Colour photograph of a hygrometer inside an archival box showing its temperature and humidity

The Design Archives’ Preservation and Digital Resources Coordinator Sirpa Kutilainen is leading an environmental control unit shutdown project for the Design Archives to become more sustainable.

With sustainability an increasingly urgent global concern, in late 2022, I began to investigate how we might advance our approaches to sustainable practices, in line with the sector’s movements towards more passive archival storage. The change in thinking happened in 2018, when British Standard PD 5454:2012 – Guide for the Storage and Exhibition of archival materials and BS 4971:2002 – Repair and Allied Processes for the Conservation of Documents were withdrawn and replaced with EN 16893:2018 – Conservation of Cultural Heritage – Specifications for location, construction and modification of buildings or rooms intended for the storage or use of heritage collections, together with BS 4971:2017 – Conservation and Care of Archive and Library collections. The new standard states “planning for any new or refurbished building or space shall be directed at determining whether collections can be protected through passive or low energy means wherever possible….. Since the success or otherwise of a passive climate building design strategy over time may not be predictable at the planning stage, options for retro-fitting controls in the future shall be taken into account.”

As part of our major storage and facilities improvement works in 2019, one of our archival storage spaces was separated from the main office area, and we took the decision to work towards passive environmental controls in this area, as a complement to our other, environmentally controlled space. Since then, I have monitored temperature and humidity fluctuations carefully throughout the seasons. Aside from some summer months during which humidity became too high and was controlled using portable dehumidifiers, the space has performed satisfactorily.

Next, we wanted to gauge the impact of air conditioning shutdowns in our other store room. As part of planning for this, I was in touch with some colleagues in the sector who were looking into doing the same in their archive stores. Since then, I’ve actively sought for people interested in an informal and relaxed collaborative group of archive and museum professionals to share their plans, actions and findings. This group currently includes archivists and conservators from eight different institutions all around the country.

Planning for partial shutdowns of our air handling units involved establishing a close working relationship with members of the University’s Estates team, who maintain the equipment and its controls located on a different campus. The tests started cautiously in January 2023 with a 2-hour switch off of the unit. During this first experimentation, the temperature and humidity within the store and inside storage boxes didn’t change at all. After further talks and planning, from March until May 2023 some more ambitious shutdown tests took place. The lengths of the shutdowns varied between 6.5 and 16 hours during which fluctuations in temperatures inside archival storage boxes ranged from 0.1-1.5°C, depending on the length of the shutdown period and on the height of the box location. With humidity, the rise was between 3-6% while still staying well below the sector guidance maximum of 60%. I observed similar figures with the hygrometers placed on the shelves within the store.

This project has been on pause during summer 2023 but will begin again as we head into the autumn. Any future shutdowns of the air handling unit will have a positive effect on not only the carbon footprint but also the running costs of the Design Archives.