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Photo © Tom Arban
The face of the Cornell Plantations Welcome Center arcs into the side of a hill.


Cornell Plantations Welcome Center

Baird Sampson Neuert Architects
Ithaca, New York

The Garden Gate Updated: A project for Cornell University's arboretum combines visitor orientation, classrooms, and social spaces while keeping the focus on the surrounding landscape.

By William Hanley
May 2012

Cornell University's botanic gardens lie just off a road that winds between a deep, narrow gorge and some of the most daring architecture on campus. But, unlike the acrobatic concrete forms of I.M. Pei's 1973 Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art or the conceptual provocations of OMA's new building for the architecture school, the recently completed visitors' center at the gardens is a quiet, nearly invisible presence in the landscape. "It's almost like a bell jar that came down and captured a bit of the garden," says Jon Neuert, a partner at Toronto's Baird Sampson Neuert. "You can literally see through the building." The firm designed the facility for Cornell Plantations, a university-run, nonacademic entity that oversees the 25-acre botanic gardens, an adjacent 150-acre arboretum, and many other natural areas around the Ithaca, New York, campus.


Location Ithaca, New York (Fall Creek and Cayuga Lake watersheds)

Gross area 5,900 ft2 (550 m2)

Completed January 2011

Cost $5.68 million

Annual purchased energy use (based on simulation) 182 kBtu/ft2 (2,065 MJ/m2), 39% reduction from base case

Annual carbon footprint (predicted) 29 lbs CO2/ft2 (144 kg CO2/m2)

Program Visitor orientation area, exhibition space, event facilities, classroom, office, café, and gift shop


Masonry Finger Lakes Stone Company, New York State Bluestone

Metal/glass curtain wall Kawneer

Wood Advantage Lumber, ipe

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Cornell Plantations Welcome Center
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But for all of its deference to the surrounding ecology, the Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center packs a range of visitor amenities—once housed in a cluster of rustic temporary structures—into its 5,900 square feet. "We needed indoor restrooms, water fountains, all of those things," says Director of Education Sonja M. Skelly, beginning a list that also included display areas for maps and exhibitions. In addition, the clients wanted handicap-accessible classrooms, a café, and an event space inside the facility, for which they required a LEED Silver certification. "We wanted to be green not only in our horticultural practices, but also in all of our buildings," says Skelly.

The design team tucked the two-story steel structure between a knoll on a glacial slope and a 19th-century school building used for research and administrative functions. A new parking lot—and much of the rest of site—drains into a bioswale designed to 100-year storm standards. Landscape architect and garden master-planners Halvorson Design Partnership planted it with low grasses punctuated by more sculptural plantings, including echinacea and false indigo. "Knowing that the bioswale was going to be a cultivated location and part of the visitor experience made the imagery more important," says landscape architect Tobias Wolf, who worked on the project while at Halvorson but has since left to start his own practice. "The grading, planting, and other details worked together to not only infiltrate water, but also draw attention to the process."

A bridge like path—wide enough to accommodate a fire truck but finished at a pedestrian scale—leads around the bioswale to the welcome center, where it continues straight through the building to a rear set of glass doors before heading deeper into the garden. The enclosed portion runs through a double-height, skylit atrium. A series of glass vitrines, displaying maps and information about the arboretum, separate the path from a reception desk, a café, and a gift shop that opens onto a terrace. Parallel stairs run up both the inside and outside of the project's northern facade, following the grade change of the knoll up to the building's second floor and a classroom, which opens out to a flat area on the top of the hill.

The classroom is the only air-conditioned space in the project, which otherwise regulates warm-weather temperatures with a passive cooling system. The area between the former school and the new welcome center, says Skelly, has its own microclimate that stays cooler in the summer than other parts of the site. Baird Sampson Neuert placed mechanically controlled windows at the base of the eastern facade. With the skylights that cap the atrium and a row of operable ceiling-height windows, they create a stack effect, pulling in the cooler air.

Curving ipe louvers also contribute to the project's climatization, shading in the summer and allowing light in during Ithaca's notoriously chilly winters. The building combats the cold with an in-floor radiant heating system powered by high-efficiency boilers and a solar thermal collector on one side of the green roof. During the building's first winter, the collectors met 12 to 15 percent of overall heating requirements. "The shoulder seasons, when it's around 40 degrees in spring and fall, are when they work well," says Chad Fikes of M/E Engineering.

The combination of passive cooling and solar heating, as well as low-flow bathroom fixtures, regionally sourced stone, and other features, has the project on track to exceed the client's requirements and receive LEED Platinum certification. But in close to one year of use, some kinks have come up in the day-to-day comfort of the building. The second-floor conference room was getting poor air circulation in the summer, and the architects have drawn up plans to add air conditioning to that space. The client has also added additional sunshading to the glazed facades to cut down on glare in the winter and to rein in solar heat gain in the summer, a chief complaint among the staff and a factor that Neuert says is part of a calculated compromise. "Most people come into the building for 15 minutes before going out into the gardens," he says. "And the design preferences that user group over the person sitting at the desk all day long."

But despite operational tweaks, Skelly considers the project a success. "All paths lead here, and all paths lead out of here," she says. "We have this really gorgeous building, but you always feel like you're immersed in the gardens."


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