighting, wastewater, controls, and building security to achieve the owner’s project requirements as intended by the building owner and as designed by the building architects and engineers [thank you, Wikipedia]. An independent commissioning agent is one who ensures that everything has been done as laid out; clearly an outside specialist is to be preferred to the contractors who have an understandable vested interest in passing their own work.
I’ve tried to do justice to this very informative presentation but I’m sure I’ve left out or misrepresented some vital facts. This blogging stuff is hard – I don’t mean to discourage others from doing it; I’m really glad I did so but it’s just that it’s always harder to take coherent notes for others who weren’t there. So, if any of you who were there read this and have additions, emendations or suggestions, please do so. Until then, I’ll leave you with Rachael’s last slide:

3 thoughts on “42nd Annual Meeting – General Session, May 29, "A LEED Primer for Conservators: Or, What Should I Do When the Architect Proposes Daylight in Our New Galleries, by Scott Raphael Schiamberg and Rachael Perkins Arenstein"”

  1. I was impressed by the number of presentations that emphasized collaboration and discussion as the foundation for making decisions when it comes to facilities management, setting environment parameters, and the like. Thanks for your blog that reconfirms that observation!

  2. Lynn, Thank you not just for volunteering to blog this year but for such an excellent write-up (and I say this not just because it was kind!). I am sure that Scott will be just as pleased as I was to see that you took away exactly what we hoped from the presentation. We will be writing up the talk for the upcoming issue of the Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter. I chuckled at your choice of slide images. I worried that one was a bit to raunchy but glad it seemed to be taken in the proper spirit by the audience! Thank you again.

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