Innovating Ancient Architecture: Denver's Green Pyramid

In the midst of the glitzy Dale Chihuly exhibition that spiked annual attendance above a million for the first time, the Denver Botanic Gardens unveiled a groundbreaking piece of architecture. Envisioned by BURKETTDESIGN, the new Science Pyramid is something of a planet-wide first.
A tectonic shift in architecture, the Science Pyramid simultaneously mimics an earthquake and a sprout in its ultra-sustainable design.

LoDo-based BURKETTDESIGN won the project at Denver Botanic Gardens after presenting their designs in June 2013. The $6 million project broke ground in October 2013 and the dedication for the pyramid took place in September 2014.

Burkett Principal Barton Harris says the vision emerged quickly. "Ben spent a heated few days coming up with a design," he explains. Ben is N. Ben Niamthet, associate principal.

Harris says there was no paint-by-numbers approach. "We gave the same response as anyone would: 'What's a science pyramid?’"

Denver Botanic Gardens CEO Brian Vogt had an answer for that question. He studied classical antiquities in college and has had a longstanding interest in pyramids in Egypt and elsewhere.

Or, as Niamthet puts it, "He's obviously had an obsession with pyramids for a long time."

The origins of a pyramid

Vogt downplays his pyramid fascination. "It has very little to do with why it's a pyramid, but it has a lot to do with why I like it so much."

The pyramid is a perfect match for the Denver Botanic Gardens.He runs through what he likes about pyramids. It takes several minutes. "From the outside, they appear smaller than they actually are, but from the inside they appear much bigger than they actually are," says Vogt. "The Great Pyramid is the same height as the Wells Fargo Tower, but when you're standing next to it, you don't get the scale at all."

"The [Egyptian] pyramids themselves were built to resemble a mountain range," he adds, noting that the architecture dates to 3000 B.C."

Niamthet's design was a perfect match for the site. "The angles and the scale of the pyramid are almost an exact mirror image of the amphitheater's angles. When we received the first rendering of Ben's design, we said, 'Oh, my god, can we actually have this?' It was so breathtaking and so perfect."

Niamthet says the architecture needed to "have a great relationship with the surroundings."

"The shape came out of the positive-negative relationship with the amphitheater," says Harris. "The pyramid is not as imposing as a cube. The shape really lends itself to the siting in the gardens."

On one side of the pyramid is a pond that's part of the gardens' hydrological system and the entry is aligned at the end of the El Pomar Waterway. "That led us to biomimicry, using tectonic plates as an inspiration," says Niamthet, "as if a fault was pushing the pyramid up."

He says he researched by looking at the formations at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre in Morrison and also at nature at a much smaller scale: sprouts spiraling their way up to daylight -- the pyramid's exposed interior structure even mimics the roots.

Inside, he adds, "You have a cathedral experience." Back outside, "The skin of the building itself is mimicking the honeycomb."

Revolutionizing the rainscreen

The pyramid's roof is a rainscreen that is the first its kind in the country; only one similar application in China predates it. "Usually rainscreens are very vertical," says Niamthet.

Harris commends Studio NYL for its work on the roof. The Boulder-based structural engineering firm launched The Skins Group and has won local, national and international business making innovative facades a reality.

BURKETTDESIGN and Studio NYL are the Science Pyramid team.In the case of the Science Pyramid, that meant figuring out exactly what a rainscreen roof would look like. In the end, it was the spitting image of Niamthet's original rendering.

"That's very rare," Harris says. "They didn't come in like a normal structural engineer and tone it down. It was full-bore. They supported what we wanted to do."

Studio NYL Founding Principal Chris O'Hara says his firm started The Skins Group because they were sick of hearing no when they wanted an innovative facade. Their work is on display all over Colorado, including the Ralph L. Carr Justice Center in Denver and Marquez Hall at Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

The Science Pyramid's roof "takes its cues from a lot of cold roofing projects you see in the mountains," says O'Hara. "It gives us greater thermal performance for the overall building."

Swiss Pearl was the only company that warranty its rainscreen materials for a roof. "A lot of the products weren't warrantied at an angle," says Harris.

Because of the innovative application of their materials, Swiss Pearl is "getting ready to do a big media blitz on what we've done to get the word out," adds O'Hara.

Below the rainscreen, the roof features six inches of insulation. But it might just be the pyramidal shape that adds the most efficiency. Like a teepee or a termite mound, a pyramid "creates a chimney effect," says Niamthet. Motors give the cool air an assist pushing the hot air out of vents up top.

That's not all. Most of the glass is electrochromic and morphs from clear to opaque with a flip of the switch. Custom photovoltaic panels will come in 2015.

It all adds up to one of the greenest designs possible.

But it's hard to avoid the aesthetics and the biomimicry -- even if visitors don't see the seismic and seedling inspirations. "Maybe people experience it at a subconscious level," Harris wonders. "Do they put two and two together?"

Meet the botanists

But the pyramid isn't all about architecture. It's about getting DBG and botanists and scientists out of the basement and in front of the public.

Gardens staffers worked with Oregon-based Second Story on the exhibits."Botanic gardens are different than show gardens," explains Vogt. The mission is not "aesthetics or horticulture" but "research and science," he notes. "It's like a zoo for plants."

Portland, Ore.-based Second Story worked with DBG staff to develop the interactive exhibits. "I love the demo desk," says Vogt. Botanists work the desk, and can project images of plants on the cellular level via a cutting-edge microscope.

"Connecting people to the science at the Botanic Gardens is really important," he says, noting that employees work on everything from genetics to conservation. "A lot of people had no idea we were doing that."

Before the pyramid, science "didn't really have a place" at the gardens, Vogt says, but that's not the case anymore. "It's been drawing people in droves."
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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