Plate tectonics, honeycombs inspire new Denver Botanic Gardens research center.
For their new Science Pyramid, the Denver Botanic Gardens sought a design that delivered more than just aesthetic impact. “They wanted an icon, but they also wanted to show an icon can be high performance,” said Chris O’Hara, founding principal of Studio NYL. Studio NYL and its SKINS Group worked with architect Burkett Design and longtime Botanic Gardens general contractor GH Phipps to craft a structure to house the institution’s conservation and research efforts. “People think of the Botanic Gardens as a beautiful place to go, but what most of them don’t realize is what happens behind the scenes,” said O’Hara. “The whole concept was to showcase that, and to educate the public not just about what the Botanic Gardens are doing, but a little more about their environment.” Clad in a Swisspearl rain screen that serves as both roof and wall, the Science Pyramid’s biomimetic design reconsiders the relationship between the built and natural worlds.
Tasked with building a pyramidal structure with dynamic glass elements, the Burkett Design team turned to two natural metaphors. The first was the tectonic shifts that created Colorado’s mountains, the second, the defensive structures built by honeybees. The geological metaphor influenced the building’s form, a twisting, reaching variation on a pyramid designed to take full advantage of its site. The biological metaphor informed the building’s skin, dominated by cement composite panels cut into honeycomb-like hexagons.
Though they originally imagined a heavily glazed facade, Studio NYL soon realized that transparency would be impractical, given the projection elements involved in the Science Pyramid’s exhibits. They opted instead for a rain screen system comprising custom-cut Swisspearl panels. The rain screen reduces thermal gain by venting hot air before it reaches the building. It encases the roof as well as the facade’s vertical elements, the second such use of Swisspearl panels worldwide, and the first in the United States. “Here you don’t hear about rain screen roofs often,” said O’Hara. “Using the technology as a roof system was a little different.”
Because they still wanted some glass, Studio NYL incorporated electrochromic glazing from View. “They can tune the building—the user has a flip switch to black it out,” explained O’Hara. “At the same time, you can have a visual connection to the gardens.” To further boost performance, Studio NYL worked with Cosella-Dörkin to layer a UV resistant weather barrier system under the open joint rain screen. “Whereas the form was about this iconic, biomimetic structure, on a technical level, everything was about performance,” said O’Hara.
Fabrication and installation were complicated by two factors: a compressed timeline, and a need to work around the Botanic Gardens’ ongoing operations. To help with the former, the Burkett Design team leaned heavily on digital fabrication, including having the structural steel digitally cut. As for the latter, the construction crew was forced to develop creative solutions to spatial restrictions. “There were a lot of logistical problems given that we were in the center of an active botanic garden,” said O’Hara, noting that only machinery below a certain size could be brought to the site. “The primary axis we had could only go up twelve feet, to the extent that we were pushing tree branches out of the way with a broom.”
The design-build team came through in the end. “It’s really quite spectacular,” said O’Hara. But while the Science Pyramid achieves the landmark status the Botanic Gardens had hoped for, it nonetheless defers to its context—the gardens themselves. “The building is very oriented to the paths you take,” said O’Hara. “Everything has a different moment. If you enter one way, you see the glass spine; if you come another, you see the canopy. It’s playing constantly against the juxtaposed landscape.”