An educated environmental center

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By Garret Eakin

Architecture

The new Austin Gardens facility fits its space, looks to the future 

This new Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center continues and extends the tradition at the Park District of Oak Park of providing quality educational and recreational facilities appropriate to the green space. 

Austin Gardens is a 3.6-acre urban forest located between the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and the lively downtown commercial district. The project completed this summer was designed by two premier Oak Park designers, landscape architect Carol Yetken and architect Tom Bassett Dilley. 

Yetken's specialty is natural prairie landscapes that emphasize the grasslands of Illinois. Bassett Dilley is a leading proponent of sustainable residential architecture. He has the rare skill to successfully blend historic, modern and sustainable-design principles. 

I'm happy to report that this is not just a beautiful building with integrated landscape, but an intelligent design that acknowledges the Oak Park context and sustainable features, creating a significant new asset in Austin Gardens. 

The center's vision included a place for a nature-based preschool, a meeting hall with a view to the park, and support for Festival Theatre during the summer and skating during the winter — all of this to be housed in a building of utmost energy efficiency, with water collection for toilet flushing, ground-source heat pump heating and cooling, rooftop photovoltaic electricity production, and landscaping that features a learning garden, rain gardens, native plantings, and outdoor gathering spaces. 

Bassett Dilley, describing the conceptual idea, said, "The building was conceived as an embodiment of the native oak savanna: with a tall canopy facing the park and a low, dense enclosure against the alley. A sense of prospect and refuge is created. The building really does feel nestled into its site." 

The materials and details are sympathetic to the work of the Prairie School architects, yet modern and eloquent. The orthogonal forms successfully contrast with the gardens' natural planting. 

The building engages beautifully with the site, located on the south edge of the property, providing a screen for the adjacent commercial building. The wood structure is expressed and left natural to blend with the garden. Reclaimed ash is employed as the trim, using trees removed from the park system. A deep overhang shades the two story glass walls while flooding the space with natural light. A smaller one-story mass overlaps the taller skeletal form containing entrances, classrooms, theater support spaces, toilets and mechanical spaces. 

The pavilion is designed to be LEED Platinum-certified, with net zero energy use, employing: 

A geo-thermal system for heating, air conditioning and comfort control

Photovoltaic array on the roof to supply the projected energy needs of the building, net zero (uses sun energy)

Green roof, absorbs rainfall, reduces heat loads, reduces carbon dioxide and produces oxygen

Storm water harvesting through a cistern and diversion for toilet flushing

Rain garden/bioswales to absorb the cistern overflow and the excess rain runoff as a feature in the garden.

High energy-efficient mechanical systems in the building. 

The building composition establishes a geometric focal point for the park. The walking path provides access to the center, binding it to the gardens. The design is a hybrid of classical order and natural prairie. The restraint exercised in this project is commendable. 

There is a lot to like in this project. It is about education, it is about the future, and it is about being a good neighbor. This is a respectable example of a modern design that has been tempered without losing its sense of place. 

Garret Eakin is an architect, preservationist and a professor at the School of the Art Institute. 

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