Live Building: Architect Renzo Piano’s design for a science museum is a (literally) living example of environmentally-aware architecture

by Efthalia STAIKOS

The California Academy of Sciences, guided by the mastermind architect Renzo Piano, has successfully created a self-sustaining, green structure. Its ex­cellence was acknowledged by the U.S. Green Building Council that awarded it Platinum status. LEED Platinum (Lead­ership in Energy and Environmental De­sign) is the highest rating a building can achieve. The Academy, a design of Renzo Piano’s, is now the greenest museum in the world, and the largest Platinum-rated public building in the world. The science that went into creating the building did nothing to take away from the beauty of its design, which uniquely integrates it into the surrounding Golden Gate Park.

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop worked with Stanec Architecture to suc­cessfully create a new level of transparen­cy so that the environment both outside and inside could be appreciated at the same time, which explains the frequent use of glass for the exterior walls. In fact, a special form of German glass that is known for its extreme clarity was used to accentuate the open, airy feeling between the museum and the surrounding park. Science’s finest examples of innovation and sustainable resources can be viewed both inside and outside the new Acad­emy building simultaneously.

“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 building a natural history museum in the middle of a park, and those are two things that should belong to each other. They should be as connected as possible.”

The “living” roof, one of the high­lights of the museum, and probably its most unique feature, has numerous en­vironmentally friendly attributes. The roof is covered in a layer of plant life that makes it blend into the grassy park from an aerial view, and gives the impression of a gently rolling hillside from a ground view. Aside from all the roof’s character­istics that make the building more energy efficient, the roof itself, with its topping of foliage, serves as its own ecosystem. The vegetation growing on top of the building consists of 9 different types of plants, all native to California. The total planted area measures 2.5 acres, making it San Francisco’s largest stretch of native vegetation. The unique combination of plants on top of the building attracts na­tive birds, hummingbirds, bumblebees, and butterflies along with a number of parasitic wasps that feed on harmful pest insects.

The roof creates a layer of insulation that greatly reduces the need for air con­ditioning. It also absorbs rainwater, pre­venting 3.6 million gallons of run-off wa­ter per year from transporting pollutants into the ecosystem. These harmful sub­stances, which are absorbed as moisture into the atmosphere and deposited back to earth in the form of rain, can have a negative effect if they are absorbed into the ground’s sources of drinking water. The 2.5 acres padding that the museum roof provides, however, is the perfect sponge to soak up this run-off water. The perimeter of the roof is lined with a solar canopy of 60,000 photovoltaic cells, the most energy efficient solar cells available. By producing a voltage of energy when exposed to light, these cells supply clean energy to the museum, and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

What other aspects make the design so eco-friendly? The Academy, which in­cludes the Museum of Natural History, Planetarium, and Aquarium, uses natu­ral daylight for 90% of its lighting; its ra­diant floor heating alone reduces overall energy consumption in the building by 5 to 10%, and whatever energy is expended on heat is recycled courtesy of a heat re­covery system.

Other interesting features of the build­ing include the vast amount of recyclable items that were utilized in its construc­tion. Over 90% of the building was re­cycled materials from the old Academy, and the installation inside the walls of the building is made from blue jeans. The objective of this was to utilize cot­ton since it is such a rapidly renewable resource.

The California Academy of Science, a leader in scientific research institutions in the field of natural sciences around the world, now appears to have a build­ing that is adequately aligned with its purpose. It seems as though it would be difficult to distinguish which is the more interesting attraction: the museum ex­hibits, or the museum structure itself!