Maintenance of Historic Buildings: Lessons Learned from the Field Museum

Grainger Editorial Staff

How The Field Museum handles maintenance challenges while continuing to preserve the building's integrity.

Maintaining a historic building presents a specific set of challenges. Facility managers have to balance budget constraints with the most urgent repairs, upgrades and renovations, all while considering which improvements to make to stay compliant and preserve the building's integrity. 

Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, The Field Museum opened its current building to the public in 1921 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. John Phillips, the museum’s lead engineer, has worked in The Field Museum's engineering department for nearly 25 years. 

Below is how Phillips approaches different maintenance challenges facing The Field Museum—and what facility managers overseeing historic buildings can learn from his approach: 

Central Operating Systems

At The Field, miles of pipes travel through the facility carrying everything from chilled and heated water to sanitary drainage. The facility also relies on ice storage tanks, fire pumps, solar panels and other central operating systems.

The amount and age of equipment present unique challenges for the museum’s engineering department, which has to recognize and fix leaks in 100-year-old sanitary lines.

“Every now and then, they rust out and need to be replaced. These are just some of the things to look out for in an aging building," notes Phillips.

To keep track of ongoing projects related to the building's central operating systems, The Field uses online preventive maintenance software to track work orders, outside contractors and details about other projects. You might also consider using a preventive maintenance software to keep your projects organized and to stay on top of any necessary updates to your building's operating systems. Whole Building Design Guide (part of the National Institute of Building Sciences) recommends seeing if your facility has a Historic Structure Report available. The report includes a summary of the development of the building and may include operations and maintenance recommendations. If a report isn't available, The Association of Preservation Technology International can help you find experts to prepare one for you.

Renovations Management 

In a historic structure, renovations can range from small projects to multimillion-dollar initiatives, and everything in between. In 2003, The Field Museum replaced its boilers, chillers, fire pumps and air-handling units as part of a central plant project. “It was literally an old-time dungeon when I started here. The boilers were two stories high and made of brick with high-pressure water-tube boilers,” says Phillips. Phillips also noted that the museum’s exterior mortar joints periodically have to be “filled in” to prevent water intrusion in the building’s marble façade. “That’s a major challenge that’s worth doing because it keeps the building envelope tight and safe."

When managing renovations for a historic building, FacilitiesNet recommends identifying which building characteristics you need to preserve. If your building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places or is designated as a landmark, Whole Building Design Guide advises checking the nomination form for your respective building as it will contain details about why it was designated as a landmark. From there, you can plan your renovations to preserve those characteristics. FacilitiesNet also points out the importance of managers understanding what is permitted in terms of building renovations as the National Register of Historic Places may impose guidelines on those renovations. The Preservation Trades Network helps educate professionals on how to preserve historic buildings. 

Energy Management and Conservation

All renovation projects at The Field Museum are focused on some level of energy conservation. About five years ago, the museum launched an LED lighting project that ultimately resulted in a 12% drop in energy consumption. Using 48 ice storage tanks as chillers, The Field Museum has cut its energy consumption even further. During off-peak electricity hours, the ice is melted and then pumped through to the building’s air-handling units. The museum also installed frequency drives on motors that control the air handlers, allowing the handlers to ramp up and start the blower wheels very slowly, saving wear and tear on the bearings and belts. “That’s the key to longevity with an air handler, and it also saves energy because it’s a slow startup that doesn’t require a hard AMP draw," Phillips points out. 

At times energy conservation and historic preservation can be at odds. One university undergoing a renovation project, for example, had to strike the right balance between replacing windows that were more energy-efficient and preserving the historical character of the building. The National Park Service (NPS) recommends assessing the building's current energy-efficient features since many historic buildings were initially built to rely on natural resources for heat, lighting, and ventilation. NPS recommends making operational changes and upgrades that require minimal changes to the physical structure, such as installing programmable thermostats or weather stripping doors and reducing air leakage. After such measures are put in place, then facility managers can start assessing the need for more extreme renovations like replacing windows or installing new roofs. 

Code Compliance

Remaining compliant with evolving code requirements and preserving the integrity of the building can also be a delicate balancing act that facility managers have to navigate. The NPS provides resources on managing renovation projects in historic buildings in order to stay compliant, including "Making Historic Properties Accessible." The NPS recommends adding accessibility features such as ramps or elevators in ways that are least intrusive to the structure. Mitigating hazardous materials is another important concern that the NPS addresses, noting that historic buildings will have to put some form of mitigation plan in place against hazardous materials that meets environmental codes without impacting the historic integrity of the building. 

Preserving Artifacts Inside the Building

Facility managers in charge of historic buildings may not only be tasked with ensuring visitors and employees are comfortable, but may also be in charge of creating the right environment to preserve artifacts. Since it opened in 1894, The Field Museum’s collection has grown to nearly 40 million artifacts and specimens. Phillips's job is to make sure people within the building have enjoyable experiences, and also that different artifacts are properly preserved. "My end of caring for the artifacts is not touching or handling them in any way. It is simply producing the right environment for the artifacts, including the humidity and temperature levels," says Phillips."

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works outlines environmental parameters for different artifacts and documents. Facility managers can determine the appropriate parameters for their building and then train team members to operate the building's HVAC system in accordance with those parameters. Whole Building Design Guide recommends working with a preservation architect and an engineer in order to understand the limits of your building's specific HVAC system so as to keep occupants comfortable without damaging the structure or artifacts within the building. 

Managing landmark buildings is costly, but the time and money spent retaining these national treasures are well worth it. As Phillips puts it, “Money comes in through grants, ticket sales and other sources but our main concern is that those dollars keep coming in and that they cover the maintenance and capital projects needed to ensure that the facility stays up and running for future generations.”

Learn how others are meeting the challenges of maintaining their aging structures. Download the Report: The State of Aging Buildings: Today’s Building Management Challenges

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.


Get more great content like this sent to your inbox.