Gardner Museum’s environmentally friendly wing eyes LEED certification with geothermal wells

Eight geothermal wells dug underneath the museum break new ground in conserving energy.

D IGGING WELLS is an idea almost as old as water itself. But at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, eight geothermal wells have literally broken new ground.

The Gardner is aiming for a gold LEED certification with its environmentally friendly new wing, and it is among the first museums in the United States to use geothermal wells to supplement its heating and cooling needs.

The Gardner joins a small group of Boston-area institutions with geothermal wells, including Harvard University, Trinity Church, Boston University, and Hebrew SeniorLife, according to the US Green Building Council.

David L Ryan / Globe Staff
The Gardner is the first museum in the US to use geothermal wells to supplement heating and cooling of water.

“The museum, on the facilities side, has always tried to manage its consumption of energy and resources wisely - certainly for the last 15 to 20 years, since we introduced climate control,’’ says James Labeck, the Gardner’s director of operations. “Museums tend to be energy hogs as they try to maintain climates for their collections, in the interest of preservation. But as we planned our new building we were interested in conservation.’’

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Geothermal wells tend to run deep. The Gardner’s were dug down 1,500 feet. At that depth, the temperature is much warmer in winter and cooler in summer than at ground level. The water flows into a pump room, where it is filtered and patched to the HVAC system. The wells are expected to produce a 28 percent reduction in energy use.

LEED certification, granted by the US Green Building Council, formally acknowledges that a building was constructed to use less energy and have a reduced negative impact on the environment.

“We are not certified yet. That happens several months after construction ends,’’ says Sarah Sachs of Buro Happold, an engineering firm that worked on the wing’s construction. “But we’re confident the five categories we concentrated on - site, water, energy, materials, and indoor environment - will bring us that certification.’’

As for site, the new building is less than a quarter mile from several MBTA bus and light rail stops. For employees, alternative fuel vehicles will be given parking preference at the building, and bicycle storage will be provided.


Water-related efforts include drought-tolerant greenery, rainwater reclamation, and low-flow fixtures.

A daylight harvesting system features sensors that, upon detecting a certain level of sunlight filtering through the windows, automatically turn off electric lighting.

And where the indoor environment is concerned, Buro Happold used low-emission materials, from paint to composite woods to simple sealants, to reduce the possibility of poor air quality.

Says Sachs, “Our goal was to hit those five targets while preserving the existing beauty of the palace and just making the new structure accommodating in an earth-friendly way.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at