Page last updated at 10:46 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 11:46 UK

Touring the greenest museum ever

By Maggie Shiels
Technology Reporter, BBC News, San Francisco

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Maggie Shiels takes the hi-tec green museum tour

Claude the albino alligator relaxes in a swamp complete with a heated rock while all around him workmen battle against the clock to put the finishing touches to the largest public green building in the world.

The California Academy of Sciences, based in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, opens its doors to the public this weekend following three years of construction and 10 years of planning.

The 410,000 square foot (38,000 square metre) structure is just as big a draw as the exhibits it houses.

Designed by Renzo Piano, a winner of the most respected prize in architecture, the Pritzker, the Academy has green credentials running through every sinew and vein: from the planetarium to the aquarium and from the rainforest to the living roof which mirrors the hills the city is built on.

"People from all around the world are looking at this building," explained Chris Andrews, the chief of public programmes at the Academy and also the director of the Steinhart Aquarium.

California academy of sciences
As the finishing touches are applied, T-Rex doesn't let the frenzy bother it

The list of sustainable design features is seemingly endless: non-toxic insulation, a passive heating and cooling system, a recycled steel structure and electricity provided by some 60,000 photovoltaic cells.

Over the next couple of months the US Green Building Council is expected to confirm its highest award on the building, a platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating.

'Science is cool'

But there is more to the Academy than its greenness, and those that run it have said they have a clear mission to "explore, explain and protect the natural world."

"One thing we desperately want to do at the Academy is start to impress upon people that science is cool, science is fun," said Dr Andrews as he wandered through the world's deepest living coral reef display complete with more than 4,000 reef fishes.

"We want to emphasise to people that we are fascinated by the natural world and that we are passionate about it."

To drive home the fun and interactive aspects of the museum, Dr Andrews demonstrated a game with a Wii-type device that visitors wave in the air to catch bugs and butterflies.

dr chris andrews
Science and nature doesn't have to be boring said Dr Andrews

Another display employing overhead cameras and sensors lets visitors sweep their hands and feet over the ground to move food around for insects while another lets them play scientist and inspect some of the wonders stored in the Academy's vast research facility.

"We want people to touch the stuff and as far as possible we want it to be the real stuff," an enthusiastic Dr Andrews told BBC News.

'Major change'

The crowning glory of this new $488m (262m) edifice is the living roof which unites the 12 separate buildings that once comprised the Academy, one of the 10 largest natural science museums in the world.

It boasts 1.7m native Californian plants spread over 2.5 acres (one hectare) and its undultating shape has energy conservation at its heart.

"The aerofoil structure of hills and bumps gives the air movement over the top of the building, which allows fresh air to be drawn into the exhibit halls," said Blair Parkin, chief executive and founder of Visual Acuity, one of the technical consultants on the project.

"We don't need to use air conditioning because we have skylights that use sensors and pop up and allow air and light into the building."

Inside, just as outside, a host of technical considerations have been embedded in the structure of the building to ensure it would leave a light footprint on the planet.

"It's been a major change in the way we work," noted Mr Parkin.

"In the past power was free, heat was free, cooling was free. You didn't worry about it. You just bought the equipment and plugged in.

California academy of sciences
The Planetarium promises a journey that is simply out of this world

"With this building we had to set a budget for heat and energy. We've had to invent technologies and create standards that are now flowing into more modest public and commercial buildings."

To cope with the state of the art visual, audio and interactive aspects of the exhibits and the building, the company constructed several green data centres and a fibre optic network more common in a stock exchange or huge corporate headquarters.

"Everything in the museum is connected to that network and in some way, shape or form is intelligent," said Mr Parkin.

There is little doubt the Morrison Planetarium, the world's largest, will prove to be a big draw with its tilted seats and ever changing intergalactic show.

"This is a giant 3D replica of the galaxy and it's connected to the computer room in the basement," said Mr Parkin.

"It takes all the known information from a host of instutions from around the world and real time information from NASA and throws it up there for the public to see the universe we live in."

California academy of sciences
The rainforest is housed in an enormous dome

Around the corner, visitors will find a rainforest; beyond that, there are more traditional animal exhibits and the perennial favourites, dinosaurs.

Touching emotions

In the weeks running up to this weekend's public unveiling, the Academy held special open days for members and invited guests.

"I think its really great," said Linda McMullen who was there with her son Morgan.

"He's only two so it's going over his head a bit but when he's older it will be a great resource for learning."

The building's green credentials where what really interested Kumi Ishida, who said, "It's a wonderful way to make the public become more aware of what we can do as individuals."

The Academy said it hopes others take the green message to heart and that it will strive to raise a level of consciousness about the issue.

"A museum can only touch those it attracts," said Dr Andrews.

"Unless you touch people's emotions and get them excited, they're unlikely to care and fundamental to what the Academy has to do is touch people's emotions and make them care about the world we live in."


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