July 31, 2009
  Urban Nature Center and Pavilion Built with Sustainability, Economy in Mind

by Russell Boniface
Associate Editor

How do you . . . design a sustainable, urban nature center on a tight budget?

Summary: Atlanta-based Lord, Aeck & Sargent has designed the new $9.7 million, 10,000-square-foot Discovery Center and nearby 4,000-square-foot Ben Brady Lakeside Pavilion along the Chattahoochee River outside Atlanta. Both are part of the Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC).


The Discovery Center blends with the landscape and is built into a hillside.

The two-level Discovery Center and nearby Ben Brady Lakeside Pavilion are on the 127-acre CNC. The Discovery Center houses four interpretative areas that explain plant and animal life on the Chattahoochee River’s watershed. The nearby Lakeside Pavilion overlooks Kingfisher Pond and has a large outdoor deck for education and special events.

Lord, Aeck & Sargent worked with the CNC to develop the sustainable and water-efficient nature center and pavilion on a tight budget. The Discovery Center is targeting LEED Gold.


The Lakeside Pavilion overlooks a pond and has a large outdoor deck for education and special events.

“Even though we originally targeted LEED Silver certification for the Discovery Center, we came out of the design phase with what we feel confident will be a LEED Gold building,” says John Starr, AIA, LEED-AP, principal in charge of the project.

The structures blend into the surroundings
Lord, Aeck & Sargent wanted to blend the structures with the landscape and provide a site that would minimize impact on the surrounding vegetation and river. “We nestled the Discovery Center into a hillside to reduce thermal gain and maximize the efficiency of the building envelope,” says Joshua Gassman, LEED-AP, Lord, Aeck & Sargent associate and project manager for the Discovery Center and pavilion.

Gassman says the Discovery Center will become the new gateway to the CNC. Visitors enter on the upper level. There are expansive views of the site and the river through a glass wall and from the green rooftop terrace. From the upper entry level, visitors access nature trails that have plant and animal habitats. The upper level includes the Chattahoochee River Resource Gallery about the Chattahoochee River watershed. CNC education staff plans to use the rooftop terrace to teach the benefits of green roofs. It will also be used as an outdoor gathering space. The lower level features live native animal exhibits and interactive exhibits about the watershed. The lower level includes a 65-seat theater.

Sustainable, frugal smart strategies
Starr says that since the Discovery Center is about the Chattahoochee River, the design team wanted to make it as water efficient as possible. The building’s water strategies include:

  • Capturing rainwater via a butterfly-shaped roof and storing it in four underground cisterns for toilet flushing
  • Capturing condensate from the HVAC system and pumping it into the cisterns where it and the harvested rainwater will provide non-potable water for toilet flushing
  • Low-flow faucets, low-flow dual-flush toilets, and waterless urinals.

Other sustainable design features include:

  • Building orientation that maximizes daylight harvesting for the non-exhibit upper level
  • Drought tolerant native plants on the 2,000-square-foot green roof
  • An energy-efficient HVAC system
  • Insulated panels for roof insulation
  • Recycled content materials
  • High fly ash concrete flooring
  • Low-VOC finishes.

“We combined all of these sustainable design strategies and products with ‘frugal smart’ strategies to create a building that looks good, didn’t cost a lot and won’t cost a lot to maintain,” Gassman says. The $9.7 million project, which includes the exhibits, landscaping, and site work, was privately funded. Major gifts included grants from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, Chattahoochee Greenway Fund, and Kendeda Foundation and a challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation.

news headlines
recent related
Library on the Green
Biophilic Oregon Sustainability Center Will Be a Locally Grown Original

See what the AIA Committee on the Environment is up to.

Photo © 2009 Jonathan Hillyer / Atlanta.