New Nature Center Exemplifies Natural Construction

By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet
Tuesday June 29, 2004

Sunny skies, cool breezes, the sparkle of the bay, and an appreciative local crowd attended the Saturday, June 19, grand opening of a long-awaited new building at Berkeley’s Shorebird Park Nature Center.  

The structure at the Berkeley Marina is believed to be the first public straw bale building in the Bay Area and will provide increased space for nature education programs as well as an example of ecologically sound construction. 

“Where better than in Berkeley to have a ‘green’ building?” said Mark Seleznow, the city’s parks director, at the opening ceremonies. “The city took a risk here, to innovate.” 

From the building one can see to the south, beyond the Berkeley shoreline and across wind-ruffled water, to the glittering glass and steel corporate and residential towers of Emeryville, symbols of conventional development and modern design.  

In comparison, Berkeley’s Nature Center complex near the water’s edge—with trees, lawns, picnic tables, an Adventure Playground, children running about, and diminutive structures—looks a bit like Hobbiton. The new building’s asymmetrical profile, residential scale, deep-set windows and small tower with blue heron weathervane all reinforce the contrast and emphasize natural values and processes.  

At the opening, City Councilmember Dona Spring praised long-time city employee and nature center staffmember Patty Donald “for being the driving force behind this visionary project. Without you we’d probably just have another toxic building.” And, Spring added, “of course we have to thank the tax-payers who made it possible.” 

Donald was quick to share the credit with many others, including her co-worker Denise Brown, a naturalist at the center for the past decade, who wrote grants for the lengthy effort. Brown, Donald said, “had a baby during this project. He’s six and a half now.”  

An array of designers, contractors, consultants, and volunteers lined up in front of the crowd to receive additional plaudits. Van Mechelen Architects and Dan Smith and Associates led the design team for the building. 

The University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Energy got the project started with a $25,000 grant, the first of many public agency and private contributions, both cash and in-kind. Construction of the Shorebird Park building began in April, 2002 (see “A House Made Of Grain,” Berkeley Daily Planet, Aug. 24, 2002).  

Volunteer help was essential. At one point, Brown noted, “20-30 volunteers each day came and lifted those bales into place.” When the straw walls were up but not yet coated with stucco, children asked, “Are you keeping animals in there? Will they use the walls for food?” 

That wasn’t the purpose of using straw, of course. If designed and constructed properly, straw bale structures have high insulation value, behave well in earthquakes, and recycle resources. 

The straw comes from rice fields in the Sacramento Valley, where it would otherwise be burned, creating air pollution. A growing number of residential and commercial clients are now opting for straw bale designs. 

The official opening was simplicity itself. “Out with the old, in with the new!” proclaimed Donald as she snipped a ribbon strung across the doorway and let the crowd in to admire the bright, high-ceilinged interior. 

The building looks thoroughly new but features recycled and “green” materials throughout. Concrete mixed with recycled fly-ash forms the foundation. Recycled and salvaged wood was used for the framing. Recycled glass forms part of terrazzo counters and seats. 

Windows are fiberglass. A blue map of San Francisco Bay is set into the floor. Ship models, stuffed birds, and aquariums share space with racks of educational handouts. An outdoor terrace provides additional event space. There were, thankfully, no “Three Little Pigs” jokes during the ceremony. Besides, the building wouldn’t quite qualify as a porcine fairy tale home.  

The straw provides the bulk of the walls, literally and figuratively, but there’s a wood frame around the bales. And the tale does not report that the pigs installed active solar heating and power systems, which this building has. Nor, presumably, did the pigs use chain saws to cut the straw bales to size, and weed whackers to even the sides before they were coated with stucco. 

And here’s a final difference. Berkeley’s straw bale building will stand for a long time, its users hope. “Thank you for making this dream a reality,” said Brown. “We’ll use it to educate thousands of people for generations to come.” 

For further details on the building, how to get to it by bus or car, and ongoing educational events there, check the City of Berkeley’s Marina website, www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/marina/.