Located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the new $488-million California Academy of Sciences is one of the greenest museums on the planet, combining high-tech innovations, education, and environmental responsibility, all under one 2.5-acre, “living” roof covered in plants. The Academy’s three public attractions, the Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium, and Kimball Natural History Museum, all emphasize natural sciences and biodiversity through digital technology and show production, encompassing 100,000sq-ft. The Academy acts as both a natural history museum and a place for research and scientific inquiry, and the total size of both the private and public areas is 410,000sq-ft.

While the new Academy has more useable square footage than its predecessor, it is actually leaving a smaller carbon footprint in the park due to the addition of a basement and more efficient use of interior space. It is also one of 10 green building projects of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, part of a vanguard initiative to develop models for workable, sustainable public architecture. The building is energy- and water-efficient (consuming 30-35% less energy than required by code), uses natural daylight and recycled building materials wherever possible, and allows visitors access to high air quality.

The new facility opened in September of last year, after six years of planning and design. Visual Acuity, with offices in both San Francisco and the UK, began working with the Academy in 2002 to develop the technologies required for the museum’s various areas. The company worked alongside the building’s architects, the Pritzker Prize-winning Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa, Italy, local San Francisco architects Stantec Architecture (formerly Chong Partners), and engineers from Ove Arup & Partners. Visual Acuity were the lead consultants, technical system designers, and technical project managers on the Morrison Planetarium and its associated spaces such as Hohfeld Hall, the Visualization Studio, the Water Planet exhibit, the 3D Theatre, and several other areas. They were also part of the design team for the building technical infrastructure, including server and technology equipment rooms, the network, the grid system to support exhibit technology, power requirements, and cooling requirements. The team also included TEECOM IT and telecommunication consultants.

Blair Parkin, Visual Acuity founder and managing director, describes the creation of a green data room for the museum, nothing that the philosophy was to centralize as much equipment as possible in a small room that is air-conditioned with ordinary AC, “so you are not putting all that heat and power load into the building and can manage it with limited power, effectively separating one of the systems from the other,” he says. “In a 400,000sq-ft. building, those distances can be daunting, but there are optical fiber IP networks for computer, audio, and video data, resulting in a futuristic infrastructure and less need for cabling.” The LEED building completely changed the technology design strategy both at an infrastructure level and at a technology deployment level, and the process for design and technology selection included setting heat and power budgets for equipment racks and main items of equipment. The LEED system also drove a strategy to centralize as much technology as possible into the cooled equipment rooms while reducing the amount of heat-generating technology in the naturally ventilated spaces of the public floors.

Additional measures to ensure the Academy’s commitment to the environment include direct air flow across the roof to help cool the building and programmable skylights and shutters that open and close based on the time of day and weather, controlled via a Siemens building management system. Parkin notes that this element took a year to program in order configure where the sun would be or the direction of the wind. “We had to go through all the four seasons to figure it out,” he says. AMX Exhibit Manager, an asset management software, turns everything on and off, and can tell if someone is interacting with a flat panel or not, or how long a lamp has been running. “This has been used in commercial buildings before and on buildings one-tenth of the size but not a museum and not on a building this big,” he adds.

The long lead-in time associated with the Academy project is not unusual, but did create its own set of challenges for Visual Acuity. “When we start a project, there is an incubation time of about five years,” Parkin explains. “We do an overview of technical and operational requirements, which is then integrated into the architect’s building design. For each project, we work with next-generation technology, covering everything from computers and networks to projection, displays, lighting, and construction materials. If you build something specific for today, it won’t be right, so we have to be ‘futurologists,’ looking at what is likely to be created tomorrow.”

Parkin notes that it is important to understand that the Museum’s messages and storytelling threads were developed long before the technology. “CAS contains stunning and amazing living exhibits and the technology is there to augment that visitor experience,” he notes. Where technology is the primary storytelling medium it is used for science topics that cannot easily be displayed in any other way. For instance, the Morrison Planetarium takes the public on a journey around the surface of the Earth and out into deep space—all based on science data sets and knowledge. Even in the technology-based experiences, the Academy strives to create “a people-facilitated experience” by having live introductions and experts on hand to answer questions and promote interaction with the science.

A key piece of gear is the fiber media network, which allows high-resolution images, audio, keyboard, mouse, and server commands to be sent to most places on the exhibit floors and the auditoriums in order to support production and fine-tuning. “It has been vital in supporting a rapid production turnaround in all of the media based exhibits and experiences,” Parkin states.

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Morrison Planetarium
The Morrison Planetarium has been designed for maximum visual and acoustic immersion. By planning the tilt and diameter of the screen, based on human factors, it creates a very unique visitor experience. The screen and lighting and projection mean that the visitors see a distant horizon rather than perceive a screen close to their eyes, conveying depth, distance, and scale which are all vital when you are conveying science at Galactic scale.

Hohfeld Hall
Hohfeld Hall is both an exhibit space showcasing digital science such as Hubble telescope images and data while also serving as an emotional pre-show experience. By darkening the space and using ambient audio and science imagery the audience is being prepared to enter the planetarium. The darkened space quiets people down, promotes anticipation, and allows the audience to adjust their eyes to the dark so they can enter the darkened planetarium safely.

Visualization Studio
“The Visualization Studio truly is a first,” Parkin says. Based on the location of the Academy in Northern California, the studio reflects a crossroads of science, media production, and technology. The science influences come from the Academy’s own research programs and scientists; the media influences come from Bay Area media companies of the likes of ILM and Pixar; and the technology influences come from the proximity to Silicon Valley and companies such as HP, NVIDIA, and may others. This studio is unique because it is equipped with science visualization tools (Uniview, DigitalSky) combined with the best of the CGI and video production tools available (Pixar, AVID). The studio is inhabited by media production veterans, scientists, educators, and technologists. “This is a community that I have never seen collaborate to such an extent in a studio environment before,” adds Parkin. “As the consultant, it makes me terribly proud as I feel we created a unique ‘habitat’ for a new biodiversity of public science program production!”

Water Planet
Showing the critical relationship between life and water in an immersive and interactive space, Water Planet forms the heart of the Academy’s lower level. The area is flanked by a 100,000-gallon California Coast exhibit and a 212,000-gallon Philippine Coral Reef display that houses 2,000 saltwater fish. Once an hour, the lights go down inside the Water Planet exhibit and the room is transformed into a 360º projection theatre for screening of a five-minute video about the importance of water to our planet. Water Planet combines a show space with living exhibits, aquarium tanks, a gallery space, interactive projections, sculpted walls, and LED lighting—immersing the visitor in the story.

The display uses 10 projectiondesign F20 sx+ projectors which project onto silvery, sculptured walls using a new kind of moulded projection surface so that the screens seem to flow into each other, creating an immersive, watery setting. Wittering notes the challenges to achieving this, “The walls are a metallic and warped to look like waves or ripples, so the F20s are used to project onto the walls, and around the top of the exhibit all blended together. The F10s are configured to project down from the ceiling onto surfaces so they can project a white field that might look like the bottom of the ocean with peaks and valleys and you can use your hand to change what should be growing there in that environment, down a river, through ocean to ice, and frozen.” There are masks in the projections so that they don’t project onto the tanks and there is also a hole in the projected image so it doesn’t project onto the fish.

The space is also projected on when it is not in show mode—the graphics labeling the tanks are animated and projected as headers over them. In this area there are also three “wet interactives” where aquarium exhibits, interactive projected touch sensitive images, and running water are combined. The projections are thrown straight down to a horizontal surface and are provided by three projectiondesign F10 sx+ projectors. The exhibit was designed by Thinc Design from New York in collaboration with Urban A&O, with the projection, sound and control systems installed by BBI of San Francisco.

“The kids love the aquarium because they can flick water at each other,” Parkin adds. “All of the technology had to be non-electronic so it can get wet, so the electronics are in the ceiling. In a traditional aquarium there is a backlighting with the taxonomy of the fish, but in this one, the labels are all digital on LCD signs. They can be changed very quickly and easily.”

3D Cinema
The 3D cinema was an idea that came up late in the project when it became clear that a lot of science-based film productions are being transferred to the new DCI digital cinema format, Parkin notes. This means film libraries of content can be accessed and combined with film, alongside public lectures and science demonstrations. The design team chose 3D stereo because they could generate both science data visualizations locally in 3D and access pre-produced content in 3D in the DCI format.