Is Less More? Conversations of the National Trust Historic Site Directors at the National Preservation Conference

Posted on: October 22nd, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Preservation Conference is this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Staff members from around the National Trust for Historic Preservation will be blogging from the conference and sharing their experiences. Yesterday, two members of our staff participated in the Site Directors meeting, and came away with a lot of thoughts surrounding technology, sustainability, and preservation at our sites. Below are their reports.

The directors of National Trust Historic Sites hard at work in Tulsa.

The directors of National Trust Historic Sites hard at work in Tulsa.

At every National Preservation Conference, the Site Directors of National Trust Historic Sites meet for a day and a half to discuss issues of mutual concern—many are the same issues facing the thousands of historic sites across the nation. This meeting includes topics such as measuring success, insurance, image management systems, heritage travel, and the current souring economy. A thought-provoking discussion on the value of air conditioning in historic buildings noted that the widely adopted 1991 New Orleans Charter calls for a balance between the needs of buildings and the collections they house, however, there has been no agreement how this should be achieved.

Barbara Campagna, Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, explored several recent projects at National Trust Historic Sites that questioned the benefit of high tech solutions and proprietary systems due to the damage they caused to historic buildings, the high capital and maintenance costs, and more seriously, failure to operate as planned. (Details on these projects can be found in Barbara's report below.) New projects at Cliveden and Woodrow Wilson House offer potential strategies that could be far less intrusive and expensive, while achieving reasonable levels of preservation for both the buildings and collections. These include allowing wider tolerances of temperature and humidity, focusing on controlling humidity rather than temperature, focusing on the rate rather than range of change in temperature and humidity, changing visitor behavior (e.g., altering tour routes or time spent in each location), and relocating functions (e.g., separating staff and collections storage areas).

This may not always meet the standards of current museum practices nor provide ideal comfort for visitors or staff in every season, but these strategies seem to be better long term sustainable ones for preservation.

As funding allows, NTHP will be pursuing this further through additional studies with the intent of developing best and future practices for climate management at historic sites.

- Max van Balgooy

Max is director of interpretation and education for National Trust Historic Sites.

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Shutters on Lyndhurst for a forced ventilation system when there were never any shutters. Lyndhurst is a National Historic Landmark National Trust Historic Site, in Tarrytown, NY.

Shutters on Lyndhurst for a forced ventilation system when there were never any shutters.

The National Trust is launching a National Initiative on Historic Sites as a means to assist historic sites struggling with issues of long term sustainability. One of the key issues that has been impacting the financial, programmatic and building fabric aspects of our sites is the appropriate installation and use of environmental management systems. I am leading this component of our Initiative and used this meeting to initiate the discussion among all of our directors and pose some rhetorical questions to get them thinking. We are not alone among cultural institutions that have discovered over the past decade that many of the new HVAC (heating, ventilating and cooling) systems that we’ve been installing have often caused more problems than they have solved. A basic reality that we discussed was whether we’ve been asking the right questions.

Rather than start a project by asking what kind of HVAC system we want, we should be asking what kind of uses our buildings and spaces need and can support. Do we even need HVAC systems? Should we be rethinking our programming first?

The New Orleans Charter: A Balancing Act

The New Orleans Charter for the Joint Preservation of Historic Structures & Artifacts was created in 1991 “Arising from a concern for the coexistence of historic structures and the artifacts within them….” The New Orleans Charter is the product resulting from 2 symposia on “Museums in Historic Buildings” held in Montreal (1990) and New Orleans (1991), co-sponsored by AIC and APT. This Charter has been officially adopted by the boards of both AIC and APT. The New Orleans Charter was subsequently adopted by the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) in 1992; the AIA Committee on Historic Resources in 1993; and the Board of Directors of AAM in 1993. The goal is to balance impact on buildings and collections, while also achieving some level of visitor comfort and staff comfort. Nearly every project involving installation of new building systems since this time has identified following the New Orleans Charter as one of their goals. The problem is that the New Orleans Charter presents precepts but no actual parameters – so the actual implementation of the Charter can’t really be measured.

Authenticity, Visitor Comfort & Proprietary Systems

Cliveden, a National Historic Landmark National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia, hired a design team to evaluate the whole site and reframe earlier assumptions about HVAC.

Cliveden, a National Historic Landmark National Trust Historic Site in Philadelphia, hired a design team to evaluate the whole site and reframe earlier assumptions about HVAC.

In the past decade environmental management projects at at least four National Trust Historic Sites have unfortunately shown the inherent conflicts of attempting to install HVAC or manage the climate in these precious buildings not built to function as museums. Every one of these projects failed, often miserably. And we can’t point fingers at one design team, or one system. But what we did find is that there were some consistent issues across the board. Here are some of the issues and questions we discussed:

  • Authenticity versus Visitor Comfort, does one supersede the other?
  • Should we add new architectural features that never existed to change the environment – such as shutters that were never there?
  • What should we do about our Collections Storage? Are attics and basements the best places to store our collection items like furniture, artwork, textiles and books?
  • Should we broaden the environmental guidelines adopted by curators for purpose-built museums decades ago and arbitrarily inflicted on house museums because no other specific standards for them exist? The previously agreed-upon standards (created by curators for purpose-built museums – 50% relative humidity and 70deg F) may be fine for some objects, but often end up negatively impacting building fabric by encouraging, for example, the formation of a dew point inside the walls.
  • How often are these new systems overdesigned?
  • How do we maintain complicated, experimental, and proprietary systems with limited technical staff?
  • Should we be using commercial grade systems when the buildings are really just houses? Maybe we should be changing behavior (of staff and visitors) rather than historic fabric.
  • And why have we forgotten the original design of our traditional buildings? Often if we just remind ourselves of the passive and sustainable approaches to managing our climates (such as operable windows and shutters), we may not even need to install expensive systems.

There are many more questions like this, but you get the picture. This is an initiative that will take years to unravel, but we’re excited to be asking the questions of ourselves and in public finally.

Looking at Decatur House, Woodrow Wilson House & Cliveden of the National Trust

Decatur House, a National Historic Landmark National Trust Historic Site in Washington DC, which had to redesign all of its new environmental systems.

Decatur House, a National Historic Landmark National Trust Historic Site in Washington DC, which had to redesign all of its new environmental systems.

Decatur House is one of those four sites mentioned above and probably experienced the worst impacts. Entirely new systems were designed and installed in the National Historic Landmark House, and every single one failed and needed total or near-total redesign and replacement. Nearly every one of those questions above could be asked at this site. One of the key solutions was to replace a complex, proprietary computerized control system with an off-the-shelf system that any of the staff could manage.

At Cliveden, a SAT (Save America’s Treasures) grant awarded almost 10 years ago, was used to design an HVAC system for the historic mansion. The bids for this system came in about $1million too high. Changes in staff allowed Cliveden to re-evaluate this approach and resulted in the re-framing of the question. Now, after a complete reprogramming of the site and its buildings, we have embarked on a project that for the same price of one system is giving us a more usable site.

At Woodrow Wilson House, a National Historic Landmark National Trust Historic Site in Washington, DC, the design team discovered that the furnishings were not being damaged by the existing environment as much as was originally assumed.

At Woodrow Wilson House, a National Historic Landmark National Trust Historic Site in Washington, DC, the design team discovered that the furnishings were not being damaged by the existing environment as much as was originally assumed.

And at Woodrow Wilson House, the lessons learned at these sites allowed us to start the right way in the beginning – hiring a consultant team of architects, engineers, building conservators and object conservators to evaluate whether the current environment actually was negatively impacting all the artifacts – with the building being the primary artifact. An IMLS (Institute of Museum & Library Services) grant is supporting this project.

So the moral of the stories is understand the complete picture of your site before you automatically assume that the HVAC system is the problem. If you can move staff out of your historic house, then maybe you don’t need air conditioning in the summer. If you can move your stored collections to a purpose-built space, then maybe you don’t need to manage the environment in your basement and attic. Determine whether your current environment actually is negatively impacting your objects -– often if a piece of furniture has been in a house for 200 years, it has self-regulated itself and it actually doesn’t need a conditioned environment. And get a grasp on your programming and space use needs. Don’t make decisions based on anecdotal assumptions. When it comes to building systems, in most cases less IS more.

-- Barbara Campagna

Barbara is Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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