Cool air blowing through the mounds draws warm interior air up through vents in the ceiling, providing constant circulation that reduces the need for air conditioning. Tim Griffith/California Academy of Sciences

From a bird’s-eye view, the domes of the California Academy of Sciences, set to open in the fall, bulge out of the ground like giant scoops of green ice cream. These undulating hills built into the museum’s 2.5-acre, flora-covered roof integrate the building into the green space of surrounding Golden Gate Park. They also conserve energy, since the roof insulates and ventilates the 400,000-square-foot museum below.

Rooted in Sustainability

The living rooftop is tiled with 50,000 biodegradable trays made of coconut husks. Each tray is specially layered to keep plants from slipping down the roof’s steep slopes.

Designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, whose works include the landmark modern-art museum Centre Pompidou in Paris, the $484-million structure will most likely be the largest public building ever to qualify for the U.S. Green Building Council’s “platinum” LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating. The designation, so far held by just 70 buildings worldwide, is the highest honor in green construction.

Beneath the roof, museumgoers will find a natural-history museum, a planetarium, a rainforest with free-flying birds, a coral reef inhabited by 4,000 fish, and an aquarium filled with saltwater pumped in from the Pacific Ocean. The most influential display, though, may well be the marriage of the museum’s physical design with its educational mission. “It’s not about dusty stuffed animals,” says executive director Greg Farrington. “It’s about human survival and living in harmony on planet Earth.”

Check out our animated tour, below, and launch our photo gallery of the world’s greenest museum here.

The Living Roof

Planted with nine local species, the 2.5-acre roof is the largest swath of native vegetation in San Francisco.

The Living Roof

The roof absorbs 98 percent of rainwater, so it doesn’t need irrigation.


Computer modeling of local wind patterns helped architects place the roof’s seven mounds to maximize air flow. The valleys correspond with open areas in the exhibition space below.


Cool air blowing through the mounds draws warm interior air up through vents in the ceiling, providing constant circulation that reduces the need for air conditioning.

Retractable Roof

Between the planetarium and the rainforest is the museum’s central plaza, which opens via a retractable Mylar rain screen.


Natural light reaches 90 percent of the building’s exhibition spaces, minimizing the use of electricity.

Multi-Use Lighting

In addition, the building’s walls and skylights are made of high-performance glass that reflects most heat, while rooftop solar panels supply up to 10 percent of the museum’s electricity needs.


All of the building’s structural steel comes from recycled sources.


The concrete contains 30 percent fly ash (a by-product of coal plants), and the structure is insulated with recycled blue jeans.

Water Use

A pumping station at nearby Ocean Beach sucks water two and a half miles from the Pacific through a buried pipe to a holding tank in the museum’s basement, where it is treated, heated, and distributed to the aquarium and coral reef.

The Living Museum

When the California Academy of Sciences opens its doors in the Fall, it will be the world’s most eco-friendly museum. Read about “The Living Museum,” (and check out our animated tour) here, and take a look around in the following gallery.