Over the last hundred years the booming exhibition industry has promoted development, which in turn has led to environmental damage. The construction of exhibition buildings has been part of this phenomenon. At first sight improvement in energy efficiency techniques would seem to offset the increased energy demand from both exhibitions and exhibition buildings. However, whether energy efficiency technologies truly help to improve building performance to the point where a building is ‘environmentally friendly’ throughout its whole life-cycle is uncertain. This research is part of investigating whether energy efficiency technologies are really the easiest means to lower costs and energy requirements when the whole useful life of an exhibition building is considered. This article investigates the energy use of three case study buildings based on their operating and embodied energy flows. The results suggest that modern technologies for making exhibition buildings more sustainable may not be as effective as the simpler strategies used over 100 years ago. This suggests a different approach may be needed for sustainable development in the twenty first century.