Founded in 1853, the California Academy of Sciences in the oldest natural history museum and scientific research center in the western United States. Located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park since 1916, the academy’s original complex of buildings, shown here, were earthquake damaged and obsolete. The Academy envisioned a bold new building that would reinforce its mission to “explore, explain, and protect the natural world.”
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In September 2008, the museum opened its remarkable new facility on the site of the old complex. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, the new building sets a bold model for how to integrate sustainable technologies and natural systems through innovative design while at the same time educating the public about green buildings.
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The museum’s unique exterior features an expansive 2.5-acre green roof. Landscape architects were instrumental in realizing the design team’s concept of “lifting up a piece of the park and putting a building under it.” Sculptural mounds relate to the museum’s interior exhibits and echo the seven major hills of San Francisco.
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The living roof’s 3,500 square-foot observation deck is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. Here, patrons learn how the green roof reduces stormwater runoff by more than 90 percent, lowers energy needs for air conditioning, and doubles the life of the roof membrane.
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The living roof was planted with 1.7 million native California plants. By incorporating plants that are well-adapted to the local ecosystem, this landscape requires little irrigation and attracts numerous species of birds, butterflies, and insects. Dozens of round skylights dot the roof of the rain forest dome and allow natural light to filter through to the exhibits below.
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The museum’s central piazza lies beneath this massive glass ceiling. During summer, the roof opens to allow cool night air to flow into the building below. By using natural ventilation instead of air conditioning to regulate interior temperature, the building becomes more energy efficient.
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While less recognized, the museum’s entrance plaza and landscape form a second green roof on top of two levels of underground parking. With soil depths between 2 and 4 feet, this “intensive” green roof is deep enough to plant trees. By taking on the form and function of a public park, this green roof is more usable and pedestrian-friendly than a traditional parking lot roof deck.
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The new building’s small footprint creates 1.5-acres of new landscape space around the museum. Flexible outdoor rooms supply opportunities for sculpture, exhibits, cafes, receptions, and informal gatherings. A large building overhang and strategic planting design ensures that 30 percent of hard surfaces are shaded, helping to minimize urban heat islands.
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