Whitney Museum In NYC Earns LEED Gold

Opened in 2015, the building's sustainability features include a cogeneration plant, lighting controls, and outdoor plazas and a green roof.

Cooper Robertson, noted architects of museums and cultural facilities, has announced that its design for a leading New York City museum recently achieved a LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. At a time of increased attention on environmental performance for cultural institutions, this is the second museum facility in the city to achieve the LEED Gold standard. Groundbreaking for the museum construction took place in May 2011, and it opened May 1, 2015.

Cooper Robertson partner Scott Newman, FAIA, notes that in addition to success in performance-based categories like energy and water conservation, indoor air quality, and use of sustainable materials, the building — home to the Whitney Museum of American Art — also received points for its community connections and emphasis on public space.

museum construction
Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City (Photo: Cooper Robertson)

“Museums have a mission to preserve collections, as well as serve current and future generations, so sustainability and resiliency are imperatives,” says Newman, who leads the firm’s cultural practice. “Informed architectural design and strong technical knowledge can help today’s museums conserve natural resources while safeguarding their cultural resources, and at the same time improve the museum experience for visitors.”

Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Cooper Robertson, LEED certification for the 220,000 square foot building was announced in June 2017. In the museum construction, among the notable elements that contribute to sustainability and the safeguarding of the museum’s collections:

  • Groundbreaking use of controlled natural light and innovative LED gallery lighting to illuminate artworks;
  • Air quality testing that goes beyond LEED standards to filter gaseous pollutants that specifically challenge art preservation;
  • An on-site co-generation plant that supplies free cooling when outdoor conditions allow;
  • Outdoor plazas and a green roof that help reduce stormwater runoff.

Addressing concerns about resilience, the museum’s riverfront design includes a number of features intended to protect its collections against severe weather events and flooding. All galleries and art storage are located on the fifth floor and higher, well above potential flooding. For severe events, like Super Storm Sandy that occurred in 2012, floodgates seal street level openings, and a deployable barrier system can be moved into place to protect the building’s raised ground floor public spaces.

According to Newman, “The LEED Gold designation shows that the new facilities for the Whitney Museum of American Art are at the forefront of the latest generation of institutional design.”

More About The Museum’s Sustainable Features

Infrastructure. The building contains a cogeneration plant with a reciprocating cogeneration engine at 75KW, utilizing the by-product of electricity generation for heat. The cogeneration plant operates year-round and at all hours, with an electrical generator efficiency of 29% and the thermal efficiency of 54.86%. An enthalpy economizer and VAV system for the galleries, auditorium, and offices supplies free cooling when outdoor conditions allow. Variable Air Volume enables the system to modulate airflow to spaces based upon certain design criteria and loads within the space at a given time. Condensing boilers in the building achieve a high efficiency by using waste heat to pre-heat the water entering the boiler. The project has a 2.7MMBTU/h capacity condensing gas boilers with peak efficiency of 91% and an average efficiency of 88% with modulating flame burner control. The ASHRAE standard requires 82% boiler efficiency and on-off boiler control. Cooling tower fans in the building have variable speed drive and minimum turndown ratio of 30. A building management system controls building systems and ties to meters installed in the building.

Envelope Performance. To allow daylight into the galleries, the Whitney’s exterior envelope uses high performance Insulating Glass Units with argon filled cavities, low-e coating, and warm edge spacers to resist condensation. The inner lite is laminated with a clear PVB interlayer that filters out 99.6% of the UV radiation that is harmful to artwork. The clerestory monitors are triple glazed with two argon-filled cavities. All windows in gallery or conservation space are equipped with at least two layers of motorized shades: one layer interior glare/solar control, one layer light diffusing.

Instead of the typical 2-4″ of insulation that might be employed in commercial buildings, the Whitney metal wall panels are equipped with 7½” of semi-rigid mineral wool fiberboard. The precast concrete panels and soffits are insulated with 4″ of foamed-in-place insulation with containment angles that allow for a continuous vapor barrier between systems for a complete building wide vapor tight “balloon”. The roofing systems use foamed-in-place insulation that varies from a minimum of 4″ thickness and up to 7″ with an effective R-value of 7 per inch. Drainage composite systems at multiple levels in the roofs allow for this high-performance system to be applied in terrace applications. A green roof, plaza level planters, and a storm water detention tank reduce site runoff by 55%.

Interior Controls. The Whitney team engaged an air quality testing agent to test beyond LEED standards for gaseous pollutants that specifically challenge art conservation. A recommended period of 120 days of air flushing was undertaken in lieu of the typical 90-day practice. Required gallery lighting levels between 5 and 12 footcandles are achieved with track lighting equipped with dimmable LED lamps. Daylight dimming and occupancy sensors are employed to reduce power consumption in office and back-of-house areas.