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High-Tech Air

On a subterranean level of the Harvard Art Museums’ new facility whirring giant machines make the space seem more like the belly of a colossal ship than a basement of an art museum. Now that our renovation and expansion project is drawing to a close, the staff in our Facilities Planning and Management Department has been busy learning how to manage the mechanical systems found on this floor.

A tower of operations and maintenance manuals teeters on the desk of Facilities Manager James Moisson (the plumbing system manual alone contains more than 5,000 pages). Moisson is not one to be daunted by learning vast amounts of technical details—his enthusiasm for the Harvard Art Museums’ building systems runs deep and is infectious. When we asked him what piece of equipment excites him most, he was quick to answer with the “air handlers.”

Moisson tells us that the 22 air handlers in our lower levels play a key role in creating a safe environment for our collections and staff, as they control the air quality and conditions for every space within our facility: from our galleries, lecture halls, Art Study Center, and office spaces to the mechanical rooms themselves. The primary air handling units provide fresh air from outside and deliver it to secondary units. There are two kinds of secondary units—close control units, which filter out harmful gases and manage temperature and humidity, and the usual variety that perform traditional heating and cooling.

The highly advanced technology gives Facilities ample capacity to control multiple systems with pinpoint precision as well as the measurement and verification tools to help analyze trends and monitor energy efficiency. Trend data is accumulated by the minute, hour, day, and/or season and adjusted appropriately, either by the systems software or manually by our Facilities staff.

“We are fortunate to have an air handling system, designed by the firm Arup, that is commensurate with the high quality of our collections,” says Pete Atkinson, the Director of Facilities Planning and Management. “Art and staff will live very comfortably in the Harvard Art Museums, and we’ve invested appropriately to keep the art happy around the clock.”

 With the combination of our advanced mechanical systems and knowledgeable staff, we’ll be running a tight ship when the Harvard Art Museums open in fall 2014.


  • 01 The massive skylight on our building provides some shelter for our rooftop mechanical equipment.
  • 02 Small air handlers are stacked to conserve space. Once installed, they are fed with pipes and wires and adorned with gauges.
  • 03 Workers use detailed drawings as well as a 3D computer program to determine where equipment needs to be installed.
  • 04 Primary air is fresh air that has been brought in from the outside, after it is filtered and humidified or dehumidified. It satisfies the ventilation requirements of the building code and creates positive pressurization, a central tenet of climate control for museums.