What began as a project to design and build a small classroom for a non-profit nature center in south Chicago quickly evolved into an endeavor which far surpassed the scope of architecture. After discovering Eden Place Nature Center and realizing the impact this amenity has already had in the community, six students and I choose to collaborate for our final master’s thesis project with the goal of constructing the first permanent building at Eden Place. Our group of seven were responsible for every aspect of the project including fundraising, community outreach, coordinating with contractors and suppliers, and corresponding with the Chicago zoning and buildings department.
     The Chicago zoning department’s concerns over property ownership, possible contamination, and nonconforming safety access routes ultimately extended our goal past our reach.  Through the course of this project and our turbulent interactions with city departments it became apparent that the urban politics currently in place are inhibiting progress if a project with such benign intent is given disregard.
The Fuller Park Neighborhood
     Fuller Park’s derelict condition is not surprising. In 1956 the city designated Wentworth Avenue as the route for the Dan Ryan express way, displacing residents and businesses in the neighborhoods directly adjacent to those which had just undergone ‘urban renewal’ - Swaths of private property were claimed for large housing projects. The Dan Ryan formed the eastern edge of the Fuller Park neighborhood and with the Norfolk Southern train yard just 3 blocks west, the remaining neighborhood became physically isolated.
     In 1997, Fuller Park was reported to have the highest levels of lead contamination in the city; this provoked local contractor and resident Michael Howard to take action.
     One of the largest vacant lots in the neighborhood had been used as an illegal fly-dump site by CTA contractors for 35 years. Michael took it upon himself to organize a clean-up effort, mobilizing area residents and public and private partnerships to transform and reclaim this space for residents.
     The clean-up lasted three years and over 200 tons of debris was removed. Today, Eden Place is an award-winning productive space which serves to teach families and children about their environment.
An Interactive Learning Tool
     Nature Studio is intended to function primarily as a classroom with a wet lab space for plant and insect biology lessons.
     Our goal was to create a building which would enhance the educational experience by becoming an interactive demonstration of sustainable design strategies on a small scale. The first design concept we developed was envisioned as a reinterpretation of passive solar strategies by making them more ‘active’ and adaptable.  The south exterior wall was designed to contain a moving concrete trombe wall with an embedded graphic.
     Sited adjacent to the official monarch butterfly conservation site for the state of Illinois, the butterfly served as an apropos example of how an abstracted image or pattern could enhance the building’s sense of place.
     The scope of the building increased as the design developed in accordance to city zoning and permitting requirements which classified our project as a school.  This use designation necessitated multiple points of egress, ADA accessibility, a drinking fountain and a restroom (the first running water at Eden Place).
     The 750 square foot building would be able to accommodate a class of 25 students. The refined design emphasized clarity and simplicity and is intended to be rendered as an honest work of architecture with careful craftsmanship.
     Additional factors also demanded a change of siting, to which we took the opportunity to immerse the building within a natural setting at the far edge of a prairie habitat, isolated from the adjacent train yard under a canopy of trees.
Design / Build
     The final design of Nature Studio took into consideration the anticipated construction schedule, availability and access to materials, cost of materials, and material performance. The design takes advantage of insulated concrete formwork (ICF) construction, which provides high thermal performance, allows for ease and speed of construction, and is cost-effective. With a team of seven [inexperienced] workers the building can be constructed in eight weeks, excluding fabrication of the custom built-in cabinetry.
Green is in the Details
     Our goal was not only to construct a building, but to endow Eden Place with a sustainable and long-lasting facility which will continue to serve the community for years to come. We consulted directly with the Passive House Institute in Urbana, IL with the intent of achieving Passive House certification. If Nature Studio were constructed as designed it is likely that it would reach Passive House standards, dependent on commissioning for envelope tightness. This would be the first Passive House certified building in Chicago; total projected energy costs are around $10/month in January and August.

Video created for Kickstarter Fundraising Campaign.  $12,000 in individual contributions was donated to Eden Place's Non-Profit Organization

Project Details
Design + Permitting: 2011 - 2012
Status: Unbuilt
Fuller Park neighborhood / Chicago, IL
Michael Howard / Fuller Park Development Corp, 501(c)(3)
750 sqft Classroom (seating for 25 students) / Wet-lab Demonstration Area / ADA restroom
Role / Scope
Concept Design, Design Development, Permit Drawings, Promotion, Branding, Fundraising, Grant Writing, Material Take-Offs, Cost Estimation
Design + Construction Documents created at 
IIT College of Architecture
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