Where most architects talk about sustainability they tend to see a zero-scaped entrance as the critical element, or a grey water toilet made from recycled Starbucks cups. Many make the statement but very few make the statement a living reality – Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Center is an exception.

Designed by the architectural firm of Perkins+Will, in partnership with the city of Vancouver and the VanDusen Botanical Gardens, the center covers 19,000 sq.ft. (1,765 sq.m) and was built at a cost of just over CAD22 million.

The entire visual perspective and form is inspired by an indigenous British Columbia orchid. Undulating green roof petals float above concrete finishes and rammed earth walls, occasionally arching down into the landscape, providing a free flowing segmentation of space. The petals are connected by a "vegetated land ramp" linking the roof to the ground. This connection not only provides added heating and cooling insulation but also allows the form to naturally morph into the environment.

Biomimicry aspects influence throughout with no two pieces of structure exactly alike

The center was designed as "net-zero" building that ever so slightly exceeds LEED Platinum ratings. Geo-thermal bore holes and solar hot water tubes are integrated throughout the system to manage heating requirements and meet the net-zero goal.

Given the west coast location, and goal of a carbon neutral site, it was only natural to incorporate wood as the primary building material. Wood design elements are extensively present throughout the space. Wooden slats line the underside of flowing petal cornices that extend out over walkways. Ceilings, walls, solar chimneys all flow from slatted custom wood insets throughout.

Soaring solar chimney is strategically placed at the center of the site where the structures petals radiate outward from

Rainwater is filtered and used as greywater throughout the facility, whereas the evil "blackwater" is treated onsite via a bioreactor, then released into a "percolation field" and garden. Ventilation is assisted by an aesthetically beautiful solar chimney that is composed of a glazed oculus and aluminum heatsink. The heatsink converts solar to convection energy, which is fed back into the system. And just like the orchid for which the space is inspired, the soaring solar chimney is strategically placed at the exact center of the site, where the petals radiate outward from. Biomimicry design elements like this influence throughout, with no two pieces of structure exactly alike.

When landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was asked to assist with the design of the center she went to her library and started rummaging through books of nature. One book in particular stood out – The Alphabet of Plants by Karl Blosfeldt. Focusing on plant photography (circa 1928) this old school artbook was where Cornelia would find the inspirational black and white image of the orchid.

“In an urban environment people need to refresh their souls by surrounding themselves in nature,” says Cornelia. To that end, key design features throughout the site were specifically included in order to bring beauty and inspiration to all visitors.

Wooden slatted soffits line the underside of flowing petal cornices, extending out over walkways, where ceilings, walls, solar chimneys all flow from slatted custom wood insets

Housing a café, expanded library, volunteer facilities, and garden shop, the VanDusen Botanical Garden Centre also houses flexible space for classroom education and meeting spaces for private functions or workshops.

Source: Perkins & Will Architects