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Silver Award: Milwaukee's Newest Waterfront Attraction

Silver Award: Milwaukee's Newest Waterfront Attraction

Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin takes full advantage of its Lake Michigan site, but sensitive design and thoughtful sustainable features help it tread lightly on the city's waterfront.

By By Jay W. Schneider, Senior Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200704 issue of BD+C.

Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin, Milwaukee's new 120,000-sf science and technology museum, sits on a man-made peninsula constructed in the 1950s from soil dredged from the lake bottom. This small slit of municipal land lacked space but not potential. Taking maximum advantage of the site and its amazing water and city views while minimizing damage to Lake Michigan were all top priorities for the Building Team: local architects Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, the Milwaukee office of construction manager Gilbane, and Tri-North Builders of Waukesha.

Lake Michigan was the star attraction here, so flashy architecture was out. The project's original architect was ousted because his flamboyant, vertical design competed with both the lakefront and the adjacent Milwaukee Art Museum, with its famed Quadracci Pavilion, designed by Santiago Calatrava. HGA won the commission in a second round of competition where Jim Shields, AIA, VP, and the project's design architect, was tasked with creating an architecturally distinctive “background building.”

Shields's architectural influences came from the clean, sleek lines of the 192-foot catamaran that ferries passengers and cars between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich., on the opposite shore.

“What interested me was that at times you could look at the boat and see a striking modern object, and then you look again and it could be camouflaged,” says Shields. “That idea was inspiring to me. Some days you can look at the building and it's camouflaged.”

Shields estimates that about two-thirds of the time Discovery World has what he calls a “recessive” quality. “The (cladding) panels adopt the color of the sky, and the building's long horizontal lines blend in with the horizontal lines of the lake,” he says. “They really make the building recede into the landscape.”

This architectural camouflage keeps the facility from overpowering its setting, even though it occupies the entire site, and then some.

A 45,000-sf circular “pilot house” juts out over the water, offering 360-degree views of the lake and the city from its rooftop terrace. Also built above the lake are outdoor amphitheater seating for 250 and docking facilities for the S/V Denis Sullivan, a reproduction of a 19th-century three-masted schooner.

The pilot house wing connects to the main 72,000-sf wing via a 3,000-sf glass concourse that hugs the shoreline and opens directly onto a public boardwalk (made of certified sustainable ipe wood), which itself is connected to a 450-foot-long dock. The main wing hosts an aquarium and the museum's youth-oriented interactive exhibits.

A 200-car parking garage, topped with a 33,000-sf walkable green roof, was also finessed onto the site in front of the building. Shields says that the car park was set about 10 feet below grade, “so when you approach the building, you just see a lawn with a vista out to Lake Michigan.”

Of its many sustainable elements, Discovery World's most novel green feature—the building's cooling system—is also its most controversial. The system utilizes an innovative heat pump that draws in water from 15 feet beneath the surface of the lake to heat and cool the building. However, the warmed water is then returned to the lake, a process that raised many eyebrows. The state's Department of Natural Resources gave the Building Team very little latitude, insisting that the discharged water have a temperature change no greater than one degree. Shields offset the thermal pollution by discharging water into an area of the bay that's shaded and cooled by the facility's 12-foot cantilever roof.

The cantilevered white roof atop the 72,000-sf exhibit wing also shades the band of windows that wrap around the building; its reflective surface repels solar rays. Thanks to the lake-water HVAC system, the roof is free of cooling towers and has been prepped for the future installation of next-generation photovoltaics.

Gilbane and Tri-North Builders faced soggy working conditions, unstable soil, an aging seawall, and environmental issues. Much of the construction had to be done below water level. Three large pumps were employed to keep things dry as the seawall was reconditioned and the foundations and the building's lower-level aquarium exhibits were trenched and poured. A special mixture of concrete and bentonite (a waterproof clay that forms a fixed barrier when exposed to water) were used on foundation walls for the building's west and north sides, which come in direct contact with the lake.

Six hundred steel pipe piles, filled with an environmentally friendly concrete mixture of 30% fly ash and slag pellets from power plant and industrial waste, support the 45,000-sf pilot house, amphitheater, and dock, keeping them from lifting during wave impacts and high water levels. The effect is a building that appears to float above the surface.

Summing up the jury's consensus, engineer Daniel Murphy, senior vice president of Environmental Systems Design, Chicago, said: “It's unique. It's complicated. It's very well done.”

Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin Milwaukee, Wis.

Building Team

Submitting firm: Gilbane Building Group (construction manager)

Architect, interior designer: Hammel, Green and Abrahamson

General contractor: Tri-North Builders

HVAC contractor: Mared Mechanical

Electrical contractor: Staff Electrical

Plumbing contractor: Butters Fetting

Waterfront civil consultant: SmithGroup JJR Inc.

Geotechnical consultant: Wagner Komurka Geotechnical Group

Demolition and excavation: Edgerton Contractors

Pilings and foundation: Edward E. Gillen Co.

Exterior decking: Platt Construction

EPDM roofing contractor: JT Roofing

Green roof contractor: FJA Christiansen

Flooring and interior pain contractor: Thomas A. Mason Co.

Exterior paint contractor: Stuckey Construction

Drywall contractor: Jahn & Sons

Acoustical ceilings: Sullivan Brothers

Glass and glazing contractor: Simmons Building Products Inc.

Concrete: CG Schmidt

Fire protection: Wisconsin Fire Protection Inc.

Aquarium consultant: BIOS LLC

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