The first purpose-built art museum in the United States has been named a recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) annual Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award—proving that it is possible to strike the perfect balance between heavy infrastructure improvements and a light historical touch for heritage buildings.  

First built in 1859, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery was designed by architect James Renwick Jr., and situated across the White House in Washington.

It has not undergone a renovation since 1972.

The 2015 upgrade by DLR Group and Westlake Reed Leskosky, sought to preserve and respect the historic character of the National Historic Landmark building, while modernising its infrastructure and systems with state-of-the-art sustainable and energy-efficient technologies.

Instead of relying on rote historic preservation, the design team chose to take advantage of the building’s existing spaces and elements.

For example, the project’s already-modified interior core light wells and attic space have been used to accommodate new infrastructure. At the same time, the basement was reconfigured for improved staff offices and workshops, providing an entrance with well-defined separation from non-public staff areas and mechanical spaces.


Notable updates include the restoration of two long-concealed vaulted ceilings; the recreation of the gallery’s original 19th century window configuration; and repairs to the roof, roof draining system and exterior façade. Meanwhile, the HVAC, electrical, plumbing, fire-suppression and life safety systems were all replaced.

One of the project’s major goals was to improve public accessibility. On this end, entrance doors were reworked for greater transparency, and the accessible entrance enhanced with lighting, signage and snow melt systems. A modernised elevator, ADA compliant restrooms and a new egress stair in the East core of the building provided additional access points.

The innovative reuse of air conditioning condensate was another key initiative. After evaluating all sources of water use on the outset, the team realised that the museum’s cooling tower was the “single largest consumer of potable water” and took steps to reduce system waste.

“Museums, due to dehumidification, generate a significant amount of cooling coil condensate. In this application, this condensate is diverted 100 percent to the cooling tower, resulting in the equivalent of a 65 percent offset in indoor plumbing fixture potable water use and 35 percent of total cooling tower make-up water use,” the AIA explains.

“The project also properly separates sanitary and storm water systems, in alignment with larger initiatives in Washington, DC to separate these systems for better overall water quality.”


DLR Group also installed an all-LED solution for the gallery lighting—the first of its kind in the US. The development of a brand new LED product line reduced lighting power density significantly, enhancing energy efficiency and preserving the level of controlled lighting needed in a museum environment.

Furthermore, this new product allowed for the “judicious sizing” of mechanical and electrical systems—from the modular water-cooled chiller system to advanced sub-metering and even fully networked digital controls—to better fit within the tight spatial boundaries of the building.


The result of these efforts is a significant 50 percent reduction in annual energy use—a feat achieved even while welcoming more than 500,000 visitors within the first six months of the gallery’s re-opening.

“The Renwick Gallery renovation wove complex and robust new systems while preserving the impressive historic design and collection and allowing opportunities for new works to be displayed. All of this was done within a very restrained site, budget, and schedule,” AIA COTE jury members say.

“The success of the its improvements demonstrate that museums and historic landmarks can deliver comfort energy savings with creative retrofits and will hopefully encourage similar projects.”

Images courtesy of Westlake Reed Leskosky.