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Museums and maintainability

Maintaining museum buildings could be made easier if museums adopted a policy of carrying out post-occupancy evaluations

Issues of maintainability and maintenance are at the forefront of architects' minds when designing hospitals and schools because of the obvious consequences for the health of the building users. The same applies to other building types such as banks and shopping centres where managers are responsible for the safety of staff and visitors to their premises. Museums that are open to visitors also have similar obligations. In addition, as custodians of our heritage, museums have a 'duty of care' for collections housed within them.

On a day-to-day basis, museums aim for as much access to collections as is compatible with their preservation. Yet, because museums are under pressure to promote themselves to a larger and more diverse range of visitors, the well-ordered public areas may not reflect the more acute risks to which objects are exposed elsewhere in the building. When resources are tight and priorities have to be made, museum managers are often forced to deal as best they can with insidious problems of damp and mould, heat and cold.

Sometimes serious crises occur: for example, blocked and overflowing gutters, inaccessible internal downpipes causing structural damage, falling lumps of plaster or masonry, drains unable to cope with flood water, sewers backing up, water pipes located above spaces occupied by objects, fires caused by electrical faults or inappropriate use of appliances, overheating caused by extensive and inappropriate use of glazing, or runaway air-conditioning. Museums usually have an organised response to crises by drawing up emergency plans, and, depending on the nature of the museum organisation and its governing body, a museum manager may be instrumental in whether or not preventive and corrective building maintenance programmes are set up. However, it is not surprising that recognising what might be an inherent design weakness, indifferent construction and poor-quality materials is likely to be outside the knowledge and expertise of museum managers. They rely on their building consultants to advise on the important issue of whether a proposed design can be maintained. The issue of whether a building is maintained comes later.

With over £500 million already allocated to capital projects in the heritage sector, it is the responsibility of architects and engineers to reduce design risks. However, since post-occupancy evaluations of buildings, which could help reduce these risks, are a rarity, the opportunity to learn from the experience of previous projects is lost.

Learning from previous projects

Those responsible for large portfolios of buildings outside the museum sector have discovered the benefits of reviewing building projects before beginning a new one. A review can be carried out on different levels: the views of the building users could be canvassed in order to establish whether their expectations had been met; after three months the team could evaluate how the management of the project had worked and whether any lessons for the future could be learned; and at 12 months, after completion of the first cycle of occupancy and after the defects-liability period, an assessment could be made as to whether the objectives of the project had been met and whether the building had achieved the design intent.

An alternative approach to a review is to pilot a scheme by developing a sample space and occupying it for a year, before making a commitment to the design for the full-scale redevelopment. During this time an assessment of the occupancy, use, running costs and maintenance implications of the proposed design is carried out and fed back into the scheme design. Museums will be encouraged to consider these examples of post-occupancy evaluations and how applicable they are to their own situation.

There is enough evidence of water damage caused by design weakness, poor construction and lack of maintenance to suggest that post-occupancy evaluations would be a sensible way forward for museums. It has been estimated that approximately one per cent of all museum buildings per year will suffer water damage to their collections. This is a financial and heritage cost that museums and their collections can ill afford. Until such time, here are some useful points to remember:

Museum buildings operate different value systems to other building types. The main functions of a museum building are to preserve, display, educate and entertain. These conflicting functions make museums one of the most difficult building types to design and construct.

The foundations of good maintenance practice are laid at the outline design stage of the project. As important decisions are made early on, issues of maintainability and maintenance must be considered at this stage.

All buildings have maintenance consequences - large or small - depending on the building type, pattern of use and the quality of the decision-making that went into them in the first place. As a general rule, if a building is complex and difficult, it will also be difficult and expensive to maintain.

Shoehorning a complicated array of ducts, plants, heating and chilling mains, drains and electrical mains into buildings which were never designed to accommodate them will mean that access for routine maintenance will be equally difficult.

Buildings comprise a number of elements, and the constituent materials and components usually have a shorter life expectancy than the life of the building as a whole: from regular re-lamping, cleaning lay-lights and rooflights and overhauling of motorised blinds and replacing filters, to major replacement of water tanks, boilers and chillers.

Engineering services suffer first from any significant lack of maintenance, and they soon fail to perform according to the design specification. Problems relating to adequate access for maintenance of services have to be resolved at the design stage. In designing for maintainability, service components that will need to be maintained or replaced must be assessed for their size, weight and manoeuvrability. The space required to do the maintenance and the period likely to elapse between major maintenance operations must also be considered.

The examination of future maintenance requirements must be wide-ranging and pessimistic. Energy surveys have thrown up some startling facts - equipment never having worked correctly, failed standby motors never having been noticed, time-clocks out of phase, and valves performing at half efficiency, resulting in high energy costs and reduced performance.

Building fabric normally has a longer maintenance cycle than services, so that the consequences of lack of maintenance take longer to manifest themselves in the internal environment. Maintenance practices will vary depending on whether a museum building is a new construction, a change of use or a refurbishment; whether the building is heavily engineered or a historic house.

If the needs of collections are ignored, they will become limiting factors, since museum buildings are defined to some extent by the objects they contain. In considering the selection of the external components of a building, curators will be interested to know how the proposed materials will weather and how easily they can be cleaned. In considering the selection of internal finishes, conservators will need to know how the materials will stand up to use, how they can be cleaned and maintained and whether they can be repaired. Of equal importance is whether materials will emit harmful gaseous by-products.

As a general rule, a building procured cheaply will have high maintenance consequences. 'Building cheaply and maintaining expensively' assumes a political and economic status quo which can be altered overnight by changing circumstances. Museums also need to be aware of the consequences of pressurising architects to produce maximum space for minimum cost. The concept of 'more for less' can ultimately produce high failure and maintenance costs.

May Cassar is environmental adviser at the Museums & Galleries Commission

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