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Breakthrough at San Francisco's Exploratorium
The original hands-on science museum gets a new, $220 million waterfront home
The new museum will be housed within a sustainably rehabilitated historic pier structure near Telegraph Hill.
Courtesy ZUM

One of San Francisco’s most beloved cultural institutions, the Exploratorium, officially unveiled the design for its new $220 million home yesterday. The project promises to give the original hands-on science museum—which opened in 1969—a significantly higher public profile in a prominent, more accessible location on the waterfront. It will also be a landmark of sustainability, as the city’s largest net-zero building and potentially the largest net-zero museum in the world.

“This move really multiplies our impact,” said Dennis Bartels, executive director of the Exploratorium. “We get to move out of our cave at the Palace of Fine Arts and come into the light.”

The new two-story observatory will offer dramatic views over the bay, while providing gallery and restaurant space.
Courtesy zum

The architecture firm in charge of the design is EHDD, best known for another waterfront building: the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which set a new standard for aquarium design in its open layout and connection to the outdoors. For the Exploratorium’s new home at Pier 15, on the city’s northern waterfront at Embarcadero and Green streets, the architects are hoping to advance museum design in other ways, albeit within the constraints of an adaptive reuse of a historic 1915 warehouse. They took advantage of the structure’s long roof space to spec 1.4 megawatts of solar panels, which will supply more electricity than the building uses. The museum will also be among the first to implement a heat-exchange system that uses bay water for heating and cooling the building. Rainwater will be stored in a 300,000-gallon cistern for non-potable uses. These and other sustainability measures should qualify the building for LEED Gold.

The project will create newly exposed areas of the waterfront with greater public access.
Courtesy zum

Within the lofty, skylit steel structure—which doubles the museum’s indoor square footage—the firm concentrated on retaining the openness of the warehouse while providing dedicated spaces for museum programs. Four enclosed galleries feature clerestory windows, while a long central nave provides views from the front through to the water. Loading dock doors on both sides will also be opened to bring in additional light.

The main contemporary moment is a two-story glass observatory at the end of the pier, which will be visible from the road. With a ground-floor restaurant and exhibit space above, the observatory will offer a dramatic panorama of the urban skyline to the west and the bay to the east. The structure also frames the end of the Exploratorium’s new 25,000-square-foot outdoor exhibit area, which will let the museum use what is directly on hand—wind, sun, and tide—to explain natural phenomena to kids.

The sturdy existing structure will be strategically opened up to allow for light and views.
Courtesy ehdd

“I think this could be the Monterey Bay Aquarium of the next century—the new science museum,” said EHDD principal Marc L’Italien. Besides offering a bold public presence, the new location also provides for future expansion into the warehouse on Pier 17, giving the institution plenty of room to grow. The new museum is expected to be completed in late 2012.

Lydia Lee