Environment: Philadelphia Museum of Art Announces New Energy Conserving Upgrades

The Philadelphia Museum will debut it’s longtime Core Project on May 7, unveiling new gallery space and energy efficiency upgrades.

(McKenzie Morgan/PN)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s newest renovation project, the Core Project, debuted to the public on May 7, showcasing new gallery space and environmentally-friendly updates throughout the museum, including updated systems to make the main building more energy-efficient.

Designed in collaboration with architect Frank Gehry, the Core Project features a redesign of 20,000 square feet of new gallery space and more than 90,000 square feet of public space. The museum updated systems, retrofitting lighting fixtures with LED light bulbs and updating its aging HVAC system, to achieve its energy reduction goals, according to Charlie Williams, the project manager for the Core Project.  

“What the Core Project did, amongst some other goals, was establish the fabric of our new infrastructure in the building to support those new additions to be constructed in the future,” he said. 

The museum’s main building and Perelman Building are some of Philadelphia’s main energy users, which used 113,759 MMBTU of energy in January 2021, according to the City of Philadelphia’s Municipal Energy Use Dashboard

The $11.3 million project, a collaboration between the Office of Sustainability, Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA), and Gehry, stands to save the city $750,000 annually in energy costs, according to Emily Schapira, the president & CEO of the Philadelphia Energy Authority

“Because the art museum is the single largest energy using municipal building, I think that made it a really smart place for us to start and do this big project on,” Schapira said. 

The museum’s original air conditioning system was installed in 1975, and still cools the building today. By updating these systems, the museum can save a significant amount of energy and implement some long-deferred upgrades, Williams said. 

“We skipped several generations of technology for heating and air conditioning, for electrical distribution, for steam, natural gas, rainwater, stormwater, everything you can imagine,” he said.

The Core Project is the second phase of the Facilities Master Plan, which was unveiled in 2006 by Gehry. Other parts of this second phase were launched in 2017.

Core Project upgrades were implemented in conjunction with a Guaranteed Energy Savings Agreement (GESA) developed by the Office of Sustainability and PEA to fund improvements not covered by the Core Project, Dominic McGraw, Philadelphia’s city energy manager, said. 

“We need to be focusing on updating our facilities and doing everything we can to get them as efficient as possible,” McGraw said. 

Cooling the art museum’s galleries makes the building one of the biggest energy users in the city. (McKenzie Morgan/PN)

The GESA project facilitated upgrades in parts of the museum that the Core Project didn’t touch, including the upper-level galleries and the parking garage. Improvements implemented by the GESA accounted for an estimated 23% reduction in energy costs, Williams said. 

“This allowed us to go out to the extremities of the system, especially the upper levels of the building,” he said. “That City project allowed us to be a little more — for lack of a better term — invasive in the type of improvements that we were going to undertake.” 

The City released its updated Climate Action Playbook in January, outlining goals and steps for Philadelphia to reduce emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. The City’s main goal is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, according to the playbook, and making the museum more efficient is an important step in getting there, McGraw said.

“We’ve been talking about a lot of our climate commitments,” McGraw said.” And if we can’t follow through with them, then why should others follow that?” 

While city officials are planning on eventually updating more of the main energy-using buildings, like City Hall and the Criminal Justice Center, making improvements at the art museum is an important first step in making Philadelphia greener, Schapira said. 

“It’s such an iconic building that it really kind of set the tone for not just other cultural institutions but other historic properties across the country,” she said.

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