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American Society of Landscape Architects


December 2006 Issue

Prairie from Ground to Sky
A Chicago museum installs an award-winning green roof.

By Lisa Owens Viani

A Chicago museum installs an award-winning green roof. 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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