Sausalito landscape architect SWA Group builds living roof at California Academy of Sciences in

Sausalito landscape architect SWA Group builds living roof at California Academy of Sciences in

Larry Reed, principal landscape architect for SWA Group of Sausalito stands on the living roof of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Designing the living roof at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco was a natural for the SWA Group, a landscape architecture firm based in Sausalito.

The 50-year-old company had designed a planted roof previously, did the master plan for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has been at the forefront in creating projects that are in harmony with the land and natural systems.

So when San Francisco officials made plans to build a new home for the science museum in Golden Gate Park that embodied the academy’s mission to explore, explain and protect the world, it turned to SWA.

"Our attitude (about the roof) was, the more native and indigenous it became, the better for Golden Gate Park and the academy," said Lawrence Reed, a principal at SWA.

The new complex opens to the public Saturday.

Reed said the 2.5-acre living roof design and the redesign of gardens to the east and west of the building took extensive research and work with biologists, arborists and botanists.

It is one of the signature features of the academy, the only institution in the world to house an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and research and education facility. Once arrayed in 12 buildings, it has been consolidated as a single, two-domed structure with a four-story rainforest and the largest all-digital planetarium in the world.

From the beginning, the new structure was designed with an emphasis on the natural world.


"Science is more influential and relevant to our daily lives than ever before, and natural history museums must deal head-on with issues of the 21st century," said Gregory Farrington, the academy’s executive director. "Our goal was to create a new facility that would not only hold powerful exhibits but serve as one itself, inspiring visitors to conserve natural resources and help sustain the diversity of life on Earth."

Italian architect Renzo Piano describes the building as "metaphorically lifting up a piece of the park and putting a building underneath it."

Visitors enter the building below a solar-panel canopy to a glassed-in interior with untreated concrete floors and an emphasis on natural materials, including recycled denim insulation.

"Museums are not usually transparent," Piano said. "They are opaque — they are closed. They are like a kingdom of darkness, and you are trapped inside."

Piano said he wanted to connect the museum with the park.

SWA Group started planning the living roof in 2001 and began studying varieties of perennial plants that would be adaptable to microclimates of the park.

"We wanted to mimic the hillside beyond," Reed said. "We really made an attempt to create an ecological matrix that would enhance the habitat."

The planting of native California plants and wildflowers will create a habitat for butterflies, birds, bees and any other creature that slinks or glides its way in.

The soil system was installed on top of four inches of insulation and a layer of concrete covered with wire cages of rocks and then 50,000 porous, biodegradable trays made from tree sap and coconut husks.

The perennials are strawberry, self heal, sea pink and stonecrop. The five annuals are tidy tips, goldfield, miniature lupine, California poppy and California plantain.

Sausalito landscape architect SWA Group builds living roof at California Academy of Sciences in

The domes that give the roof its varied topography are dotted with skylights that can be opened for cooling and ventilation.

The green rooftop will keep the building’s interior about 10 degrees cooler than a standard roof.

The plants will produce oxygen from carbon dioxide and help reduce the energy and cooling needs.

The roof will reduce stormwater runoff by as much as 3.6 million gallons of water per year.

SWA Group reconstructed the east and west gardens, replacing Monterey pines with redwood and cypress trees.

"The forest in Golden Gate Park is generally in decline," Reed said. "They are migrating away from Monterey pines, which seem to be part of the problem. We restored it back and created an understory that is more similar to what’s on the roof."

From the observation deck, visitors can look directly across the music concourse to the new M. H. de Young Memorial Museum with its copper tower rising above the tree canopy. In the distance stand the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate.

Reed said the park’s founding fathers planted it in a European style that evoked a romantic image that no longer suits Golden Gate Park.

"We wanted to be more sensitive to the ecology and science of the park," Reed said.

Contact Nancy Isles Nation via e-mail at

Read more Sausalito & Marin City stories at the IJ’s Sausalito, Marin City section.

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