Changing Skyline: A design that's a teaching tool

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How to instill moral values in America's youth is one topics that is guaranteed to start a spirited conversation

Religious groups, of course, have always been big on teaching the difference between right and wrong. Others argue that you can’t have the discussion without talking about ethical behavior, compassion, or economic justice.

More and more, people are adding another key value to the list: caring for the Earth.

So when Germantown Friends School, the historic Quaker institution, decided to add a new science building to its Philadelphia campus, there was never any doubt that it would be green. The issue was how to design it in a way that would teach environmental responsibility to students.

As the latest addition to Philadelphia’s growing ranks of green projects, GFS’s new Sustainable Urban Science Center on West Coulter Street incorporates the sort of energy-saving strategies we’re starting to see all over the place, such as heat-deflecting glass and planted rooftops. The difference is that those elements are exposed – flaunted, actually – for all to see.

Designed by Philadelphia’s SMP Architects Ltd., the $7.5 million building is meant to be as much a part of the GFS science curriculum as its textbooks. Lessons start the minute students step into the lobby, where a trio of flat screens spit out real-time data on the building’s electricity and water consumption.

Touch an icon and you can compare the numbers with the building’s own energy production from its rooftop photovoltaic panels, 24 geothermal wells, and extensive rainwater-collection system. Tracking the building’s carbon footprint – available online at – can be almost as compulsive as checking for e-mail. The prudent Quakers expect to save a bundle on the school’s utility bills, especially since a quarter of the building – the corridors – relies on cross breezes for cooling.

SMP was among the first Philadelphia firms to explore green architecture, and in the beginning it tended to make a fetish of anything recycled. Are corn-husk countertops really that crucial to sustainability?

With the GFS science building, however, the firm’s David Ade has embraced a more polished aesthetic that is no less green. It offers proof that architecture can do it all. That’s key because selling environmental design to skeptics should be easier once it looks no different from the energy-guzzling kind.

Since the center was expected to serve as a teaching tool for science, GFS wanted a design that expressed a modern, tech-friendly sensibility. That brief helped SMP resist the factions that wanted the science center to ape the gabled roofline of Addison Hutton’s 1868 meetinghouse across the street – much as GFS’s last big academic project, the Hargroves building, does.

Ade chose to clad the science center in zinc and glass, both earth-friendly materials, because they convey an instant affinity for technology. The center’s lines are straight and clean, unlike the fussy, peaked-roof Hargroves center next door.

On the Coulter Street facade, the science center’s second floor abruptly breaks out of the confines of its glass box, sending a zinc-faced cantilever shooting into the space over the sidewalk. It’s the big architectural move, and meant to exhibit a bit of mischief. Fittingly, the jutting extension houses the physics lab, where students learn the secrets of such structural mechanics. As a side benefit, the overhang creates a bit of shade to cool the building.

Ade’s first big design decision involved a rather different kind of environmental issue. GFS’s master plan called for the science building to be on Germantown Avenue and attached to the back of Hargroves. Ade felt the site was all wrong – not because it was on Germantown’s commercial spine, but because the science center would have turned its back to that important street.

In the last few decades, GFS’s architecture has clearly had a hard time engaging with the surrounding Germantown neighborhood. Hargroves has no entrance on its Germantown Avenue side, but that’s nothing compared with the neighboring Sharpless building. Its windowless, beige wall on the Coulter Street corner is so unbreachable that even sunlight is repelled.

Ade concluded that no wall was better than another blank one on the avenue and shifted the science center to the west side of Hargroves. In a single stroke, he turned a liability into an advantage. Mimicking Hargroves’ L-shaped plan, he linked the two buildings to create a generous courtyard facing Coulter Street.

The space provides a high-visibility stage for displaying the science center’s green attributes. Two corrugated steel cisterns, resembling giant soda bottles, stand sentry, ready to catch the rain flowing from the roof and transfer it to the restrooms for flushing toilets.

Besides being a lovely spot for students to enjoy lunch from the Hargroves cafeteria, the courtyard furthers their green education. Its porous paving and wetlands-style plantings can sponge up heavy rain, preventing excess water from cascading into the city’s overburdened sewers.

The downside is that the gray-toned science center and yellow-hued Hargroves are stylistic opposites, linked in a forced marriage. The science center’s flat modernist roof aggressively butts up to Hargroves’ red peak. It’s as if math nerds in tortoiseshell specs and khakis had been joined at the hip with the skateboarding computer geeks in their rock-band tees. While the intent is admirable, visually the contrast is a bit Frankensteinish. Maybe one day someone will give GFS money to reclad Hargroves.

That aesthetic indulgence might not sound like the greenest use of money. But if sustainability is a moral value, it can’t be seen only as a strict calculation of energy consumed. What about the sustainability of the Germantown neighborhood?

GFS’s inward-turning buildings have contributed their share to the erosion of Germantown’s historically rich main thoroughfare. The biggest lesson of the science center may be that if you really want to foster a healthier planet, buildings have to be urban as well as green.

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