Sustainable Exhibit Design

Unlike other design fields, environmental practices have been slow to catch-on with exhibit design and production. Part of the reason is that exhibit design is multi-disciplinary and not a single standard can be applied. It is much harder to create guidelines when the medium has infinite possible ways of executions. LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council does not apply. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) in conjunction with the Green PIC committee is in initial stages of developing museum sustainability standards. For these reasons, as designers we have developed our own rules for sustainable practice that we share here as a list of principles, suggestions, tips and references.

Materials: Repurpose and re-use: Often museum of have an inventory of cases, pedestals, base etc. from past exhibits. We review the inventory for the possibility of not making new elements. For numerous clients, we have re-used exhibit furniture and still achieving a coherent and beautiful design.

The design of new items may also be conceived for re-use in the future. For example, the advent of direct to medium printing offers the possibility to use substrate more than once. Direct to medium is an ink jet printer that can print directly on to all kinds of materials as long as they are no more than 2 inches thick. At ME we use this technique to print over substrate more than once.

Formaldehyde Free: Composite woods such as plywood are bonded together with formaldehyde adhesives that emit toxic fumes of CH2O or HCHO. They also pose a problem with the conservancy of artifact. They may damage paper, fabric and other organic materials. There are many products that have low VOC emissions. Their ubiquity is now evident for even HomeDepot sells Birch Plywood (FSC Certified*) that is formaldehyde free. The difficulty comes with the added requirement that finishes inside publicly occupied building such as museum often need to have a class-1 fire rating. Many of these green products do not have this classification such as the one mentioned above, which has a class 3 (the lowest). You may add a fire a VOC-free fire retardant such as Flamexx yet this represent an additional step and cost. We recommend product such as MediteFR which is an MDF (composite material). It is class 1 flame retardant and has low VOC emissions. It does not have an appealing wood finish so it must be painted.

VOC Free Paints: Allowable levels of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, for paints and products such as aerosol air fresheners, carpets, and furniture have been toughened because VOCs contribute to ozone and smog formation and are linked to respiratory illnesses and memory impairment.** Again in the past years many new products have becomes available. The detail to watch-out for is VOCs in tints. Many times the base is EPA approved which they proudly advertise on the packaging but the tint is not. Benjamin Moore’s Natura brand has zero VOCs in base and tints. Also AFM Safecoat is another option though it is produced with less color options.

Oil based paints and stains are best avoided. There are esoteric products made from organic oils but these are hard to find and have very limited color choices. Oil base products should only be considered for exterior use if at all.

VOC label

Verify VOC emission
on the label.

Flooring: A typical carpet is made from petroleum-based synthetic fiber, that contain dozens of chemicals and gases, including VOCs and other potential toxins. They compromise indoor air quality for years and may also harm artifacts. Wool carpets are good option but expensive. Sisal and organic fibers are available yet the durability in high traffic areas is questionable. One of the better options is FLOR carpet tiles, whose products are made with renewable, recycled and recyclable content. The company also takes back its old carpet tiles for recycling and reconstitution into new recycled fibers and backing materials.

Shipping: Exhibits are often fabricated in a shop and later shipped to a location for final installation. The best is to keep this distance short to cut on unnecessary carbon emission caused in travel. This sometimes does happen because in the bid process price may trump distance. To mitigate this cost, we take our lead from IKEA, and we make sure everything can “flat-pack.” Not only does it save cost but requires less shipping capacity.

Printing: Paper should be made with recycled content and/or post consumer recycle fiber. The label “Recyclable” is often used deceivingly when it comes to paper. It means that you can recycle it but not that it is recycled. Most papers are Recyclable, except those that have been “plastified” such as liquid containers (milk carton, paper cups). Recycled papers no longer have the brownish recycled appearance. In many cases, it is not possible to see the difference. However, paper fiber that has been recycled more than seven time no longer has the fiber length to make quality paper. This is where the phrase “seven generations” comes from. At some point new virgin fiber will need to be added to the pulp. We recommend using product with the FSC labels.

FSC logot

(Left) FSC 100%: Products manufactured with 100 percent FSC-certified virgin fiber from FSC-certified forests. (Center) FSC MIX: Products manufactured with a combination of FSC-certified virgin fiber (from FSC-certified forests), controlled sources and/or recycled wood or fiber. This label can include the Mobius loop. (Right) FSC Recycled: Products manufactured with 100 percent recycled fiber of which at least 85 percent is postconsumer (PCW) recycled material.

Soy and water-based inks are better for the people working at the print shop but are not the final solution to low VOCs and other environmental considerations. Like paints, the tints that go into the soy base are mineral so usually toxic. Also for an ink to have the Soy Seal Logo it requires only 7% soy base. At Museum Environments we generally look for printers that belong to SGP (Sustainable Green Printing Partnership). They are better informed suppliers and can provide advice on which strategy is best to follow.

Environmental Controls: Temperature and Humidity in the galleries is one of the biggest environmental challenges for museums. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) has established interim guidelines for relative humidity for most types of cultural materials (45–55 percent/±5 percent daily drift) and temperature (59–77 degrees Fahrenheit/± 4 degrees daily drift). The standard produces very high energy demands to keep the HVAC system running 24/7. The response to this issue is building-wide and hence falls out of the scope of exhibit designer for the most part. Building maintenance supervisors and architects are better position to develop solutions. In few cases, we have been able to use microclimate cases using automatic positive pressure air supply devices. When only a few items need to be protected, a microclimate generator will consume less energy than the HVAC for the entire gallery. In our experience, they are more commonly used in historic sites where it is not possible to change the building for environmental controls.

Energy (lighting): LED lighting has come a long way. LED bulbs have always been energy saving but the problem has been the color variation in the light that they emit. The specification to note is the Color Rendering Index (CRI) and it should be above 90. Many manufactures from GE to Philips produce bulbs with high CRIs. Most LED bulbs are also dimmable which in not always the case with fluorescents. Fluorescent lights require a special ballast to make them dimmable. In addition LEDs produce minimal heat, consequently it has less impact on the room temperature. Recently, The Getty Museum retrofitted their track lighting with LEDs. The LED lamps resulted in energy savings approaching 83 percent compared to the traditional halogen system.

Sorting Recyclables: It is best to provide all three or four bins (depends on the city policy) next to each other. When there is a single bin with the triangular recycle logo people for the most part will throw everything in it. If the options for sorting are clear and adjacent, people will sort.

Visible Sustainability: Visible Sustainability are display feature that promote environmental conscious in you work-environment and institution.  ME with its affiliate BE (Branded Environments) designs Visible Sustainability campaigns for corporations. These are dedicated areas in an office environments dedicated to aiding the mission of corporate green initiatives. The displays provide information, communicate the goals of the green initiative, facilitate meetings and volunteering areas, and offer specialized recycling such as ink cartridges and batteries. The best benefit from Visible Sustainability is that they are design makes environmental awareness a part of everyday office life.

At Museum Environments, we have also discovered that green design motivates designers. It matters to us because we care about the impact on the planet, but we also care because it makes us better professionals. The new green consciousness has brought about an attention to detail that was overlooked before. Years ago, questions about chemical processes and the exact type of material resource were never asked. Today we follow through on all these points which make us better designers.

*Specialty products such as high-end casework would increase this percentage.

** Consumer Reports Magazine

When using carpeting look for the
“Green Label Plus” logo. It is awarded
by the Carpet and Rug Institute.