Restoring Nature

The design of the new nature center is finally underway nine years after Katrina. It will consist of three pavilions linked by 5,800 square feet of covered exterior boardwalks that will replace trails destroyed during Katrina. Rendering: Billes Partners

The design of the new nature center is finally underway nine years after Katrina. It will consist of three pavilions linked by 5,800 square feet of covered exterior boardwalks that will replace trails destroyed during Katrina. Rendering: Billes Partners


By Katie Sherman

The Audubon Louisiana Nature Center enters its first phase of rehabilitation after Katrina.


In the quarter century after it was first built in New Orleans East, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center grew to become a hub for environmental education. When Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf region, it left the center broken, its darkest hour prolonged into nearly nine dim years. But in 2014, rays of light began shining onto this community favorite near Lake Pontchartrain.

The Audubon Louisiana Nature Center is in the midst of the first phase of an $8.4 million revival intended to restore the center to its former glory. A part of the Audubon Nature Institute—a nonprofit that operates a network of museums and parks around New Orleans—the center has long educated, entertained, and engaged visitors about the importance of wildlife education and environmental conservation, and that ethos has made sustainability a guiding principle behind the building’s reconstruction. Its designers have used common-sense strategies and innovative technologies to achieve LEED standards, and visitors can see the results for themselves when the center opens its doors in late 2015.

“The return of the Nature Center will represent a significant milestone in the ongoing recovery of the New Orleans East community,’’ says Kyle McGehee, director of architectural design for the Audubon Nature Institute. “Audubon Nature Institute is proud to help restore this treasured asset. And it is our hope that the new and improved Nature center will once again inspire a deep and enduring appreciation of our natural world for all who visit.’’

First built in 1980, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center sat on 86 green acres wrapping around a lagoon. Its facilities reflected its ecological focus: at its height, the center included the largest planetarium in New Orleans, an interpretive center with live animals and wildlife exhibits, a greenhouse and botany center, classrooms, a network of trails, covered boardwalks, and extensive landscaping. By 2005, the center welcomed 85,000 visitors—including 45,000 students—and enthralled them with tactile, tech-savvy installations.

Patrick Kraft

Kyle McGehee

The Billes Partners architectural rendering shows the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center Complex’s covered exterior boardwalks that will link the complexes three pavilions.

But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the center became another casualty of the costliest natural and manmade disaster in U.S. history. For more than a month, it was submerged under six feet of water. Its deciduous forests were severely damaged and its interpretive spaces were destroyed. Once a vibrant community green space, the center languished, and its doors have been shut for nearly a decade.

In subsequent years, Audubon Nature Institute leadership collaborated with a number of different groups on a strategy to revive the site, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the city of New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and Friends of Joe Brown Park, a community nonprofit devoted to the adjacent property in eastern New Orleans. These organizations shared common ground: They knew that the center’s imminent return would create a much-needed green space for family recreation and environmental education.

Ecosystems-Holy Cross Volunteers

Volunteers from Holy Cross plant trees at Audubon Louisiana Nature Center.

Eventually, the project received $7.6 million in FEMA grants, and Audubon began working with New Orleans-based design firm Billes Partners. “At Billes, we treat all projects with sustainability in mind—with a holistic approach that balances tech, sustainability, and conceptual methods for all projects,” says Patrick Kraft, lead architect at the firm.

On January 24, 2014, after many quiet years, builders broke ground on the first phase of the restoration of the Audubon Nature Center. Upon completion, that first phase is expected to revive the planetarium, the exhibit pavilion, and many of the other features that made the center such a treasured destination—and it’s all being carried out under LEED guidelines.

A restoration done under a LEED framework was a priority from day one, says Kraft. From an architect’s standpoint, he adds, “LEED gives you a nice set of rules to bounce these ideas off of and make sure you’re going in the right direction. It’s an exciting time in designing buildings.”

McGehee says his organization was ecstatic when they got confirmation that the center’s design was LEED certified at minimum, and he hopes for a LEED Silver or LEED Gold designation. “Our ultimate goal is to share an appreciation for the natural world,” McGehee says, “and this building is one of the ways we can do that. We immerse people in the environment we’re teaching them about. Not just the animals: We talk about the ecosystem, the positive and negative impacts. That’s why LEED certification was so important from the onset.”

The project emphasizes environmentally friendly and hurricane-resistant construction techniques, and centers around three major goals: reducing site impact, reducing energy consumption, and reducing maintenance.

Reducing site impact stems from the terrain itself. The land on which the center is built is a bottomland hardwood forest, common to the Gulf Coast’s floodplains, and its changing environment played a part in planning the restoration: Periodic flooding in the wet season leaves standing water. In addition, the land is surrounded by developed neighborhoods in a lively eastern New Orleans locale, which puts increased pressure on the natural environment through drainage and wildlife impact.

In response, the design employs strategic solutions to combat the site-impact challenges below, like moving the building closer to the street to minimize visitors’ impact on the grounds while entering and exiting the center, using a one-foot lift to raise the buildings and walkways to allow unobstructed flow of drainage and mitigate impact on water runoff, and creating a firm 25-foot radius guideline to minimize the impact of contractors on the surrounding grounds. Ultimately, Kraft says, the reconstruction should affect fewer than two acres.

To reduce energy consumption, the revived Audubon Louisiana Nature Center champions old-school passive systems, many of which can be found in the city’s shotgun houses that were built before the advent of air conditioning. “We like to take local cues, because they still work as well as they did 120 years ago,” Kraft says. Some of those concepts adapted into the center include positioning the building to avoid sun; large overhangs, covered porches, and canopies to lower building temperature; and high ceilings to improve air circulation.

The project uses several innovative energy-reduction solutions as well, like structural insulated panels (SIPs) on the roof to create a tighter building envelope, high-performance window glazing to form a continuous thermal barrier, and LED lighting. Kraft says that the designers have converted 99 percent of the lighting in the institute’s Aquarium of the Americas and 100 percent of the lighting in the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium to LED systems. “It brought our energy consumption down from 8,000 kilowatts in one gulf tank to 500 kilowatts,” Kraft says. Additionally, he adds, Audubon has switched out incandescent lighting in other facilities.

Finally, the nature center project aims to create a low-maintenance facility. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere so it needs to take care of itself,” says Kraft. The design calls for long-lasting materials like concrete, self-renewing cork and rubber flooring, and anti-termite cement-board siding.

The Audubon Louisiana Nature Center has miles to go before once again becoming a publicly accessible beacon in its community. In the meantime, the thoughtfulness behind the approach and the effort undertaken so far signal something just as encouraging: progress.