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A swale idea

Photo courtesy of Craig Summers Black

(Read caption) The new Rice Plant Conservation Science Center opens in Chicago on September 23.

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Remember when you used to watch the pizza makers behind the glass at Shakey’s Pizza? Well, the new Plant Conservation Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden works much the same way. With only the clear panes for separation, you can watch 31 scientists and researchers clean seeds, analyze soil, add to their seed bank,  and smile and wave as you stroll through this sleek, sophisticated green building. Unlike Shakey’s Pizza, however, there's no Dixieland band.

The focus of the $40 million building is to save plants and thus, well, the planet.

“One-third of the world’s plants could become extinct in the next 50 years,” says Sophia Siskel, president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden. “This is more than a building: It represents the garden’s commitment to solving plant conservation challenges through research and education.”

And why should you and I care?

“We depend on plants,” Ms. Siskel says, “for food, clothing, shelter, fuel, medicine, and oxygen.”

Oxygen – a good thing to have.

Also, a little more down to earth, the building is cool in the extreme – like walking through one of those nifty homebuilders show projects for plant geeks and greenies.

Cottonwood trees on site were milled for ceiling and trim work. A seamless floor is made of recycled tires. Two hundred and eighty-eight solar panels line the roof overhang, providing 5 percent of the building’s power (doesn’t sound like much, but in a research center this is huge). And a green roof (a living lab) filters rain through a rainwater glen under the building, which is built on piers.

Please don’t roll your eyes at the mention of yet another rain garden. Yes, I know: Most of the ones I’ve seen were either 1) too small to be effective or 2) just plain ugly. This one, rest assured, is gorgeous in a way that other kinds of gardens can be gorgeous. And it is large enough to direct and absorb overflow when the nearby Skokie River rises out of its banks. And the design of this swale is so integral to the building site that a handsome footbridge over it provides the main access to the building.


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