“One of the great beauties of architecture is that each time, it is like life starting all over again.” Renzo Piano

A significant contributor to humanity through the Art of Architecture, a collaborator of engineering, technology, and nature. Renzo Piano did not have a distinct style of his own but strongly believed that a building should be treated as a practical solution to a distinctive problem hence the solution can vary in every case and structure. 

Renzo Piano Building Workshop focuses on building light and elegant architecture and the construction that leaves the least impact on the surrounding site having a very small environmental footprint as possible.

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Selection of the Renowned Architect

Renzo Piano was one of the six finalists who were shortlisted to design the Academy of Sciences. The board wanted an Architect who would live by the vision of the Academy and his stature would reflect the same. Walking in the boardroom with a notepad while others walked in with polished models of the proposal was a game-changer for Renzo. 

Arranging all the chairs in the form of a circle he opened the interview by asking the board about the Academy’s goals and mission. In no time it was no more an interview but a conversation that helped him bag the project. There and then Piano started sketching a design in response to the answers.

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Design Concept and Process

The California Academy of Sciences was going to be the symbol of sustainability, living by the terms, Renzo came up with a concept of a roof that will breathe in the refreshing winds of San Francisco. The living roof was inspired by the seven hills of San Francisco which one of the highlights that echoed and merged with the surrounding landscape of the museum. 

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Renzo aimed to combine science, nature, and people under this living roof. The exhibit was designed in such a way that the roof encourages natural ventilation, rainwater recovery while the glazing helped to get the most out of the sunny environment by natural lighting and solar energy. 

This project influenced the Academy to evolve its mission, from “explore and explain the natural world” to “explore, explain, and sustain life on Earth.” His concept is described as lifting part of the park and then placing a building underneath. 

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Spaces inside the living structure

After the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Academy lost 12 structures and needed reconstruction. So the new design focused on restoring 3 of the original buildings, the African Hall, the Steinhart Aquarium, and the North American Hall. All the functions laid around the central courtyard, acting as a central lobby and fundamental centre to the collection. 

Sitting in the Golden park, this part of the complex was just a piece of land that was raised to 10m above the ground. The living roof houses plants of the great variety planted in biodegradable coconut-fibre containers. The forest exhibition space and the planetarium are covered by 2 main domes which play a part in the San Francisco skyline.

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The Academy being a public institution also holds private research areas which are planned away from the public circulation. The exhibit areas which are open for the general public are mainly located on the ground floor and expand a bit to the basement and the second floor. The café and retail shop area at the entrance to welcoming the visitors inside this grand structure. The Administrative and the /Research Spaces are spread over the whole building in assortment to balance the public and private intervention

Sustainable Solutions

As sustainability was the main aim of this project every ounce of it is environmentally efficient taking utmost advantage of the cool winds from the north-west and the warm sunny mornings. The living roof tries to capture the humidity to keep the green roof alive.  Due to naturally ventilated spaces and maximum use of natural sunlight the Academy did not require much passive heating and cooling.

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The green roof is 6 inches of soil with 1,700,000 species of plants planted that sit on a concrete form. The green roof acts as insulation which helps to maintain the heating and cooling of the interior spaces and also prevents stormwater runoff. The undulating roof above the domes automatically opens and closes to vent hot air keeping 90% of the spaces naturally ventilated. 

The positioning of the skylights gives access to natural daylight and creates a connection between the forests inside to the outer park. The strategic placement of these skylights allows the sunlight to reach the living forest and the coral reef creating a natural environment of its own.      

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Solar panels are installed as an extension of the roof which also serves the purpose of a 30 ft. overhang that contains 60,000 photovoltaic cells and produces 5% of the Academy’s annual energy needs. The amalgamation of the green roof, solar panels, passive cooling strategies and strategically placing the pockets for daylighting have decreased the energy use intensity in the building as compared to other conventional museum systems.

Structure details

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California Academy of Sciences by Cal Poly Citizen Architects – issuu
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The foundation of the structure is a spread of footings that allows the building movement. The concrete basement is a continuation of this system of which some part of the aquarium is affixed to the ground. The roof structure is supported by a pre-bent beam and girder grid on columns and concrete shear walls. 

The Academy of Sciences, California can be portrayed as a piece of the earth having a 3rd dimension to it floating on a piece of land. The Academy has been awarded the EPA’s regional 2006 Environmental Award in recognition of the new building’s sustainable design and is a certified LEED Platinum building

Big ideas call for coordination, balance: The visually stunning and environmentally innovative work of a “Starchitect” brought high visibility and attracted financial support to this project. Renzo Piano’s design, as well as its European location, also contributed complexity to this large, multifaceted effort.

References

Anon., 2008. ArchDaily. [Online]
Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/6810/california-academy-of-sciences-renzo-piano

Anon., n.d. California Academy of Sciences. [Online]
Available at: https://www.calacademy.org/press/releases/rebuilding-project-fact-sheet

Anon., n.d. Green Building Audio Tours. [Online]
Available at: https://greenaudiotours.com/items/california_academy_of_sciences

Anon., n.d. Purpose Built – Case Study, s.l.: The Atlantic Philanthropies, S.D. Bechtel JR. Foundation, MASS.

Fairs, M., 2008. dezeen. [Online]
Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2008/10/03/california-academy-of-sciences-by-renzo-piano/

Kiah Hixon, K. T., 2019. ISSU. [Online]
Available at: https://issuu.com/calpoly82/docs/18_renzopiano_cas

Author

A nature lover who believes that traditional measures can deliver sustainable solutions. An architect who sees her work to be a medium for the expression of mankind’s love for nature and harmonious co-existence among all living beings.

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