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In high-emitting construction, Princeton Art Museum aims for sustainable building

<h5>A sign on the fence surrounding construction describes the future benefits of the new art museum.</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
A sign on the fence surrounding construction describes the future benefits of the new art museum.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

Students hurrying to class may find their paths impeded by construction sites, their sleep interrupted by loud machines, and their walks around campus marked by bold orange signs with slogans such as “Princeton Builds Sustainability” or “Princeton Builds Energy.” These are the signs of construction proceeding apace on a number of projects across campus. The most central construction project is the renovation of the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM), with the intention of creating a larger space to hold the University’s expansive and global art collection. The building will also adapt to new sustainability standards to support Princeton’s goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2046.

Construction tends to be an energy-intensive process and can leave a deep carbon footprint. Nonetheless, the usage of sustainable building methods and materials as well as the ongoing campus-wide implementation of a geo-exchange system may allow the construction of the art museum to fit within the University’s larger goals.


Both the construction process and the museum itself are in accordance with Princeton’s Sustainability Action Plan. The University’s facilities website lays out the specific design elements the art museum will include to improve the building’s sustainability and the sustainability of the construction process.

A new, sustainable Art Museum

The new Princeton University Art Museum is replacing a historic building first erected in 1890, which once housed the University’s collection. Princeton began construction on the new PUAM in 2021, demolishing large parts of the previous facility. The University expects to finish the project by the fall of 2024.

The new building will double the space for the exhibition and study of the museum’s collections, as well as house temporary exhibitions. The museum will also expand artistic, social, and educational spaces on campus.

“The design embodies the Museum’s longstanding commitment to serve as a hub and gathering space, a nexus for the arts and humanities — a metaphor for the college campus at its best,” Karen Fanning, Project Communications Manager in the Office of the Vice President for Facilities, wrote to ‘Prince.’

The University is aiming for the renovated PUAM to be more environmentally friendly than the previous structure. A sign outside the construction area reads, “the new art museum building will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water usage, enhance stormwater management in the area, and cultivate healthy and resilient habitats.”


The University’s Sustainability Plan requires that all major buildings achieve LEED Gold Certification, which is the United States Green Building Council’s rating system based on various sustainability factors. However, according to the email from Fanning, Princeton’s own internal design standards go “above and beyond the minimum standards for LEED Gold certification.” 

One of the University’s most significant steps toward cutting carbon emissions for the museum, as well as the campus in general, is implementing a geo-exchange system. The new system will convert the existing heat and water steam plant powered by fossil fuels to an electric hot water distribution heating system sourced from the ground.

The geo-exchange system does not burn natural gas like the current cogeneration plant. Instead, it takes excess heat, which would normally be emitted into the atmosphere and presses it into the ground through a heat exchanger to warm bedrock beneath the campus. That heat can later be extracted and redistributed to heat the University’s buildings.

In terms of construction, the museum will be built primarily of timber trusses rather than structural steel when possible. This process is a much more sustainable building method because wood produces a much lower carbon footprint.

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Weighing the carbon footprint of construction

Construction itself, however, takes a lot of energy. In the email from Fanning, Facilities and Art Museum staff admit that constructing new buildings will always increase the school’s carbon footprint initially. The University is currently working to acquire additional information about the embodied carbon involved in the construction process and materials. “We are currently in an embodied carbon study phase that will help us understand the relative embodied carbon of different building types, in addition to their operational footprint,” Fanning wrote.

Fred Bernstein ’77 is a visiting faculty member in the School of Architecture. Speaking to the ‘Prince,’ Bernstein discussed the idea of a structure’s “embodied carbon” — the greenhouse gas emissions produced as a result of manufacturing, transporting, installing, maintaining, and disposing of construction materials. On the other hand, “operational carbon” refers to a building’s emissions after being built.

Bernstein said that he believes that embodied carbon is a crucial factor to consider when building new buildings, adding that the climate crisis will require a significant shift in how buildings are constructed in order to decrease their embodied carbon.

“It takes energy to operate a building … but it also takes energy to build a building in the first place. That kind of energy — known as embodied or up-front energy — is difficult to measure, and Princeton has only recently begun trying to calculate and reduce the embodied energy of its new building,” he told the ‘Prince.’

He added that the most effective way to reduce embodied carbon is to reuse existing buildings. An extensive reconstruction of the museum required the University to take extra steps to reduce embodied energy if it hopes to reach its sustainability goals.

The University is considering embodied carbon in its construction and is currently testing whole-building embodied carbon to help inform choices in building materials.

“Our desired impact is to not only lower the embodied carbon in the materials we use, but also to stimulate a faster transition to more responsible practices industry-wide,” Fanning wrote to the ‘Prince.’

However, according to Bernstein’s assessment, many of the systems the museum will be implementing, including the more energy-efficient HVAC systems and lighting controls, increase embodied carbon. While the switch from structural steel to mass timber reduces embodied carbon, Bernstein commented, “[it’s] not as much as people think.” Most of the museum’s sustainable design elements are either unrelated to carbon emissions or reduce operational carbon while increasing embodied carbon.

Architecture and environmental studies students are among those thinking about the environmental impacts of the many campus construction projects.

“Princeton is at the forefront of teaching embodied carbon, but sometimes it takes up to 80 years for a building to offset its embodied carbon emissions,” noted architecture student John Raulston Graham ’24.

Graham is a columnist for the ‘Prince.’

Graham emphasized the importance of drilling geothermal wells and switching over to the geo-exchange heating and cooling system. He also highlighted the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, which has terraced its whole building to act as a “green roof,” incorporating a layer of vegetation on top of the structure to provide shade and conserve energy.

He also reflected on the University’s architectural traditions, noting that Princeton has a tradition of using innovative construction. For example, he mentioned that when Nassau Hall was built in 1756, it was one of the first structures to use concrete, a new technology at the time. Graham believes the University’s current ethos in architecture is one that primarily focuses on accounting for the increased population of the student body while simultaneously working toward their 2046 carbon neutrality goal.

“Princeton has decided to expand the campus population, and a lot more has to be built. We need extra gym space, extra housing spaces, extra spaces to meet basic necessities,” said Graham. These focuses were echoed in the email from Fanning.

Some students are more wary of the University's construction choices, particularly the decision to build new buildings entirely from scratch. Student activist Alex Norbrook ’26, a member of Divest Princeton, praised the University’s efforts to incorporate sustainability into the art museum’s construction. However, he echoed Bernstein’s warnings about the severity of embodied carbon.

“Embodied carbon is an important factor when looking at buildings’ emission profiles. I think that the University would benefit from more rigorous examination of its embodied carbon in constructions,” Norbrook told the ‘Prince.’

Informing students on campus sustainability efforts

Students interact with Princeton’s architecture and its sustainability every day, whether they know it or not. As the University approaches a more sustainable campus, these questions of sustainability will only become more prevalent.

Students expressed varying opinions on how information about construction and sustainability issues reaches the student body.

Graham, for example, appreciates that there is some information available to students about the school’s architectural plans, but he wishes information was more widely disseminated to students so that they didn’t have to search for it themselves.

“I have a high standard for what it means to engage with architecture,” he said, “but I think people would genuinely like to learn more.”

When Graham explored the facilities website, he found summaries and sustainability goals, but not any other goals that curious students might want to see listed, such as aesthetic and community objectives.

Alex Moosbrugger ’24, a Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) concentrator, said he agrees that the University needs to do a better job of keeping students informed about its construction projects.

“The fact that they’re not actively sharing this information is a missed opportunity. I would personally be interested to learn more,” said Moosbrugger in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “I understand in principle how the heat exchange system works, but the fact that we don’t have easily accessible and well-marketed resources to learn more is something I wish were different.”

Norbrook added that while the University has a responsibility to keep students informed, students also share in this responsibility to keep themselves informed. He focused specifically on the new geo-exchange system, which will account for much of the emissions of the new museum, as well as the campus overall.

“There’s a once-in-a-century change in how Princeton heats and cools campus right underneath our feet as we shift from combustion heating to geo-exchange,” Norbrook said. He stated that while there are banners outside of Whitman that clearly display this information, many people he’s spoken to aren’t aware of the exciting change signified by the pipes and wells which students mostly complain about.

Norbrook told the ‘Prince’ that he believes that this lack of awareness could be at least partially addressed with more communication, such as increased information banners or occasional construction updates. However, he added that students also need to put in more effort to inform themselves.

“We need a shift in mindset among students to be more attentive to and accepting of the transition to sustainable heating and cooling infrastructure,” he said.

“I would encourage people to read about these projects. There’s an alumni discourse about some of this stuff, and I wish students would engage on that level,” Norbrook continued. “I would encourage people to go out and seek the information for themselves.”

Raphaela Gold is a Features staff writer for the ‘Prince,’ and a member of Divest Princeton.

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