Many projects now emphasize "green" practices in an effort to fend off the scrutinizing glare of buyers or community boards, or to win the competitive bids for plum commissions. But when BKSK Architects began work on the new visitor center and administrative building at the Queens Botanical Garden in 1999, the sustainability revolution in real estate was just gaining notice.
"The world wasn't really talking about sustainable architecture," according to the project architect, Julie Nelson. "It was this completely new thing where we had to cajole our clients about new technologies and new ways of doing things. There has been a enormous learning curve, for us too, on how to connect sustainable components with a site."
The $22 million dollar project is moving towards completion in September. The U.S. Green Building Council has designated it to be LEED platinum building certified, the first building in the New York City to be honored with that level of environmental distinction. The new 16,000 square foot structure won New York's first Green Building Design Award while still on the drawing board in 2004. The architect's goal was not merely to make a piece of "eco-tecture," but also to weave it into its site.
It features a terrace roof that catches rainwater and filters it into a fountain at the entrance of the garden, constructed wetlands fed by gray water from the buildings' sinks, dishwashers, and showers, and an auditorium "harvest roof" that is covered with six inches of soil and plants. The building was designed to be narrow enough so it could be cooled by the wind without resorting to air conditioning, and has an exterior screen of horizontal wooden slats, known as a brise-soliel, that functions much like Venetian blinds and allows for maximum light at different times of year.
The Queens Botanical Garden is something of an oasis from the clattering Main Street of Flushing that runs outside its gates. A dumping ground at the turn of the twentieth century, it was rebuilt as part of the 1939 World's Fair and became a public garden in 1946. Now the backyard for the 140,000 residents of Flushing, it the space for early-morning tai chi, newlywed photo shoots, and horticultural programs for more than 30,000 school kids.
"We wanted to build a building that was an extension of the landscape," said BKSK partner Joan Krevlin. "Part of experiencing the natural environment is just to be in the building. Our visitors will experience the living, breathing, fabric of the building, and it will be a different experience at different times of year. Hopefully, it will ask questions about what it means to be inside and what it means to be outside."
"The beauty of this place is that people genuinely feel welcome here," the director of capital projects for the Queens Botanical Garden, Jennifer Ward Souder, said. "You see interactions you may not see in a lot of places. Our community is so diverse, we are really trying to connect people to natural resources in a different way, a way that connects architecture with the landscape."