San Francisco Green Building – The Exploratorium

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San Francisco Green Building – Exploratorium Case Study

Being an environmental inspector at Healthy Building Science it’s not surprising that I have an interest in buildings, science and the environment. As I watched the sunrise from the rooftop of the Exploratorium during one of my moonlighting shifts as an Exploratorium special events technician, it’s no surprise that I was taken by the size, symmetry and beauty of the Exploratorium’s photovoltaic array. I later learned that the array is only one part of the sustainability system the Exploratorium put in place when it moved to its new location. This is a case study in San Francisco Green Building.

In April, 2013 the Exploratorium, founded by Frank Oppenheimer and opened in San Francisco’s Palace of the Fine Arts in 1969, moved to its new location at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. With the move came new opportunities to transform the museum into a living experiment in green building and sustainability.

San Francisco Green Building – Design

Perhaps the first green decision made by the Exploratorium was to build at Piers 15 & 17. Both piers were run down but maintained some of their original architectural integrity, both design-wise and in strength. Instead of demolishing the old piers completely and building new from the ground up, the Exploratorium chose to use as much of the existing structures as feasible while meeting current standards for seismic codes and converting where necessary to meet the Exploratorium’s own goals of zero net power consumption and sustainability.

The Exploratorium used recycled building materials wherever possible. 90% of the steel used in the building is post-consumer recycled steel. 40% of the poured concrete in the building used fly ash, an industrial waste material, in its composition. While taking longer to cure, fly ash concrete has a higher compressive strength and is more durable than traditional concrete. Recycled tires were then used in the composition of the flooring material throughout the new building as well.

The most ambitious part of the build was an attempt to achieve zero net power consumption. The main element in the Exploratorium’s plan for zero net power consumption is the photovoltaic array on its rooftop. At 5,874 modules, it is the second largest array in San Francisco and the largest non-commercial array in the city. The array’s yearly production of power is 2,133,715 kWh (Kilowatt-hours). What energy the Exploratorium uses from the external power grid in low solar production hours is put back into the grid during high solar production hours.

Energy Efficiency and Indoor Air Quality

All new equipment purchased at the Exploratorium is evaluated for energy efficiency to maximize power savings and the electrical system is programmed to provide power to exhibits and the museum only when in use. Sensors, much like motion sensors in many commercial buildings turn power on and off only as needed.san francisco green building exploratorium

For water preservation two cisterns were built below the structure to capture rain and fog runoff and provide up to 338,000 gallons of water for use in the facility’s plumbing system. Additionally, 25% of the roof’s surface collects water for use in the flushing toilets throughout the facility, which along with waterless urinals, is estimated to save 1,000,000 gallons of water each year.

The Exploratorium is pioneering commercial building concepts in its use of 100% fresh air in the HVAC system. No air in the system is recirculated; it is all pumped in fresh from outside. Sensors in the building constantly monitor carbon dioxide levels and air handlers open dampers in the system when fresh air is needed. As healthy building inspectors, we at Healthy Building Science are always stressing the importance of fresh air and adequate ventilation to our clients, so learning about this system impressed me as well.

LEED Platinum Building

san francisco green building exploratorium

LEED-H Platinum Plaque

It is no surprise that on January 10, 2014 the Exploratorium was awarded LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The museum hopes that its pioneering experiment in design can be an inspiration and educational tool for visitors, builders and architects worldwide. Moving into the 21st century, green and sustainable building appears to be the best way to ensure the health of both the people who inhabit our buildings and the planet we must all inhabit together. The San Francisco Green Building movement is better for having this building in our city.

Source: Sustain-The Museum as Exhibit by Kristina Woolsey, Exploratorium Publications – 2012