Lemurs At The Lion House: Exotic And Energy-Saving

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A new city law took effect last year requiring many public building projects to meet tough standards for environmentally healthier construction. Eco-activists cheered its passage for mandating energy efficiency for city-funded projects of $2 million or more – especially because many projects had avoided green upgrades because they were considered cost-prohibitive.

But the debut of a new Bronx Zoo exhibit within a renovated historical building set to be the city’s first landmark to earn Gold certification through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program shows how close collaboration between architects and city, cultural and utility company officials can make even the most challenging of green upgrades work – and save money. Roughly 4 to 6 percent more was spent on the Lion House’s green upgrade than would be to renovate a traditional historic building – but the building will earn it back within about seven years due to large improvements in the building’s energy, water and light use.
Last month, the Bronx Zoo opened its “Madagascar” exhibit within the Lion House, a century-old Beaux Arts Building all but abandoned after lions were moved from cages to more natural-style habitats from the 1940s onwards. The exhibit, which features lemurs, geckos and tortoises from the island nation off Africa’s southeast coast, seeks to instill an appreciation of one-of-a-kind island ecology that’s at risk on a warming planet. The other impressive part of the project is the 57 percent-plus savings in energy cost and water use, setting an ambitious example for future green preservation projects.

From its beginning in 2002, the Lion House renovation faced complex challenges to maximize space for a vast exhibit and energy-saving machinery within the building, meet the varied climate needs of nearly 70 flora and fauna species from different ecosystems, and keep core features of the original structure intact. Weighing in on decisions were designers and plant and animal curators from the zoo; architects from the firm FXFowle; and officials from the New York Power Authority and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Department of Design and Construction (DDC) and Department of Cultural Affairs.

“We had to set up a life support system for the animals and keep the building standing while opening up the interior,” says Sergio Silveira, assistant commissioner for cultural institutions and public libraries at DDC. “Endless pipes and conduits had to accommodate the collection.”

To create an interior space for the exhibit, designers enclosed spaces on the east side of the original cages. Similarly, to make room for a fuel cell and water recycling and geothermal heating and cooling systems, architects opted to dig deep below the basement. “Every inch had to be carefully planned. We could have gone deeper for all the time we spent,” says Sylvia Smith, a senior partner at FXFowle Architects.
But the extra 8,000 square feet gained underground and via an interior mezzanine allowed equipment to be stored away from the public eye. For similar reasons, an HVAC duct was concealed within a faux tree. A gray water filtering system was set up, with water from faucets recycled for toilet use. And a fuel cell was threaded into the basement with the help of the New York Power Authority. “Partnering with the New York Power Authority was an invaluable way to access advanced expertise and technology,” says John Krieble, director of sustainable design at DDC.

Another conundrum involved adding a heating and cooling system to the Great Hall, which was remade into a space for meetings and events. Its soaring ceilings and brick walls left little margin for tampering – so architects raised the floor instead. Adjustable temperature-controlled skylights were added to maximize light when needed in the exhibit area. Roughly 75 percent of original building materials were also reused or recycled, and 20 percent of all concrete, steel, wood paneling, and synthetic and certified wood were sourced from within 500 miles, to minimize carbon dioxide emitted in materials transport.

Some six years and $62 million later, the Madagascar exhibit opened last month to great fanfare. “They did a good job – I didn’t notice the renovation or green building aspects,” said recent visitor Deena Emera, a doctoral student of evolutionary biology at Yale University who was lured by the lemurs. “It sounds doubly challenging within the footprint.”

The Lion House renovation, which broke ground long before City Council voted in Local Law 86 in 2005, then won the city’s Department of Environmental Protection Green Building Award in 2006, will be far from the first local building to be LEED-certified by the U.S.Green Building Council. Notable early NYC movers include the Hearst Tower and Bronx Library Center, which passed LEED muster in 2006 and 2007. Recent projects that are now LEED-certified include the city Office of Emergency Management Headquarters in Brooklyn and the Queens Botanical Garden Visitor & Administration Center in Flushing. Nearly 50 projects, some predating the law, are in the pipeline that aim for LEED Silver, including the NYPD’s new Police Academy. Cultural institutions housed in city-owned buildings such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Carnegie Hall also could solicit funds for green additions under similar terms. But as an eco-friendly preservation prototype, the Lion House may set the standard.

“The Lion House was a technologically ambitious project,” says Krieble. “We will monitor and evaluate it for future projects.”

– Carolyn Whelan

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