California Academy of Sciences by architects Renzo Piano Building Workshop opened last week in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. The museum, which contains an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum and research and educational facilities, features a ‘green’ roof and numerous sustainable features.
One of the world’s most innovative museum building programs—a record-setting, sustainable new home for the California Academy of Sciences—is nearing completion in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Expected to be the first museum to earn a LEED Platinum certification, the new Academy will be topped with a 2.5-acre living roof and will employ a wide range of energy-saving materials and technologies. Designed by Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano, the new building will stand as an embodiment of the Academy’s mission to explore, explain and protect the natural world. Construction of the new facility, which began in September of 2005, is scheduled to reach completion by the end of October of this year. Over the next few months, the plants will be installed on the living roof (installation begins this week), the curved glass will be installed in the rainforest dome and over the piazza, and the concrete finishing slabs will be poured for the floors. The museum will then spend a year building out the new exhibits and moving the live animals and research specimens into their new home. The new Academy will open to the public in October of 2008.
The California Academy of Sciences is one of the world’s preeminent natural history museums and is an international leader in scientific research about the natural world. Founded in 1853 as the first scientific institution in the West, the Academy is now home to the Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium and Morrison Planetarium. The Academy also conducts research in 11 fields of study, and houses over 20 million scientific specimens. This major new initiative builds on the Academy’s distinguished history and deepens its commitment to advancing scientific literacy, engaging the public, and documenting and conserving Earth’s natural resources.
“Science is more influential and relevant to our daily lives than ever before, and natural history museums can and must deal head-on with the issues of the 21st century,” said Academy Executive Director Dr. Gregory Farrington. “Our goal is to create a new facility that will not only hold powerful exhibits but serve as one itself, inspiring visitors to conserve natural resources and help sustain the diversity of life on Earth.”
Design Driven by Nature
The Renzo Piano Building Workshop, in collaboration with local firm Stantec Architecture (formerly Chong Partners), worked with the Academy to create a design that grows out of the institution’s mission, history, and setting. The new design unifies the Academy’s original array of twelve buildings, which were built over eight decades, into a single modern landmark that places a visual and intellectual emphasis on the natural world.
“With the new Academy, we are creating a museum that is visually and functionally linked to its natural surroundings, metaphorically lifting up a piece of the park and putting a building underneath,” says architect Renzo Piano. “We are excited to collaborate with the Academy on a project in which design and mission are so seamlessly integrated. Through sustainable architecture and innovative design we are adding a vital new element to Golden Gate Park and expressing the Academy’s dedication to environmental responsibility.”
Piano’s goal was to create a sense of transparency and connectedness between the building and the park through both a careful selection of materials and a thoughtful arrangement of space. Glass is used extensively in the exterior walls, allowing visitors to look through the museum to the surrounding green space of the park along both the east-west axis and the north-south axis of the building. The glass, which is manufactured in Germany, is famous for its especially clear composition. To enhance the open, airy feeling created by the glass, Piano designed the central support columns to be extremely slender. A series of carefully configured cables will prevent these slim columns from bending. The concrete for the walls and floors will remain untreated, continuing the emphasis on natural materials.
“Museums are not usually transparent,” says Piano. “They are opaque, they are closed. They are like a kingdom of darkness, and you are trapped inside. You don’t see where you are. But here we are in the middle of a beautiful park, Golden Gate Park, so you want to look out and know where you are.”
The building will be topped by a colorful living roof: a 2.5 acre expanse of native California plants and wildflowers that will create a new link in the ecological corridor for wildlife. Steep undulations in the roofline will roll over the Academy’s domed planetarium, rainforest, and aquarium exhibits, echoing the topography of the building’s setting and evoking the interdependence of biological and earth systems.
Exhibitions and educational programs inside the building will reinforce this message. As the country’s only combined aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and research institution, the new Academy is uniquely positioned to highlight the interconnectedness of the living world and the multidisciplinary nature of modern science.
The new Academy site is located directly across from the new de Young museum, which opened in October 2005 and was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. The architectural dialogue between the two buildings and their unique responses to the environment of Golden Gate Park furthers San Francisco’s growing role in supporting groundbreaking architecture and design.
Setting a New Standard for Sustainable Architecture
The new Academy is one of ten pilot “green building” projects of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, part of a vanguard initiative to develop models for workable, sustainable public architecture. The new Academy will optimize use of resources, minimize environmental impacts, and serve as an educational model by demonstrating how humans can live and work in environmentally-responsible ways. The new facility will integrate architecture and landscape, and help set a new standard for energy efficiency and environmentally responsible engineering systems in a public, architecturally distinguished building.
In Piano’s design, the environmentally sensitive components of the building will be featured, rather than hidden. The living roof, which will reduce storm water runoff by up to 3.6 million gallons of water per year, will include an observation deck, allowing visitors to admire the rooftop wildlife haven and learn about the importance of water conservation. The roof will be bordered by a glass canopy containing nearly 60,000 photo voltaic cells, which will produce over 5 percent of the Academy’s annual energy needs and prevent the release of over 405,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year. These photo voltaic cells will be clearly visible in the glass canopy, providing both shade and visual interest for the visitors below.
There are varying shades of green as measured by the U.S. Green Building Council through its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system. The LEED rating system is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for evaluating high-performance, sustainable buildings. Through all aspects of design and construction, the Academy will strive to achieve the highest possible rating: LEED platinum.
In recognition of this commitment to sustainable “green” design, the Academy project was selected as the North American winner of the silver Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction in September 2005. The competition, organized by the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction in collaboration with five of the world’s leading technical universities, promotes sustainable approaches to the built environment. Globally, more than 1,500 projects from 118 countries were submitted for consideration. The Academy is the sole U.S. winner of a top-level Holcim Award.
The Academy was also awarded the EPA’s regional 2006 Environmental Award in recognition of the new building’s sustainable design. The EPA received more than 160 nominations in 2006; the Academy of Sciences was one of 39 recipients to be selected in this very elite group of environmental champions.
Published with permission of ArchiCentral.