Plantations dedicates new ultra-green welcome center

With its light-filled atrium and lobby surrounded by walls of windows and skylights, the Cornell Plantations' Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center was dedicated Oct. 28, culminating a decade of building and renovation projects at the Plantations.

The new center, built into Comstock Knoll in the heart of the botanical gardens below Tower Road, is expected to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification standards, but may even make platinum certification, which would be a first for a Cornell building, said Jon Neuert, principal architect at the Baird Sampson Neuert architectural firm in Toronto, who designed the building and spoke at the event.

The Nevin Welcome Center will officially open to the public in December, and a grand opening celebration for the Ithaca community will be held May 22, 2011.

"We could not be more thrilled with this building and the many functions it will provide," said Don Rakow, the E.N. Wilds Director of Cornell Plantations, at the dedication ceremony. The building offers interpretive exhibits in the atrium, a reception desk, fully accessible restrooms, a gift shop and small café (which will open in early 2011). The second floor, accessible by stairs and a low-energy elevator, houses a small conference room, kitchenette and a 100-seat multipurpose room that can be divided into two classrooms.

Also, a new parking area and tour bus drop-off zone were built along Plantations Road in front of the center. The parking area was partly constructed with Cornell Structural Soil, which allows tree roots to penetrate beneath the pavement. Shade trees planted nearby are part of Plantations' urban tree collection. Adjacent to the parking area, a bioswale and rain garden filters pollutants from parking lot runoff before the water drains into Beebe Lake.

To suit the surrounding topography, the center was designed to sit within a natural bowl carved by glacial erosion, and against Comstock Knoll, which was created by glacial deposition, Neuert said. Directly in front of the center lies a flatland (the bottom of the bowl), where a new peony and perennial garden and an international crops garden will be planted. The building was sited deep within this topography with an open feel inside to connect interior and exterior environs and "to create an architecture that is an expansion of the landscape itself," Neuert said.

Green features include a living roof, solar roof panels that supply 40-60 percent of the building's heating and "free cooling" from vents that draw in cool air from the base of the knoll, he added.

Other Plantations facility and infrastructure improvements over the past 10 years include the Arboretum Center (2000), Horticultural Center (2001), Mullestein Winter Garden (2002), Ramin Administration Building (2003), Rowley Carpenter Shop (2004), Plant Production Facility (2007), Lewis Education Center (2008) and now the welcome center, said Rakow.

"Today is a day to pause and celebrate what we have accomplished," said Rakow, adding that more improvements lie ahead.

Other speakers included major Plantations donors Madolyn Dallas '58 and Martin Tang '70, co-chairs of the Plantations 21st Century Committee; and Michael Hoffmann, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), who read a letter from Susan Henry, CALS dean emerita, who could not attend.

The welcome center is named for Brian Nevin '50, at the request of C. Sherwood Southwick, his business partner and the center's major donor. Nevin and Southwick co-owned Brianwood Antiques on State Street in Ithaca for 32 years.

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John Carberry