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As the National Railway Museum reveals a sustainable vision for its new Central Hall, Karen Livingstone, the Science Museum Group’s Director of Masterplan and Estate, explains how our plans are shaped by the past, present and – crucially – the future of five museums which together are visited by more than five million people each year.

In revealing that Feilden Fowles have won the Central Hall design competition with a striking idea for a ‘rotunda’ – part of a proposal that will cut carbon emissions by 80% – the judging panel is proudly showing its hand: sustainability was at the front and back of our minds as we assessed the practices shortlisted following an international competition.

Even as we live through the huge challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, climate change remains the biggest long-term challenge facing our world and the visitors to the five museums in the Science Museum Group.

The Paris Agreement on climate change recognises the role of education and public awareness and here museums must play a key role, not just in what they put on gallery and our events but what we do and how we act.

In my role this means seeing the big picture and looking at the management of our estate and its development through our Masterplans over the whole lifetime of a project to ensure the decisions we make now have a lasting impact and value.

Feilden Fowles’ ideas reflected our ambitions and more, with an elegant and uplifting proposal that had innovative sustainable thinking at its core.

The designs draw on the heritage of the site, referencing locomotive ‘roundhouses’ with a central two-storey rotunda which will integrate seamlessly with the historic context of the site.

Proposed interior of Feildon Folwes design for the National Railway Museum Central Hall.

From the use of recycled copper cladding to the local York stone, the materials proposed combine sustainability with authenticity. Add to these elements the extensive use of passive design principles and this building will reduce the site-wide operational carbon footprint by 80%.

There’s still a lot of work for us to do in partnership with Feilden Fowles to arrive at the final design solution and a sustainability brief that is tailored to this specific project and site, but it’s already clear that the new Central Hall will be a fitting centrepiece of our plans for the National Railway Museum as part of Vision 2025, the £55.3m transformation of the National Railway Museum in York and Locomotion in Shildon.

Sustainability is central not just to Vision 2025, but to all the work we have done in the past decade through our Masterplans and Estate management, and are planning for in the next ten years across our five museums and our National Collections Centre near Swindon.

Since 2011/12, the SMG has cut energy usage by 25% and carbon emissions by 69%, this all despite increasing our floor area by 24%.

I truly believe that design has an integral part to play in inspiring visitors and shifting how our society behaves and thinks.

Of course, we’re in good company in prioritising sustainability.

In December last year the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) unveiled the latest version of the Plan of Work to help RIBA members and the wider sector embed sustainable outcomes into practice.

We will be applying the RIBA sustainable outcomes to all our capital projects, and have now formalised this in our project management processes and governance so we can be very explicit about our intentions and hold ourselves and our design teams to account on how we deliver against them.

My team’s Masterplan and Estate work is just one strand of a broad range of SMG activities around sustainability. Our programme of capital projects delivers change at a slow and steady pace but has a big impact over a long period of time.

Building ONE under construction at the National Collections Centre in December 2019

The National Collections Centre is a great example of the importance of investing in sustainable technologies that will continue to benefit us in the future.

On site we are constructing Building ONE, our largest project in 20 years, placing sustainability and efficiency at the forefront in its design.

As this project evolves it will become a leader within the heritage sector for its innovative approach to environmental conditions which manages humidity but not temperature, while effectively storing millions of incredible objects that span centuries of scientific discovery.

On this site we also host a solar farm that feeds 50,000 million watts of electricity per hour over an entire year and even have a flock of grazing sheep to help keep the grass under control.

We’ve also built a hempcrete storage facility and the site uses two prototype hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Aerial view of the solar farm at the National Collections Centre

At the Science Museum in London we’re currently in the process of renovating our iconic IMAX cinema, which will re-open as IMAX: The Ronson Theatre, one of only two screens in Europe to feature the very best of digital and analogue cinema side by side.

A renovation of this scale represents unique challenges in terms of reducing waste. We recently waved goodbye to the cinema’s seats as they will be replaced with state of the art chairs.

The Science Museum IMAX Cinema with all the seats removed, ready for its new look.   

These seats have seen fantasy blockbusters including Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, an unrestored print of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and witnessed live events featuring will.i.am, Bill Gates and Jarvis Cocker to name a few. But it’s not the end for these chairs as they were gifted to the Leigh Film Society and Showroom Workstation.

As part of the renovation we’ll also be adding a new Laser system featuring dual 4K laser projectors and an updated IMAX 70mm film projector.

The current projector was donated to Tyneside cinema and other pieces of digital equipment that will be refreshed were given to Oban Phoenix, a Scottish charity cinema, ensuring their legacy lives on and provides entertainment to many more film fans.

We’ve also consciously integrated more sustainable practices into the building of our new Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries, designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects,  which opened at the Science Museum in November 2019.

Exploring Medicine, part of Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum

We upgraded 3020m² of the museum’s public areas to address the dated infrastructure of these galleries with low energy lighting and durable design solutions, such as choosing a high quality engineered oak floor which will perform well over several decades even with millions of visitors walking on it each year.

The project also provided the opportunity to conserve 3,000 objects as well as to display them in an environment that would ensure their enjoyment by our visitors well into the future.

Windows and insulation were upgraded to improve building performance throughout the space and we created a micro-climate only in the Medicine & Bodies gallery that contained particularly sensitive objects, rather than providing energy-consuming environmental control throughout the five galleries.

Medicine and Bodies gallery, part of Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum

Recycled materials were used where possible in the gallery and we tried to reuse final prototypes which were made to test design ideas and manufacturing quality in the gallery rather than create fresh versions for final installation.

Not all changes need to be dramatic ones, and small alterations can be just as impactful.

At Locomotion in Shildon we’ve replaced all of the lights in the main building with high-efficiency LEDs, reducing energy consumption and maintenance and running costs.

This has become standard practice at each of our sites, every time a lamp needs to be changed it is upgraded to LED and we are looking a further initiatives to do this at scale in the future.

A similar approach is also being taken at the National Science and Media Museum and the team working on our planned new gallery on Sound and Vision is finding innovative ways to embed sustainable practices in every aspect of it’s development, starting with the way the project is managed and designed, through to its end in around 25 years when the gallery is likely to be de-mounted and recycled to make way for a new exhibition.

At the Science and Industry Museum works to repair and conserve the historic Power Hall (1855) are well underway.  Working with listed buildings brings a different perspective to how we define our sustainability outcomes, but one of our guiding principles is to work with the existing building and not try to force solutions onto them.

The Power Hall has original roof lights which, although they currently present a maintenance challenge because of lack of safe access, we are investigating whether we might be able to exchange the glass for some very 21st century glass solar panels.  A key aspect of this project is also enlarging the drainage channels in the roof, to cope with much higher levels of rainfall now and into the future.  A little-known fact is that the museum has a well, and there is also potential here to exploit this for the generation of power across the entire site as part of our plans to reach net carbon zero.

Proposed exterior for Feildon Folwes design of the Central Hall at the National Railway Museum

But, there is still more to do and we can push ourselves further: through investing in initiatives that will reduce our energy usage; continuing to innovate through the design of the Central Hall at the National Railway Museum and the new store for rail vehicles planned for Locomotion; developing better water management and future-proof drainage strategies and introducing even more biodiversity to our estate.

I’m particularly excited that we’ll be installing beehives on the roof of the Science Museum later this year.

This behind-the-scenes work helps support our public programming as across the Group we open exhibitions, run events and renovate key parts of our estate throughout the year.

On 4 February 2020 the Prime Minister and Sir David Attenborough kicked off the UK Year of Climate Action at the Science Museum. We also announced that our public programme for 2020 would focus on climate, with a special exhibition exploring carbon capture technologies, a climate themed Manchester Science Festival and a pledge to plant 1,000 trees a year across our estate.

Sir David Attenborough, Sir Ian Blatchford and Darren Moorcroft plant trees with pupils from Barnes Primary School and John Betts Primary School at the Science Museum to mark the Science Museum Group’s climate-focused public programme as part of the Year of Climate Action

Our teams across SMG are working to ensure we’re embodying sustainability in the very fabric of the working practices across our sites and I look forward to discovering the new materials and innovative technologies that will shape how we build in the future. That, and sampling some of our Science Museum honey.


Read more about sustainability and the Science Museum Group.