A Tale of Three Projects

By Lois Vitt Sale

Nature centers are special places with unique purposes. These centers exist to connect people with the natural environment and to bring to life stories of the animals, plants, and insects that make the area their homes. They also help bring to life aspects of nature that are hidden or not well understood. Stories of social history and development, and their impacts—both positive and negative—are part of the tale these places tell, too.

The first nature center we designed at Wight & Company was located on a remnant prairie in Glenview, Ill. During one of the earliest site visits before design started, we were accompanied by a team member who commented that he thought the site was just a collection of weeds and had wondered when a developer was going to put “something of value” there. The Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center focuses visitors’ attention on the stories of the prairie, its deep hidden roots, the historic value of plants as pharmacopeia for Native Americans living in the area, and more.

The buildings that house these lessons are at their best when the architecture also reflects the uniqueness of the site. And sustainability has a large role to play in the expression of these buildings, as stewardship and sensitivity to their surroundings is fundamental in the design. Over the last 10 years, we have designed three nature centers, all located in northern Illinois within a 50-mile radius. In addition to a remnant prairie, one is a hardwood savannah, and the third sits at the edge of a floodplain for the West Branch of the DuPage River.

If you are planning to add a nature center to your site, here are five framing guidelines that will be useful.

1. Enlist the community in building a nature center.
Gather a group of knowledgeable stakeholders. They will work with you and the design team to shape the focus of the interpretive exhibits and inform the architecture. They may be people who have an attachment to the site and its history, or are naturalists and/or teachers who can help fill out the stories that will come to life in the nature center.

At the Tyner Center, the stakeholders included Evelyn Pease Tyner, an active member of the community and an esteemed scientist, as well as Kent Fuller, a life-long resident of Glenview and a conservationist who devoted much time to preserving natural areas, including the remnant prairie where the center is located. Not long ago, the site was renamed the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie in recognition of his valuable contributions. In addition to these two, representatives from the local school district, the park district, and the village rounded out the stakeholders. This core group helped to keep the focus on stories unique to the prairie that would one day become the underpinnings of interpretation at the nature center, as well as a major influence on its architectural development.

2. Make interpretive design an integral part of the design process.
Given that the primary goal of nature centers is to provide environmental learning, ensuring that the interpretive designer is involved early in the project is critical to facilitating the process of birthing the stories to be highlighted in the building and on the site. When interpretation and architectural design occur together in the timeline, the potential to integrate the design of both the exhibits and the building provide rich opportunities for the expression of both.

The Hidden Oaks Nature Center is situated on a 17-acre hardwood savannah in Bolingbrook, Ill. One of the central exhibits in the building’s main interpretive area, located in the lobby, features a specific ecosystem in the form of an oak tree with a transparent floor that reveals the underground story of the tree.

This type of exhibit would not have been possible if the cycle of exhibit design had not been concurrent with the building design. In addition, the architecture celebrates the woodland further by borrowing from the shape of a tree for the two-story portion of the building, and using timber harvested on-site for structure and millwork. Visitors to the center can make the connection between the woodland as an ecosystem and the woodland as a resource for man’s habitat, in a rich and interesting manner.

3. Infuse a nature center with purpose.
A strong concept transforms these centers from merely receptacles of exhibits and program spaces to buildings infused with purpose. The concept for the Tyner Center was an elevated prairie. This stemmed from a desire to minimize impact on the prairie as much as possible. We planned for a large green roof which was paired with a photovoltaic array to generate power from the sun just as plants generate power through photosynthesis. The roof became the dominant design feature in the center.

If you can articulate the concept for a nature center design in a few words that evoke strong imagery, the design of the building will become focused and purposeful.

4. Make the nature center sustainable.
These buildings are integrated into natural settings and serve as places that teach about stewardship of the natural world. As such, they should be designed around a framework that can declare their sustainable attributes by earning third-party certification, such as LEED certification, Energy Petal Certification, or Living Building Challenge.

When we designed Knoch Knolls Nature Center, the client was unsure about pursuing LEED certification. But there was a desire to integrate sustainable design and green technologies into the project. The concept for that facility in Naperville, Ill., was celebrating water. An inverted roof is used to harvest rainwater, which is then used to irrigate an interior living wall and flush toilets. Ninety percent of the water used in the building is from rainwater.

In addition, the building manages all of its stormwater on-site, using a large permeable parking lot and an enlarged farm pond. But the center’s sustainability also extends to energy conservation through the use of copious amounts of daylight, LED lighting, and efficient mechanical systems. It also offsets much of its power with an on-site photovoltaic array.

When we quantified the environmental attributes that were incorporated into the design of Knoch Knolls, we realized that LEED Platinum was entirely achievable. And having the plaque on the wall declares to every visitor that this building has attained the highest level of recognition for sustainable design by the U.S. Green Building Council.

5. Design a building to demonstrate features that resonate with visitors.
At Knoch Knolls, a rainwater cistern is the dominant feature in the lobby and is surrounded by a fish tank that emulates the ecosystem found in the West Branch of the DuPage River, which bisects the site. In order to help visitors understand just how much water it takes to serve the building, a glass tube was added to the cistern that shows how much water is in the tank, how fast it fills in a rain event, and how low it falls in a dry spell. At this nature center, the design and the exhibits do more than teach visitors about natural water systems. They help us understand the connection with water and its use in people’s lives, well beyond the nature center.

Perhaps you have heard the phrase that buildings are better when they integrate nature into the design. Nature centers, more than other building types, demonstrate that the phrase is backwards. These places, more than most, teach us how to integrate buildings into nature.

Lois Vitt Sale, AIA, LEED Fellow, leads Wight & Company’s sustainable design initiatives and advances the firm’s commitment to offering clients the most effective sustainable solutions and maximizing the environmental potential for projects. Lois is a national leader in the application of private and commercial green technologies and sustainable planning to the public and private sectors. Reach her at lvittsale@wightco.com.