Earth Day has come and gone, but we aren’t quite finished with our Earth Month coverage. For our last segment, we look at how cultural institutions are trying to embrace sustainability despite considerable challenges.

Museums, especially art museums, tend to have very demanding and precise requirements for temperature and humidity control, making certain sustainability practices, and LEED certification, difficult. Some are taking strides, however, to show that it can be done: Museums can go green.
When the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) was to be relocated, the museum board opted to create a museum that was not only beautiful, but sustainable as well. GRAM reopened in late 2007 as the world’s first LEED Gold certified museum. Its climate control system includes a high-efficiency HVAC system that features an “energy recovery wheel”: As warm air is cycled outside, heat and humidity are transferred to incoming air, regulating temperature.

The museum makes strategic use of large windows and top-lantern skylights to garner 70 percent of its light from natural sources, as well as to connect the art to surrounding urban life. An on-site rain and greywater reuse system and water-efficient fixtures help to reduce water consumption by 20 percent.

The California Academy of Sciences is the world’s first LEED Double Platinum museum, and the largest Double Platinum building in the world. The museum approached sustainability from the beginning, recycling 90 percent of demolition materials from the 12 buildings that previously stood at the site. Rather than using standard fiberglass insulation in the construction of the building, the academy opted for thick cotton batting made from recycled blue jeans—which actually holds heat and absorbs sound better. Floor-to-ceiling windows made with low iron content provide extra clarity and allow visitors to see Golden Gate Park from almost any point inside the museum.

But the real heart is found on the building’s incredible living roof, where you can find weather stations monitoring conditions and informing automated HVAC systems to keep the exhibits temperatures just right. The roof’s seven hills are lined with 50,000 porous, biodegradable vegetation trays made from tree sap and coconut husks and are filled with around 1.7 million plants. The roots interlock to create an extraordinary oasis for birds, insects, people, and other creatures.

The academy also does its part to promote sustainability on the part of its visitors: those who walk, bike, or take public transportation save $3 on admission.

The Madison Children’s Museum is a great example of creative sustainability in a museum. Walk around the LEED Gold certified museum and you will find signs of sustainability in every play area.

Two fallen barns were given new life in the “squashed house” play space, and a naturally downed tree was used to create the tree trunk slide. The museum installed a large interactive paint wall that can be wiped away and repainted, helping to reduce the amount of paper used by the museum. A climbing area builds healthy, active kids through the use of repurposed objects such as an old three-wheeled car from a scrapyard, a buoy from Lake Michigan, shovel handles, and remnant slide parts.

On the roof, you will find a wonderful green space with a reclaimed greenhouse, as well as native and medicinal plants. Since some of the plants are very rare, the museum’s collection of the seeds helps with plant preservation. Solar panels and a heat recovery wheel also help to create energy.

So, what do all of these have to do with us? Not much, except that we appreciate, support, and admire any organization or business making considerable efforts to embrace sustainability. And as capsules of our collective cultural, scientific, and technological prowess, these cultural institutions have a unique ability to make an impression and showcase the possibilities of green buildings.
Happy Earth Month, everybody!