The University of Pennsylvania, known as the greenest of the Ivy League schools, wanted to show the same commitment to sustainability and building performance usually reserved for showpiece buildings like visitor centers in a strictly utilitarian structure on a modest budget. The Horticulture Center at the Morris Arboretum—a 92-acre garden that boasts more than 100,000 visitors each year—incorporates the highest standards in sustainable principles in a building that serves as the arboretum’s “back of house,” providing offices and lounge for the arboretum staff, as well as space for farm equipment storage.
One of the great ironies for the keepers of Morris Arboretum, the official arboretum of the state of Pennsylvania, was the contrast in their working environment and the environment they cultivated just outside. The visionary and dedicated staff charged with the cultivation and maintenance of one of the world’s preeminent living plant collections were officed in conditions that were far from inspiring, cut off from the natural world that was the focus of their work. Campus leadership realized the many benefits of having the workers in sustained contact with the fruit of their labor. As part of the design process, the arboretum staff gave vital input into the design, demonstrating just how much their physical environment affected their daily lives.
Because of the shared municipal and university functions of the gardens, making the cultivation processes and technologies of the Horticulture Center visible had the potential to make a strong educational impact on visitors. But the university’s decision to invest in the Horticulture Center was motivated by progressive reasoning beyond only education. By investing in an operational building, they proved their commitment to sustainability had more to do with ethics than publicity. At the same time, creating a harmonious and attractive place for blue-collar activity spoke volumes about the university’s respect for their workforce and the high value they place on those charged with caring for the arboretum.
These aspirations coupled with a tight budget and practical needs of the building presented a series of challenges for Overland Partners. But the team saw these constraints as opportunities for innovation.
Overland saw a larger opportunity to site the new structure in a way that unified existing buildings into a cohesive master plan. The center forms a campus of new and renovated buildings anchored by a central “farm courtyard” consisting of four new buildings arrayed in the manner of Pennsylvania farms: unconditioned 6-bay and 4-bay garages, a partially conditioned high-bay garage, and a fully conditioned building with office, meeting, locker and carpentry space. The building’s site also capitalized on the power of the elements. Sun, rain, and earth each contribute to the better than LEED Platinum performance, as well as the pleasant visual experience of the new and renovated buildings.
Honoring the work of the arboretum’s staff meant opening them up to the world and allowing the world to catch a glimpse of their works in progress. “We wanted to design a spectacular workspace for the people who bring the beauty to life,” said Principal in Charge Bob Shemwell.
Open to views of the garden, the building’s skin lets in ample daylight, so much in fact that controlling the glare of the morning sun required creative design solutions. The solution included translucent glass panels strategically placed to intercept the morning light to prevent glare while distributing light into a diffused, user-friendly glow.
While the center is meant to celebrate the work of the caretakers, some of the equipment needed to be cordoned off for the safety of the public. Overland’s S
-shaped arrangement allowed heavy machinery and hazardous workshops to remain hidden and safely isolated from curious visitors.
In addition to incorporating stormwater management and geothermal energy harvest, the building facilitates research on vegetative roof technology. With various mixtures of thick and thin synthetic and normal soils—in addition to a variety of flora—the roofs serve as a living laboratory to determine the ideal green roof scenario.
The complex also presented a novel feature for the Overland team: a centuries-old pig sty, which was reinvented as an eco-basin. The sloped, tear-drop shaped sty provided an ideal place for controlling runoff like salt, oil, and petroleum that was generated from cleaning and maintaining equipment. A filtration system was added to the basin to neutralize harmful byproducts.
With its holistic approach to sustainability, the Horticulture Center is the working heart of the Morris Arboretum and a forward-looking building of national significance that incorporates the highest standards in sustainable principles.