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California Academy of Sciences
Renzo Piano

September 22, 2008 /

San Francisco, California, USA

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Photo © Tim Griffith.

The new California Academy of Sciences houses the Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium and Morrison Planetarium, along with eight scientific research departments and over 20 million scientific specimens.

The 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.
Topped with a 2.5-acre living roof the new California Academy of Sciences employs a wide range of energy-saving materials and technologies.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith.

With the new Academy, we have created 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.

/Renzo Piano

Piano's design was inspired by the concept of metaphorically lifting up a piece of the park and sliding the museum underneath. Only one difference would exist between the plants on the roof and the surrounding vegetation: the roof plants would all be native to the northern California coast. To select the species for the new Academy roof, Academy botanist Frank Almeda worked with a team of architects and living roof experts.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

Steep undulations in the roofline 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.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

The iconic hills on the roof were designed not only for visual impact but also for energy conservation. These hills, which feature slopes in excess of 60 degrees, will draw cool air into the open piazza at the center of the building, naturally ventilating the surrounding exhibit spaces.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

Strategically placed skylights will automatically open and close to allow heat to escape through the tops of the domes. These skylights will also allow sunlight to reach the living rainforest and coral reef exhibits below, reducing the energy requirements for artificial lighting.

The dramatic four-story "Rainforests of the World exhibit will offer a vertical journey through four different rainforest habitats.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

Padded with six inches of soil, the roof will provide excellent insulation, keeping interior temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than a standard roof and reducing low frequency noise by 40 decibels. It will also decrease the urban heat island effect, staying about 40 degrees cooler than a standard roof. Moreover, it will absorb about 98% of all storm water, preventing up to 3.6 million gallons of runoff from carrying pollutants into the ecosystem each year.

The roof is 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, clearly visible in the glass canopy, provide both shade and visual interest for the visitors below.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

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.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

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 is untreated, continuing the emphasis on natural materials.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

Museums are not usually transparent, 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.

/Renzo Piano

The 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.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

Artist Maya Lin was selected by the Academy and the San Francisco Arts Commission to create two public art installations within or around the new Academy in a publicly-accessible space.

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Photo: Photo © Tim Griffith

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.
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Sketch courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop
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Rendering courtesy Renzo Piano Building WorkshopRendering illustrates the seven hills on the new Academy's living roof.


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Rendering courtesy Renzo Piano Building WorkshopRainforest Schematic


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rendering courtesy Renzo Piano Building WorkshopPiazza airflow
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Rendering courtesy Renzo Piano Building WorkshopSection

Facts about California Academy of Sciences

Total area:

410,000 ft2
Total public space: 100,000 ft2

Architects:
Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Stantec Architecture

Engineering and Sustainability Consulting:

Arup

Living Roof:

Rana Creek

Landscape Architecture:

SWA Group

General Contractor:

Webcor Builders

Photographed by Tim Griffith

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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