The Tyner Nature Center

With environmental concern now a mainstream issue, community and park district leaders have become even more diligent, creative guardians of their natural resources, especially those in densely populated cities and suburbs. Many are building nature centers, primarily to help residents and visitors better appreciate and enjoy their natural surroundings. Some, however, are doing much more: designing these centers to demonstrate responsible environmental practices.

In 2000, officials from Glenview, Ill., began planning for such a center on 32 acres of native prairie given to the near-North Chicago suburb following the closing of Great Lakes Naval Air Station. Earlier this spring, they officially opened the Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretative Center, which was more than worth the wait. Stunningly elegant, this one-of-a-kind building is an exemplary model of environmental stewardship and sustainable design.

“This is ‘green’ design at its best—elegant, attractive, efficient and harmonious with the environment,” said Amy Ahner, the Assistant Director of Capital Projects for Glenview. “It has already earned enough points for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification during the first application review from the U.S. Green Building Council, and we expect it to become one of the few buildings in the country to achieve LEED Platinum status, the highest rating possible.”

“Inside-Out” Approach Integrates the Building into the Prairie

Several features make the new Tyner Center a special place. It attracts and engages visitors with its 4,000-square-foot green roof populated with native plants, its expansive deck overlooking the wetlands, its inviting “teaching gardens” and walking trails. It does not simply help people learn about the historical/ecological importance of the restored prairie, but shows that buildings can do their part to preserve natural resources. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, 84 nature centers have applied for LEED certification.

The Tyner Center, however, takes this concept to the next level by actually becoming an integral part of the prairie. It blends into the remnant prairie landscape of Air Station Prairie almost as if it were an organic element, reposing serenely above the ground like a beautiful Japanese-style pagoda.

“Instead of bringing nature into the building, the Tyner Center is integrated into nature,” said sustainable design expert Lois Vitt Sale, who helped initiate this project for Wight & Company, and now partners with the firm as an independent consultant. “This ‘inside-out’ approach was a key part of the design strategy.”

A Showcase for Best Practices in Energy Management

One of the center’s most impressive aspects is its creative use of energy. In fact, it incorporates virtually all Best Practices in energy management. (In Glenview’s application for LEED certification, the building earned 17 points related to energy. The building earned 16 of 17 possible credits in the “energy” category.) Following are examples of some of its noteworthy energy-efficient features.

Solar Power from the Green Roof

Solar slates on about one-sixth of the roof are placed to capture the maximum amount of sunlight available for energy conversion. Any excess power generated is sent to the grid to earn credits from the electric company.

A Geothermal System to Extract Renewable Energy from the Earth

Powered by pipes, which are sunk 10 feet into the ground and extend 200 feet in length (where it's about 50 degrees all year), this system brings in warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer.

Practical Solutions to Minimize Energy Demand

The building was designed to be as small as possible (only 3,000 square feet) so that it would consume less power. (This shrinkage was accomplished in part by the “inside-out” strategy of embedding much of its educational information on outside wall panels rather than indoor exhibits.) It has heat-saving insulation provided by a polyurethane layer between its composite wood walls and its 6-inch thick green roof. In warm-weather months (about 25 percent of the year), the building can often be cooled simply by opening the windows. These huge windows also let in sunlight and, combined with light sensors that adjust for daylight and the presence of people, reduce the need for electrical lighting.

“The energy efficiency of the Tyner Center is 97.1 percent better than the minimum requirement for LEED certification,” said Vitt Sale. “We expect this will be a ‘zero-energy’ building that generates all the power it needs.”

Small Footprint, Year-Round Learning Opportunities

From the outset, Glenview officials, the design team from Wight & Company and other project participants all made certain that the Tyner Center would be minimally disruptive to prairie and wetlands. For example, it is elevated by steel supports, which not only minimized the amount of digging during construction but also allows adjacent wetlands to flow freely beneath its floor.

“The early site work was similar to an archeological dig, since we had to scrape off ‘junk’ soil around the center to uncover the buried wetlands,” said Jay Womack, Wight’s Director of Sustainable Design, who was involved in the project as a former consultant for Conservation Design Forum. “From start to finish, it was like building your dream house. Everyone was intent on making sure all the details were exactly right.”

Visitors on the large deck that projects over these wetlands often will feel as if they are a part of the natural environment—yet another example of how the design blurs the distinction between “inside” and “out.” The center itself is an information venue that has been turned inside out with its large, educational panels, visible from outside the building. This innovative approach allows the visiting public to learn about the site (and the building) even when the center is closed. The “teaching garden” is likewise a year-round, self-contained educational resource with plaques to enlighten visitors about local wildlife, medicinal plants, the green roof, the reason for prairie burns and other topics.

The design also took advantage of Air Station Prairie’s location within The Glen, a large, mixed-use development of single- and multi-family homes, offices, parks and retail outlets. To draw attention to the center from pedestrians and car passengers, the green roof is slightly sloped to present a sweeping curve of vegetation visible from the street. On a nearby sidewalk, a two-foot-high “history wall” (with a timeline from prehistoric times to the present) also arouses curiosity and interest.

Advice on “Going Green”

Like nature itself, projects of this sort are usually slow moving; site planning for Air Station Prairie began in the mid-1990s, and the Tyner Center celebrated its official grand opening in April 2007. This was a community-wide effort that involved the village board, the park district, the school district, the owners and residents of The Glen, and concerned citizens such as Evelyn Pease Tyner herself, a long-time environmental advocate, who helped protect another Glenview treasure, The Grove National Historic Landmark. It also required Ahner, the project manager, to coordinate and synchronize activities among these and other contributors, including the Wight design team, landscape architects, the construction company and state and federal agencies.

How was the project team able to persevere and overcome the red tape, delays and other obstacles? What lessons did they learn that could be helpful to other communities and park districts interested in building their own “green” nature centers? Here are some tips and advice from the participants.

1. Plan early and often--Surprises are inevitable, but are best handled when leaders base their decisions on a clear understanding of big-picture goals and strategies.

2. Make sure everyone understands what ‘green’ means--From Wight project architect Jim Smiley to the sub-contractors working at the site, all participants understood the “green” goals and their roles and responsibilities for achieving the desired LEED rating.

3. Communicate and collaborate--Constantly share information with all team members, which not only will expedite smart decision-making but also will often lead to creative problem-solving and new opportunities for improvements.

4. Pay attention to details--For example, Glenview selected renowned exhibit designer Paul Bluestone, whose work is featured at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and the Disney Animal Kingdom in Florida, to develop the concepts, themes and content for the center’s information resources (e.g., the embedded wall panels, garden plaques, historical wall, trail signage, etc.)

5. Stay true to your dream, be patient, and don’t compromise--From day one, Glenview officials and the project team were committed to doing what was best for the site and nature center, a key to its ultimate success.

Final Word

Not every nature center has to be an architectural masterpiece, but there’s no reason for it to be just another boring brick box. The Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretative Center, which is now being managed by the Glenview Park District, proves that green buildings of this type can be a beautiful amenity to any community. Moreover, by becoming part of their surroundings, they also can become as much a part of the environmental “story” as the natural resources they help protect and preserve.

Richard Carlson, AIA, LEED AP, is Group President, Architecture, for Wight & Company, which provides design, construction and civil engineering services for public and private sector projects. Wight has been on the forefront of the “green revolution” since 1997 and is currently designing another LEED Platinum project for the Bolingbrook Park District. Carlson may be reached at 630.739.6950 or via e-mail at