There is not a better place to illustrate the challenges of balancing historic preservation with energy efficiency and sustainability upgrades than Harvard’s Widener Library. The Library, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, is arguably one of the University’s most iconic structures. It is also a perfect example of how facilities managers have worked diligently to pursue upgrades that meet Harvard’s aggressive sustainability goals, including the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while maintaining a delicate balance that preserves the uniqueness and beauty of the University’s historic spaces and their contents.

Widener was an early adopter of sustainable technology on campus. From 1999-2004, the Library underwent a major renovation to improve the building’s systems, including air handling and lighting infrastructure. Skylights and new energy efficient systems were added to the original lightcourts within the center of the building. Associate Director of FAS Library Facilities and longtime sustainability advocate Andrew Laplume describes, for example, how the team was able to avoid damaging the Widener’s century old marble and renowned John Singer Sargent mural, by identifying creative ways to ways to install the mechanical systems without changing these precious features.

“As we recognize and honor our history through landmark buildings like Widener Library, we always have an eye toward the future and the challenges we all face in building a healthier, more sustainable campus,” said Laplume.

The new air handlers provided the Library with the ability to program air conditioning and heating based on occupancy – using less when the building is unoccupied during breaks and at night while also ensuring they are maintaining an appropriate preservation environment for the books and collections. The system works like a programmable thermostat in a home but is much more logistically difficult, covering 14 air handler and multiple chilled water pumps and mechanical systems. Similarly, during the 2004 renovation, the exterior windows were covered with window film that reduced UV light coming into the building, helping protect the collection, but at the same time, preventing solar heat gain which reduces the cooling load of the library during the summer without significantly altering the appearance of this historic building.

As we recognize and honor our history through landmark buildings like Widener Library, we always have an eye toward the future and the challenges we all face in building a healthier, more sustainable campus.

During the 2004 renovation, they also replaced older less efficient lighting in the book stacks with newer, more efficient models operated with occupancy sensors that allow them to spend much of their day turned off. The Library is now in the process of replacing those 7,600 bulbs with even more efficient LED bulbs that will save additional energy and maintenance costs, and are healthier without the mercury found in traditional CFL bulbs. Nearly 1,000 other light fixtures have already been upgraded to LEDs.

In 2009, all bathroom fixtures in three Harvard College libraries, including Widener, were upgraded to low-flow urinals and “dual-flush” toilets, which saved thousands of gallons of water annually. Each urinal, Laplume said, saves approximately 7,000 gallons every year, and several thousand dollars in utility bills across the three buildings. The water faucets also turn off automatically after a set time, conserving even more water. Additionally, the installation of hands-free towel dispensers reduced bathroom paper consumption by 20 percent.

Thoughtful tweaks to lighting practices have helped save additional money and energy, further reducing Widener’s greenhouse gas emissions. For example in 2009, Widener staff discovered that they could make a big difference by turning off the lights in stacks that used to remain on during the day but which had adequate natural light. By taking this simple action the library saved more than $11,000 in annual electricity bills.

A very active employee Green Team has also helped to advance some of the sustainability features of Widener. A few years ago, the Team decided to fix the recycling infrastructure by transitioning away from smaller bins scattered throughout the Library to centralized recycling and trash bins. This move reduced clutter, increased recycling by ensuring that no trash bins were without a recycling bin, and improved efficiency of the system by making it easier for the custodial team to pick up the recycling and trash.

As Widener moves into the second century of its life, we can be sure that the team responsible for maintaining this beautiful space will continue to pursue improvements that help the environment, improve health, and preserve the historic beauty of the building so many have come to love.