Boston Children’s Museum
Small Footprint, Small Clientele: Bostonís childrenís museum broadens its green agenda with sustainable renovation and expansion
The plaza in front of the recently expanded Boston Children’s Museum is one of the most frenetic outdoor spaces in the downtown area--barely controlled chaos. Inside, glass, steel, and brick amplify the din of hyper-stimulated kids. The energy-harvesting potential is staggering. The museum literally put that exuberance to work, inviting visitors to help plant the trays of sedum (a hardy succulent) that make up the three green roofs on its 23,000-square-foot addition. On a more abstract level, the museum seeks to cultivate environmental awareness in its juvenile clientele. The building functions as both classroom for lessons on human and environmental health, and experiment, providing a chance to learn about and monitor the performance of a green building. Completed in the spring of 2007, the project was designed by Cambridge Seven Associates.
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The U.S. Green Building Council credited both the green roof and the green curriculum, along with more typical green-building strategies, in awarding the building a LEED Gold rating. The $47 million project consists of a mix of adaptive reuse/preservation and new construction. The museum renovated the six-story 19th-century wool warehouse it has occupied since 1979 and added a three-story extension that blends modernism and industrial chic with a playground sensibility. The building resides on Fort Point Channel, the industrial waterway bisecting downtown Boston and the south Boston peninsula, just over the Congress Street bridge from the financial district. The project included gutting and reconfiguring the interior of the warehouse building, revamping energy and lighting-control systems, consolidating the museum’s exhibit space and offices to the first three floors, and adding a theater. Michael Van Valkenberg Associates redesigned the landscape, linking the building with the city’s harbor walk. Van Valkenberg is also designing a public park on an adjacent parcel, effectively extending the museum’s grounds. The landscaping, which features willow trees and several massive “recycled” quarry stones, also functions as a stormwater retention system. Anticipating water-taxi service, which will bolster transit options, the project eliminated some surface parking. In addition to the required recycling of construction waste—in this case 241 tons, or 78 percent by volume—the project refurbished one of Boston’s most famous waypoints, the museum’s iconic 40-foot tall milk bottle, a 1930s vintage ice-cream stand on the Congress Street corner, adjacent to the new entrance.†
The new section faces west. This orientation floods the building with natural light, which filters through the three-story lobby and atrium to the circulation areas that run along the old brick facade. Augmenting the high-performance glazing, the willows, perforated zinc panels, and colored film screen the light, reducing glare and heat gain. The panels dapple the lobby floor’s recycled end-grain fir tiles. “It’s functional and aesthetic. It produces a syncopated almost-fugue of polka dots,” says Cambridge Seven design principal Steven Imrich, AIA, LEED AP.†
A pair of hangar doors open the atrium to the plaza and harbor walk and provide fresh air, weather permitting. A sound system plays predatory bird calls to keep avian visitors from flying into the curtain wall or through the open bays. The museum has a long-standing commitment to recycling, reusing materials for arts and crafts classes, and reselling miscellany. Fittingly, the project team was able to turn some of the timbers from the warehouse into ticket counters and information desks in the new lobby.
The atrium features a three-story “climbing tree”—a jumble of plywood lined with recycled, low-VOC carpeting and wrapped in netting that provides small visitors with a popular alternative to the stairs and elevators. Next to this an air cannon lofts tennis balls.
The second and third floor decks are floored with a springy, sound-absorbing composite with high recycled content. The designers insisted that the decks be free-standing to preserve the original building’s facade. Original windows serve as display cases. The green roofs, which are visible from the upper floors, trap and filter stormwater. The runoff is stored in a 20,000-gallon tank and is used to flush toilets and water the landscaping. The scheme should prevent an estimated 75 percent of the site’s runoff from further taxing the local waterway. The designers chose not to irrigate the green roofs in order to save water and energy. The addition’s aesthetic is industrial chic, blending a rectilinear zinc-sheathed steel frame with recycled/recyclable wood paneling and glass curtain walls. Since the green roofs are barely visible from the street, there isn’t much to mark the building as sustainable, according to Imrich. “I’d rather see things that work and are measurable than something that’s showy,” he says. Cambridge Seven has considerable experience with museums and environmentally focused institutions. Its first significant commission was the 1967 New England Aquarium, several blocks away on Boston Harbor. Although the firm has completed academic projects to LEED specifications, this is the first to be certified, according to Imrich. The Children’s Museum, Boston’s first LEED-certified museum, is in the vanguard, according to John Jacobsen, president of White Oak Associates, a Marblehead, Mass., design and consulting firm and co-chair of the American Association of Museums’ green-building committee. “There’s been a shift in museums’ focus over the last five years. There are about 95 museums with a significant interest in capital projects with green elements,” he says. “Museums see themselves as beacons in their communities and buildings are symbols of the museums, so it becomes almost ethically difficult not being green about it.”
Children’s museums have been quick to embrace green building, in part because of their focus on health and environmental education and also because their exhibit space is more rough-and-ready than repositories of precious objects, according to Jacobsen. “Museum requirements like temperature and humidity controls, security, and lighting might mitigate against energy savings and other green-building strategies,” he says. In the museum world, green can mean sustainable design and energy-efficient operations; “sustainability compacts” with vendors, suppliers, and cleaning services; programs and exhibits; and in some cases stewardship of the local environment, according to Jacobsen.†
That the Boston Children's Museum’s long-planned expansion and renovation would be green was a given, in light of the museum’s mission and the environmental and financial benefits, according to museum president Louis Casagrande. And a building designed to be 17 percent more energy efficient than code looks even more responsible as energy costs rise. But while it seems like an organic outgrowth of its urban context—adaptive reuse in a downtown historic district, energy efficient, convenient to mass transit—the museum came close to abandoning the site about a decade ago when several of Boston’s signature green projects lagged. “Part of [the delay] was waiting for the infrastructure to catch up with us,” Casagrande says. “The Big Dig was still in chaos.”†
Throughout the project, the museum used its building as fodder for exhibits and programs and plans to do the same with its ongoing performance monitoring. “It’s going to take a couple of generations to change the way we all live,” Casagrande says. “Our job is to role-model that now, so kids internalize the message and see it as a positive, doable, necessary thing.”
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