Cleveland's natural history museum is held in high esteem—especially by families—as a colorful and larger than life space to fill your mind. When the museum announced it was time to retire the dusty dioramas and build in a way that moves the institution in to the 21st century, cheers went up— the building and its exhibits would reflect the enthusiasm Clevelanders feel toward the dinosaur museum on Wade Oval.
Inside, plans have started to develop. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) has stated to the public that building a major addition will be driven by its mission, which is "to inspire, through science and education, a passion for nature, the protection of natural diversity, the fostering of health, and leadership to a sustainable future."
In this latter area the museum has an opportunity to carve a groundbreaking role. Can the building itself—as a storehouse for knowledge passed down—inspire hundreds of thousands of visitors while respecting limits? Does the museum have a shot at being what its consultants last week called a "regenerative building"?
What this translates to is a new way of building that literally produces an abundance of natural resources rather than drains them. Engineers from the firm Buro Happold presented their initial findings on what makes environment, campus, and building interact as an ecosystem. If a building can act as a tree, as noted architect Bill McDonough once dreamed (then started building in Oberlin and beyond) what a special place to learn it would be. It too would continue to grow for the next 100 years.
As a leading education facility and an institution that hopes to inspire Clevelanders on how to live sustainably, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to walk the talk. It's a big, complicated process, to be sure. We should expect, though, to be judged on how well the building fulfills its commitments—engaging the public in exhibits that inspire the next generation to become scientists (they will be immersive and, in some cases, hands on). The building itself can show—not just tell—what it means to be green over the lifespan of the human age on earth.
If that sounds high flying, the engineers and Fentress Architects have done what many feel is impossible. Buro Happold has worked on some of the greenest buildings in the world. They helped the Hawaii Preparatory Academy's Energy Lab pursue the Living Building Challenge (while considerably smaller than CMNH, Living Buildings are producing clean air, water and more energy than they use). Fentress just completed an addition to a natural sciences museum in Raleigh, North Carolina that uses much less energy than comparable ones. With water, sewer and electricity costs rising, the natural history museum's leadership can be more than mission driven. It's view should be building as a hedge against uncertainty in energy futures. As a keeper of the flame of human evolution, it needs to take a stand against manmade climate change (mitigating local environmental impacts from fracking and the global warming contributions from the burning of fossil fuels).
Even if the most cutting edge idea—Living Building —proves elusive, the museum can aspire to show just how close or far out of its reach it is for us today. Shooting for an "impossibly" high level and documenting the struggle to acheive it would create a knowledge base from which to grow. For the museum, it may not be possible at present to meet Living Building's requirement that all energy is generated on site. Unlike other Living Buildings, the museum has energy intensive humidity controls, cold storage facilities and labs, in addition to exhibit space.
Today's commercially available solar panels might require two or three times the size rooftop of the museum to produce its energy needs. But, the museum could design for a future when solar panels are ten times as efficient and require much less space.
It raises the larger question: What does true leadership to a sustainable future look like? Is it having an inspiring story to tell—like being carbon neutral or the first Living Building in Ohio—that has the capacity to inspire future generations?
A building project of this scope—200,000 sq ft. of space filled with state of the art exhibits and research areas—means striking a balance between a lot of interests. It doesn't mean the museum isn't committed to pursuing a very green building. In fact, the green building symposium fueled the museum's desire to aim high. It introduced Cleveland to the most advanced green building ideas in the world. At the symposium, we heard from the developer of the world's greenest building —the Bullitt Center, a midrise office building in Seattle that is pursuing Living Building certification. The Bullitt Foundation justified the $30 million cost and 15% premium— half paid by the foundation, the other half with federal grants—because they wanted to be the change they see in their mission—to move mankind to a more sustainable future.
Cleveland has some other models—The California Academy of Sciences building with its completely green roof is an inspiring example. The focus of the 400,000 sq ft. building, which looks like a Hobbit convention center, was to capture all of the water on site and create a natural habitat. Cal Academy chose a path that emphasized this impressive story (indeed, it made headlines the world over). But, it may have resulted in less impressive energy savings, says Denzil Gallagher at Buro Happold, who notes the building's Energy Use Intensity (EUI)—sort of a miles per gallon for buildings—is 100 or a 12% energy improvement over a standard California building. That's not very impressive when you consider Cleveland's natural history museum has an EUI, Gallagher estimates, of 184 (placing us in the bottom quartile for natural history museums worldwide).
"What this means is we have a lot of room for improvement," Gallagher says of the CMNH project. "Collection areas are the most energy intensive. But when you get it right, lighting energy is a big part of it, particularly exhibit lighting. LED lighting is more expensive, but the payoff is large."
By contrast, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, which opened in November, focused on energy and it shows in a 14% savings and a predictive EUI of 52, which is considered very low. The reason, says Gallagher, is the Perot pursued a suite of certifications—LEED-Gold, Sustainable Sites (natural landscaping) and Green Globes. Most importantly, its design minimized the use of glass, which tends to be an energy loser.
The other possible route is Fentress' work on the North Carolina Natural Sciences Museum. The architects helped them acheive a LEED-Platinum rating, meeting the targeted 39% energy savings and an EUI of 70.
"When we did Raleigh we didn't say, let's drive this (80,000 sq ft. addition to a 28 year old building) from a net zero energy point of view," says Curt Fentress. "We just said, 'let's get LEED Platinum and do what makes sense.'"
Imagine, then, what can be achieved by setting the sights of Fentress and its client on a big goal like net zero energy and an EUI in the neighborhood of the best buildings? Imagine the leap forward—on par with what the museum accomplished with the SmartHome and its Passive House performance— when green design takes the lead.