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Discovery Center in Kansas City, Missouri

Credits: ©2010 David R. Macaulay / EcoStructure

Only minutes from downtown Kansas City, Mo., lies an urban oasis: 11 acres of prairie, wetlands, and wildlife habitat surrounding the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center. Completed in 2002, the 38,600-square-foot Discovery Center serves as an urban centerpiece for the Missouri Department of Conservation, providing a rich mix of sustainable design along with a strong community connection. Visitors arrive in a parking area that is surrounded by bioswales and native landscaping. On any given school day, busloads of schoolchildren parade past photovoltaic arrays and reclaimed brick walls, and into an energy-efficient interior that is filled with daylight and fresh air. There, they experience firsthand the wildlife, soil, plants, and broader ecosystems unique to Missouri. The building program emphasizes education from the lobby exhibits, 240-seat auditorium, and meeting spaces to six hands-on classrooms. These classrooms include “Nature’s Garden,” which features native plants for landscaping; “Woodworking for Wildlife,” which provides visitors an opportunity to build nest boxes and feeders; and “Nature’s Aquarium,” where visitors study water quality.


Discovery Center Site Water

Eleven acres of prairie, wetlands, and wildlife habitat surround the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center, completed in 2002 in Kansas City Missouri. ©2010 Assassi Productions

The Discovery Center’s design was intended to be used as a teaching tool. Inspired by successful interactive exhibits at other nature centers, the architect of record, Kansas City, Mo.–based BNIM, wanted to create a transformative place for learning. “We had an opportunity here to start dreaming about an environment within which you could immerse kids and adults and expose them to a larger view of life,” explains Bob Berkebile, one of BNIM’s founders and the principal in charge. “While we had achieved similar designs before, this was a chance to create an entire facility—the landscape and the building—that became pedagogical and therefore part of the teaching.”

As a result, the building form and orientation optimizes daylighting. A geothermal heat pump for heating and cooling and four PV arrays with a total of 74 collectors reduce annual energy use by 33 percent and 1 percent, respectively, over conventional systems. Every space features environmentally friendly materials such as calcium-silicate masonry units and glue-laminated beams, along with countertops, paints, carpet squares, and restroom stall partitions that contain post-consumer recycled materials. Yet the central attraction is the facility’s Living Machine (livingmachines.com). This wastewater system reclaims all water from the building’s toilets, sinks, showers, and drinking fountains for treatment within an exposed greenhouse setting and for later reuse in flushing toilets and to recharge the outdoor wetland.

Designing the center in 1997 was equally transformative for BNIM as a firm. At the time, the firm applied many of the building’s concepts to another project, Montana State University’s Epicenter, a LEED pilot project. BNIM’s architects also were beginning to incorporate the input of clients, engineers, subcontractors, and other key stakeholders as a critical part of the design process. The project architect, Laura Lesniewski, notes how this established a precedent for BNIM, “particularly for high-performance buildings. The importance of having an integrated team has been a constant since then.”

The power of storytelling also drove many design decisions. “At that time, we were going beyond the normal considerations of buildings, while taking a systems approach to understanding the place,” Berkebile recalls. BNIM used Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition along the Missouri River “as a lens to reveal a new approach to materials, resources, and issues,” he adds. For Lesniewski, the site’s story opened up a new way of design thinking: “I became more aware of this connection and that, 200 years after Lewis and Clark, we need to be more conscious of our limited resources. I had never before spent so much time on each material in the building to decide whether it was appropriate.”

Today, the Discovery Center is busier than ever, booked solid with school group and community programs about rain gardens, outdoor photography, and more. And after nearly 10 years, the mission of this urban conservation campus remains vital: to connect Missourians to nature and their past.

Lessons Learned
“Understanding this urban site and building as a living system—and then visualizing what we now see there today—was our biggest challenge. Our vision was never this ambitious before,” says BNIM’s Bob Berkebile. “So the value of an overarching set of principles and organizing goals to align all stakeholders became essential to the design process. We’re a lot better at it now.” In addition, Laura Lesniewski, BNIM’s project architect on the Discovery Center, points to several lessons learned with the project that continue to influence the firm’s work: • Address building commissioning, early and often. In addition to thorough testing and balancing once construction is complete, commissioning should occur regularly to optimize building efficiency and make adjustments as needed. • Incorporate energy monitoring from day one to ensure the building is performing as designed. In conjunction with the Missouri Department of Conservation, the building’s owner, BNIM is now tracking energy usage, working with the mechanical engineer to fine-tune heating and cooling, and considering regular post-occupancy evaluation on the center. • Create a more rigorous material selection process. The Discovery Center design in 1997 has had a profound influence on BNIM’s selection criteria and specifications for sustainable building materials and finishes. • Devise a long-term plan for native landscaping. Despite misconceptions about low- or no-maintenance requirements, all native plantings benefit from a plan in place to manage what Lesniewski dubs the site’s “wild craziness” over time.

David R. Macaulay is the author of Integrated Design: Mithun and the blog Green ArchiTEXT

Relevant books:
Constructed Wetlands in the Sustainable Landscape
Creating an Urban Wetland
Design with Nature
From Eco-Cities to Living Machines


The following article appeared in April 2008:
By Jim Low, Missouri Department of Conservation

New Facilities Embody Conservation

JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri -To hear Bob Fluchel talk, you would think his office is a living thing. You would not be entirely wrong. Fluchel manages the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center at 4750 Troost Ave. in Kansas City. While the building itself might not be a living thing, it does incorporate a living machine and many other innovative uses of living organisms to reduce its ecological impact. It is one of a growing number of facilities through which the Missouri Department of Conservation is showing an interest in green architecture.

Fluchel’s voice glows with pride as he catalogs the Discovery Center’s many “green” features. One of the most striking is “The Living Machine,” a system that processes all the building’s wastewater. Using solar power and the biological action of bacteria and wetland plants, the system reclaims water that otherwise would add to the load on Kansas City’s sanitary sewer and wastewater treatment systems.

Instead, The Living Machine provides water to flush Discovery Center toilets, saving more than 1,000 gallons a day.

To further reduce water consumption, the Discovery Center Roof channels rainwater from its roof into a rain garden, a manmade stream and a wetland that create an oasis for people and wildlife in the middle of the bustling Country Club Plaza district.

That is just the start of the Discovery Center’s water-conservation features. Some of the sidewalks are made of a special, permeable concrete that lets water soak in, rather than running off.

“You can dump a 50-gallon barrel of water on it and it just disappears,” said Fluchel.

He points out that instead of raised median strips separating rows of cars in the parking lot there are recessed medians.

Underneath is a gravel bed that soaks up rainwater like an enormous sponge. This has several effects. One is that runoff from heavy rain does not rush into nearby Brush Creek, adding to flooding problems. Another is that oil, antifreeze and other chemicals that drip from cars onto parking lot pavement are filtered and broken down by natural processes. Finally, the water is able to percolate slowly into the soil, renewing groundwater supplies.

Using native plants to landscape the facility also increases its environmental benefits.

Because they are adapted to local soil and climate, indigenous plants require less care. They are attractive to native wildlife, and they serve an educational purpose, helping visitors learn about Missouri’s native flora.

“We have seen chipmunks, opossums, goshawks, an American bittern and great blue herons along the stream and songbirds of all kinds,” said Fluchel. “There is a whole flock of red-winged blackbirds that nest in the marsh and even an occasional deer passing through.”

Recognizing the importance of energy conservation, the Discovery Center also has a wide range of energy-saving features. These include:
--Geothermal heat pumps that save 35-40 percent of heating costs and already have paid for themselves since the facility opened in 2002.
--Solar-electric systems, including photo-voltaic panels on the pavilion roof, photo voltaic glass in the greenhouse and silicone solar panels in front of the building. These systems generate enough power for a 3-bedroom home.
--Passive solar features, including building orientation for passive solar warming in winter, sun shades to keep the building cool in the summer, “clear-story” windows placed high on walls to create free, natural day lighting, light shelves that redirect light into the building’s interior, “smart glass” with a special coating and inert gas between panes to maximize solar warming, exclude ultraviolet light and minimize radiation heat loss.
--High-efficiency fluorescent lighting, with bright lights only in work areas.

Environmental awareness extends to the Discovery Center’s building materials.

The architectural design firm, BNIM Architects of Kansas City, bought as much locally produced material as possible to minimize energy invested in transportation. It also sought out materials with recycled content and salvaged building materials when possible.

An excellent example of reusing building materials is the Discovery Center’s roof. Robert Berkebile, one of BNIM’s partners and a national leader in green architecture, found 12-inch yellow pine beams from a local warehouse that had been demolished and had them sawn into planks for roof decking.

“Our roof is made of 100-year-old timber, and it looks beautiful,” said Fluchel. “Only a few years ago, that lumber would have gone to the landfill.”

Fluchel’s staff found more lumber salvaged from another old Kansas City warehouse. Removing nails from the wood took time, but they got five flatbed truckloads for $500.

“We made all 80 exhibits at the Discovery Center using that lumber,” said Fluchel, “and we had enough left over to give to other Conservation Department nature centers. I’m sure we would have paid many thousands of dollars for the same lumber if we had bought it new. It was pretty labor intensive, but we reused some lumber that otherwise would have gone to the landfill.”

They also used masonry from historic Kansas City buildings, such as the old Bunting Hardware store at Ninth and Walnut. These include a carved relief of a fox that now is part of a wall in the lobby and decorative panels in the main and side lobbies.

All the Discovery Center’s countertops and cabinets are made with wood fiber and resins reclaimed from waste stream. Instead of new concrete blocks, they used calcium silicate masonry units that take less energy, create less air pollution and were made with local materials. Discovery Center carpeting was made with recycled fiber content. Even the paint was made with reprocessed materials.

Extending environmental awareness to everyday operations, the Discovery Center recycles or composts nearly all the waste it generates.

Fluchel said Anita B. Gorman, for whom the Discovery Center is named, was instrumental in making it a model of sustainability.

“She had a good saying,” said Fluchel. “She used to say she wanted a building and grounds that practiced what we teach.”

Like the Discovery Center, the Northeast Regional Office has a small constructed wetland to catch runoff from its parking lot. This gives biological action time to cleanse the water of petroleum residues, road salts and other contaminants.

Green design principles are honored at other Conservation Department buildings. At Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in St. Louis County, the agency took timbers from a historic barn and used them for structural members in the interpretive center built on the same site. The Cape Girardeau Conservation Campus Nature Center used SIPs.

Conservation Department Design and Development Section Chief Jacob Careaga says the Kirksville office also could have qualified for LEED certification.

“It is a strong silver or even gold building,” said Careaga, “but we haven’t gone after certification because the certification process is an added cost. We aren’t doing this for recognition. We do it because it makes sense and it is in keeping with conservation principles. Should we spend that extra taxpayer money to get a plaque?”

Careaga said sustainable design is more expensive at the start, but it pays for itself in the long run. He also noted that green innovations sometimes come with problems. An example is getting the ground-source heating and cooling system at Kirksville to work properly.

“Any time you are an early adopter, there are challenges,” said Careaga. “You can take it a long, long way. We are easing into it. We try to be pragmatic. Instead of going all out for everything, we try to be good stewards of the tax dollar while embracing environmental design.”


Discovery Center Kansas City Missouri

BNIM Architects (USA)

Living Machines