A Bold New Environmental Center Helps Redeem a Former Brownfield Site in Chicago

“It’s all about re-housing a landscape that was otherwise uninhabitable,” says the building’s lead architect, Joseph Valerio, president of Chicago-based Valerio Dewalt Train Associates. “I think that is the big message of this building. It uses all kinds of techniques and interesting design methods [to do that]. “

Sustainable building approaches include the use of timber laminated with nails – rather than steel or concrete – to create the structural bones of the building. Glue-laminated beams and columns appear inside and out.

The industrial-inspired exterior is covered in Cor-Ten steel, which develops a renewable patina over time. Natural light pours into the airy interior of the building through skylights. The frosted glass on the outside of the building helps the migratory birds avoid hitting the structure.

From slag to affluence Now a major recreation spot for Chicago, Big Marsh Park was once a dumping ground for slag from nearby steel mills.

Another eco-friendly feature is a black water recycling system that takes effluent from the center’s restrooms and treats it using a series of tanks, purifiers, and natural filters; Constructed wetlands adjacent to the building allow fresh water to return to the soil.

“The output of the system is clear and undrinkable,” says Alex Raynor, Valerio Dewalt Train Project Manager. “One of the only ways we can get past [city’s] The permitting process was to put something in the ground very clean. I think we’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes to how these sites are used.”

The park and center are located on acres of fresh soil that has been brought in to cover land that has been polluted by slag throwing.

Three children looking at a 3D map of the site in the exhibition hall.
LEARNING LAB SPACE View (top) Trace the transformation of the site and explore the region’s diverse ecosystems. Flexible classroom spaces open to the site via large windows and skylights.
Satellite view of the site
SITE SOLVE The center uses a wetland-built sewage system to treat black water and return clean water to the ecosystem.

“When you look at the building, you look at it through the landscape. It looks like a one-story building,” Valerio says. “In fact, it’s about 90 feet tall, because the foun-dations rest on a series of deep stilts that run through all of these and stabilize on solid material [bedrock]. “

Once inside, visitors are treated to displays and graphics that explain the fascinating industrial and environmental history of the site and area.

“We really wanted to make sure the exhibition went through the whole story,” says Alison Rokoske, chief designer at Media-Objectives, Valerio Dewalt Train’s interior graphics group.

“In order to present that full picture, you have to sort of move from pre-settlement to industrial age to ecological activism,” she adds. “Looking at nature, plants and animals, and then kind of leaving with this call to action for what the area could be.”

The center forms a great gateway to the Big Marsh, a spot that features peaceful nature areas, a bumper bike park, and hiking trails. It’s also a prime spot for bird watching – something unimaginable when steel companies dumped trainloads of molten slag at the site.

Betsy Goodwin and Janet Pellegrini, of Chicago’s North Side, traveled 20 miles to spend a late Sunday morning in the park, looking for the Hudsonian, a long-beaked brown bird rarely seen in these parts until fall, when the road from Canada to South america.

“For the city to create this and encourage the ecological renewal of the area…it’s encouraging,” says Pellegrini.

And what about the building?

“It’s kind of industrial, but the wood also makes it kind of earthy,” Goodwin says. “It is a nice.”

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