Text description provided by the architects. The Whittier Peninsula has long been an important site to Audubon of Ohio. Local Audubon Society members have been collecting data about migratory bird populations and their stops on the site for over 20 years. The site has been identified as part of an international program called “The Important Bird Area,” and the proximity to downtown aligns with the goal of the National Audubon Society’s 2020 Vision – a plan to locate new centers near urban districts across the United States to reach at least 1 in every 4 children for a visit to an Audubon Center.
In 2004, the City of Columbus, Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks, and Audubon of Ohio began the planning for a new nature center and park. The City of Columbus would be responsible for the remediation of the land – cleaning up the brownfield after years of warehouses, concrete and asphalt production, and vehicular impound. The Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks would develop the 84-acre Scioto Audubon Metropark. And Audubon would design, raise money for, build and operate the center.
Situated along the south edge of the property above an estuary in the Scioto River, the new facility utilizes an ideal east-west axial orientation to maximize visual connections between downtown Columbus and the reclaimed natural environment. The design team nestled the center against the forest edge on the south and west side to create more intimate spaces that draw visitors outside and connect them with the riverine environment. On the north side, dramatic glass walls absorb the views of downtown Columbus and overlook the expanding metro park. The placement of the building on the site is one of many design principles that reinforces the center's mission as both a place to learn and a place to learn from.
The theme for the Grange Insurance Audubon Center is ‘Exploring the Nature of Change,’ influencing both the design process and the educational programming. The goal was to assemble a facility that posits the architecture itself to be center stage in the urban / natural drama. The passive solar design, on-site storm water management, geothermal heat and economy of materials animate the center as an instructor of conservation. And everyday, classes and tours arrive at the center to discover their roles as the active participants and stewards of the Audubon Center and the larger urban ecosystem.
The story of coexistence and change is prominent in the entry procession, which becomes the initial classroom for studying water and light. Even on a dry day, slanted autumn red downspouts, propped against a broad overhang, offer the opportunity to consider the movement of rainwater on the site. Benches and in-laid stones mark the channels that direct water beneath the entry court to the south-side rain garden. Abstracted flocks of birds, patterned on the glass, also prompt visitors for a closer look at the movement of light. Inset under the broad overhang, a south-facing composition of metal and glass integrates color-coded mullions to chart the seasonal movement of the sun.
The Center holds the unique position of being one of the few urban ecology centers so close to a downtown district. The contrast between Downtown Columbus as a backdrop in one vista and the highly naturalized river edge in the other create a palpable tension. Building materials were chosen to celebrate this tension – the linear emphasis of the wood material contrasted with the metal and glass. It tells the story about the coexistence of the two, the urban and the natural. The naturally weather-resistant cedar is untreated so to allow the wood to change color over time.
In contrast to the cedar siding is the metal and glass of the storefront glazing system. While the system is standard, the composition is unique. Carefully proportioned segments subdivide the facade and demarcate the sun's position at the winter solstice, vernal and autumnal equinox and peak migratory season with color-coded horizontal mullions. An additional floor sundial related to a roof occulus and nomen marks the hour on the hour for the Solstices and Equinoxes. Beyond the educational opportunities presented by these sun tracking gestures, the changing qualities and quantities of light were studied for their poetic effect throughout the course of the day and throughout the course of the year. Specifically located panels are operable to allow for natural ventilation of the building. The custom ceramic frit flocking pattern was developed through studies of both the NYC and City of Toronto bird friendly building guidelines to minimize bird strikes.
Weathering steel is used as an accent material at the Audubon Center as an exemplar of the “The Nature of Change” theme. This special steel is designed to patina with continued exposure to weather. Indoor and outdoor fireplaces employ weathering steel cladding to create a focal anchor at the west end of the classroom wing. The inspiration for the use of weathering steel was a rectangular plate of oxidized, graffitied steel salvaged from a demolished warehouse that existed on the site prior to the centers’ construction. This image is prominently displayed on the new fireplace.
The program for the Audubon Center includes classrooms, a multi-purpose room, bird viewing areas, a nature store and administrative spaces. Each of these programmatic elements is enclosed in a cedar-clad volume connected by a large open lobby and central exhibition space. This central space, sheltered with a vegetated roof, is an extension of the exterior with south and west views aligned directly with the existing tree rows. To maximize spatial flexibility with a small footprint, large, but light-weight, sliding cedar barn doors provide access and privacy to the classrooms and multi-purpose room and offer the ability to enlarge the central lobby and exhibit space when open. The three indoor classrooms are located on the south side with direct access to semi-private porch areas outside. An additional classroom is created outside on the southwest corner, anchored by a weathering steel clad fireplace on the porch and an existing 50' mulberry tree at the center of a tree deck.
The requirement for adaptable space informed the choice for the center's structural system, a steel frame system with an open web bar joist roof structure and tongue-and-groove roof deck. Degraded soils required a foundation design that includes 75-feet deep piles supporting grade beams and a 12" structural slab on grade. As part of the approach toward the economy of materials, the elements of the building's structure contribute to the interior palette. The structural concrete floor slab has been ground and polished to achieve an earthy, high-gloss finish, eliminating the need for additional finish flooring. The wood roof deck is both a structural and finish material, adding a warm, natural element inside.