Queens Botanical Garden
Setting Down Roots: A new building raises a botanical gardenís profile as an institution focused on environmental stewardship.
The Queens Botanical Garden (QBG) may not be as well known or as large as its counterparts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but a new visitor and administrative center should raise the garden’s profile, especially as an institution focused on environmental stewardship. The 16,000-square-foot center, completed in September 2007, is part of an approximately $22-million infrastructure and landscape project. The building is on track to receive LEED Platinum certification and will likely be the first publicly funded capital project in New York City to achieve this status.
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The QBG has its roots in a five-acre exhibit that was part of the 1939 World’s Fair. In 1963, New York City planning czar Robert Moses moved the garden from the fairgrounds to its current 39-acre parcel close to the bustling heart of Flushing. The neighborhood is one of the city’s most ethnically diverse, with a larger Chinese population than Manhattan’s Chinatown. It is also home to many Koreans and Latinos.
“This community sees the garden as its backyard,” explains Jennifer Ward Souder, QBG director of capital projects. Nearby residents visit regularly, using the grounds to practice Tai Chi, for walks, or to enjoy a picnic lunch. So before beginning the design process in earnest in the late 1990s, administrators held a series of public meetings to gather input from the community. A strong desire for a scheme that prominently featured water emerged as a priority from these sessions. Though the residents were primarily interested in water’s aesthetic benefits and its cultural associations, their wishes nevertheless dovetailed with the institution’s mission to “demonstrate environmental stewardship, promote sustainability, and celebrate the rich cultural connections between people and plants.”
For the project team, water quickly became the “overarching design principle,” says David Yocca, director of landscape architecture and planning at Conservation Design Forum in Elmhurst, Illinois. Yocca’s firm, along with Atelier Dreiseitl, Überlingen, Germany, developed the master plan and landscape design for the project. The two firms’ strategy treats water as a valuable resource, relying almost exclusively on rainwater for irrigation and ornamental features, says Yocca. The rainwater is collected and “stewarded” on site, he explains, keeping runoff out of New York City’s already overburdened combined sewer-and-wastewater system.
An integral part of this landscape scheme, the new visitor and administrative center helps display the water-management cycle. “We tried to make sustainability tangible, to make it present for visitors,” says Joan Krevlin, partner of locally based BKSK Architects. The facility that Krevlin and her staff created consists of a two-story, steel-framed structure clad in western red cedar, housing a reception area, meeting rooms, and offices. A partially underground reinforced-concrete structure contains an auditorium, covered with a green roof planted with sedum, grasses, and perennial flowers. Separating these two programmatic elements is a water-filled channel that visitors encounter as they enter the building, passing over it on a small bridge to reach the reception area.
The role of water as the building’s organizing theme is most evident when it rains. Then, water cascades from a dramatic folded-zinc-clad roof that hovers over the entry plaza on canted columns down into the channel below. Eventually the water flows into a “cleansing biotope.” In this man-made catchment area, gravel and aquatic plants remove sediments and nutrients from the water before it is pumped underground to a fountain near the garden’s main gate. From there, it travels again through the channel and the cleansing biotope. The process mimics the natural hydrology of the site, which originally contained low-lying streambeds that were tributaries of the Flushing River.
A somewhat less visible system helps conserve potable water by recycling graywater from sinks and showers. Near the base of the green roof, a constructed wetland planted with marsh grasses and other species cleanses the graywater, which is then pumped back into the building to flush toilets in public restrooms. Other water conservation measures include waterless urinals and, in staff restrooms, composting toilets. Though maintenance concerns prevented their installation in all of the building’s restrooms, the composting toilets are so far trouble-free, and Souder hopes they will be part of future QBG construction projects.
Botanical garden staff is working to incorporate the various water conservation and reuse strategies into QBG’s educational programming. These measures make the visitor and administrative center about 82 percent more water-efficient than a standard office building of its size. The features are explained on touch screens in the building’s lobby in English, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. These information panels also illustrate how the ground-source heat pump heats and cools the building. In addition, they show how much electricity a 16-kW photovoltaic (PV) system is generating in real time. The designers estimate that the PVs will satisfy about 20 percent of the facility’s annual power demand.
The project’s environmentally sensitive strategies also encompass material selection. Locally harvested and milled black locust used for the decks of the bridges crossing the water channel, along with the western red-cedar cladding, are certified to the standards of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). The team even considered the source of wood used for construction processes: The formwork for the auditorium’s concrete structure was made of salvaged hemlock. Although the hemlock is not part of the completed building, its imprint can be read on the auditorium’s board-formed walls. On the interior, the architects’ approach to sustainability was to use as few finishes as possible. For example, though some spaces have carpet tile, most floors are polished concrete.
The offices are bright and pleasant and offer views from the southeast side of the building, over the sheltered entry terrace and into the garden beyond. Motion sensors and a daylight dimming system control electric lights, while exterior brises-soleil, made of the same cedar as the cladding, modulate most of the sunlight coming through the generous windows. However, direct low winter sunlight does penetrate the shading devices, creating glare on work surfaces. Luckily, this problem will soon be rectified with the addition of interior shades that will give occupants individual control over daylighting conditions.
The visitor and administrative center’s goal of LEED Platinum makes it considerably more ambitious than projects that merely comply with a recently adopted New York City law requiring a Silver rating for most new municipal buildings. The path to realizing such a high-performing building wasn’t without difficulties. Though the success of the QBG project depended on tight integration of its systems, the city’s procurement policies stipulate a competitive bidding process and separate mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and general construction contracts held directly by the owner. Much of the project team’s efforts were focused on carefully outlining the responsibilities of each trade in the contract documents. “Our biggest challenge was coordination from sub to sub,” says Souder.
Even if the public procurement process and the garden’s sustainable goals were not completely in sync, the project serves as a testament to what is possible in spite of tough constraints. It vividly illustrates the benefit of close connections among landscape, buildings, and systems. QBG’s “green infrastructure is functional,” says Yocca, “but done in a visible and beautiful way, in order to make these practices more widely embraced.”
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