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A building worthy of greenery

The proposed visitor center at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver.

The proposed visitor center at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver. (Busby Perkins+Will)

One of Vancouver’s secret treasures is about to emerge from its Oak Street closet and blossom — literally — with a petal-shaped headquarters that could become the Pacific Northwest’s first major building to meet the new standards of the Living Building Project.

VanDusen Botanical Garden sits on the site of a former golf course in a leafy Vancouver neighborhood minutes from the city’s center, on the major thoroughfare for motorists entering the city from the south. Yet it is scarcely known to British Columbia residents, let alone visitors from Washington and other U.S. localities.

Annual visitors number no more than 150,000, with 60,000 of those for one event, the popular Festival of Lights at Christmas season. Yet the 55-acre garden is perhaps the most comprehensive in the Northwest in its collection of species, landscaped to have an aesthetic as well as scientific appeal.

VanDusen’s appeal, says new Garden Director Harry Jongerden, is that it is “organized on aesthetic principles” rather than the traditional design of most botanical gardens, which group species in blocks rather than arranging the plantings to be pleasing to the eye as well as useful to the horticulturist. Jongerden joined VanDusen earlier this year from Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ont., where he was director of horticulture.

He is already moving VanDusen into increased emphasis on education and sustainability, and the new buildings, Jongerden believes, will be the public face of conservation in Vancouver.

The very visible heart of the project is the $23 million visitor center and garden headquarters, designed in the shape of a flower, its petal-shaped structure dominating a new garden entrance on busy Oak Street. Presently, the garden is hidden from Oak by trees and hedges, and commuters are only dimly aware of its presence.

Designers Busby, Perkins and Will, an international architectural firm known for green buildings, were instructed by the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, VanDusen’s parent, to make the new building “visible and outstanding,” says Jim Huffman, associate principal with the firm. Huffman describes the structure as a “very organic building,” easily meeting all the requirements for platinum certification under LEED standards. LEED, The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, is currently the major rating system for green buildings.

Huffman and his associates want the visitor center to go beyond LEED, to the next level envisioned by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, a standard that leaves no ecological footprint on the land. The Living Building Challenge is comprised of six performance areas, or petals: site, energy, materials, water, indoor quality, and beauty and inspiration. Builders may apply for certification of any of the petals, and the council hopes for a six-petal building within three years.

The visitor center’s targeted construction start date is 2009, so it could compete for the honor of being the first six-petal building. Coincidentally (perhaps), the design of the structure has six petals. Huffman says the largest challenge may be energy, and the garden is examining co-generation, utilizing its massive volume of waste vegetation, which now must be trucked to sites outside the city.

Garden Director Jongerden is pushing for better water conservation, and he plans to eliminate use of potable water in garden maintenance. He wants VanDusen to be a leader in sustainable horticulture as well as in green architecture.

To meet the construction start date, the garden must raise half of the $23 million for the vistors center and, eventually, half of an $8 million garden pavilion and events center, also built along green standards. The City of Vancouver will match the garden’s funds from an annual parks levy request to voters.

Mary Butterfield, who grew up across the street from the golf course before it became VanDusen, heads private fundraising efforts, now at $6.2 million, including $2 million from the provincial government. VanDusen will lean on a large volunteer corps, primarily Vancouver gardeners who saved the site from housing development in 1971 and still staff many of the garden’s activities. Few volunteers come from outside the city; my wife served as a volunteer for several years and didn’t encounter another from Washington.

The volunteers, some 1,500 strong, have allowed the garden to stretch a very modest budget of $2.8 million annually. The reward for the volunteers has been a place of their own, a serene and under-utilized treasure in the heart of the city where, on a quiet weekday, a visitor may encounter a golden coyote emerging from a planting of exotic Asian trees or watch a flock of ducklings navigate one of the garden’s shallow ponds.

Perhaps the major challenge of the drive, ironically, will be to move beyond the traditional base of longtime Vancouver matrons and build support among the city’s newer residents, many of whom are Asian Canadians. Vancouver is more than 50 percent Asian, and a casual visitor to VanDusen will encounter many Asian visitors. Yet the garden’s Web site reveals a conspicuous lack of Asian names among donors to the campaign, or among VanDusen staff.

The new buildings are an attempt to address that issue, by reaching out into the broader Vancouver community — as well as tourists and other visitors. “I could see this as a place where families would like to come,” says architect Huffman. The garden pavilion would host weddings and other special events, again in an effort to broaden the visitor base and also increase revenue for the city. VanDusen is the only Vancouver park with an entry charge, $8.50 for non-member adults during summer; this has resulted in the impression among many newcomers that the garden is a private, rather than public, facility.

A number of events are planned to benefit the capital drive. Cultural events would be one of the enhancements from the two new buildings planned for VanDusen.

In its 2007 decision to go for a major renovation of VanDusen, the parks board laid out an ambitious plan for the garden’s identity: to make the garden one of the foremost visitor sites in Vancouver; to create a sense of VanDusen as part of the public realm; and to draw more visitors. The first step will be that six-petal building on Oak Street, certain to draw the eyes of Pacific Northwest visitors entering the city from the south.

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