Prairie from Ground to Sky
A Chicago museum installs an award-winning green roof.
By Lisa Owens Viani
Courtesy Peggy Notebaert Museum
A few years ago, when I was on the staff of a magazine at a
natural history museum, we were told to “go light” on any conservation message—that
science was science and that the boundaries between “pure” science and
environmental advocacy should not be blurred.
On a recent trip to Chicago, I came across a small museum
that embodies just the opposite philosophy. Tucked into Lincoln Park, on the
shore of Lake Michigan, the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Museum
(named for a generous benefactor) is purposefully trying to change the way
people live—not only through its exhibits but also by “showing and telling”
with its building. “We are devoted to inspiring and educating people to be
stewards of the environment,” says its president, Laurene Von Klan. One of its
most impressive efforts is a 17,000-square-foot green roof that ties in
aesthetically and habitat-wise with an extensive native prairie/butterfly
garden surrounding the museum.
Built in 1999 on a sand dune next to Lake Michigan, the
museum was designed to blend into the surrounding landscape. When funding first
became available through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and
private donors, says Technical Operations Manager Christopher Dunn, the museum
seized the chance to install approximately 3,500 square feet of solar panels on
its roof—those panels provide between two and three percent of the building’s
annual energy needs—and a green roof on the remainder, built in sections as
additional funds were found.
The goal for the roof, says Von Klan, was simply to
demonstrate a green roof to the public, to show that something could be done
with a “blah,” nondescript roof. The museum’s green roof was one of the first
in Chicago—which now boasts close to two million square feet of green roofs
throughout the city.
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