The California Academy of Sciences (the Academy) is a scientific and educational institution in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Founded in 1853, the Academy conducts research and operates a museum that educates visitors about the natural world. Over decades, a series of ad hoc additions to the original facility created physical separation between museum departments and exhibitions, inhibiting cross-disciplinary research and preventing visitors from experiencing the full breadth of the Academy's offerings. Following years of waning attendance and the effects of a devastating 1989 earthquake, the Academy launched an effort to renovate its damaged aquarium. However, strong support from its local community and private donors encouraged the Academy to think bigger -- leading to a decision to reconstruct the entire facility.
The Academy recognized that this capital project held potential to amplify the organization's mission and establish it as a leader in environmental sustainability. By developing an environmentally friendly building and interactive exhibits, the Academy sought to respond to contemporary conservation issues while inviting visitors to explore, learn about, and protect the natural world.
The project team chose Renzo Piano, a world-renowned architect, to design an iconic facility that would be a symbol of sustainability. The signature element of Piano's concept was a living roof with undulating hills echoing the landscape surrounding the museum. A pair of impressive three-story domes, each 90 feet in diameter, would contain the museum's rainforest exhibit and planetarium. While this ambitious project vision contributed to dramatically increased construction and overall project costs, the innovative green design also attracted donors who supported the expanded scope. Today, the Academy houses an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum, as well as scientific research and education programs under one roof. It is the world's first LEED Double Platinum museum, and the largest Double Platinum building on the planet. Visitor attendance has nearly doubled since the building opened, with guests of all ages benefiting from engaging learning experiences. The new facility has also enabled better collaboration across staff departments, and inspired the Academy to focus its research on critical environmental concerns. This project influenced the Academy to evolve its mission, from "explore and explain the natural world" to "explore, explain, and sustain life on Earth."
This case study is based on research conducted by MASS Design Group in November 2015. Funded by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, this case illustrates how a capital project can require a balance between an organization's internal staff needs and external aspirations -- and how a visionary design can bring both benefits and risks. It also demonstrates how a temporary space can help leaders advance operations and program changes prior to moving to a new building.