PHOTO: buildingDaniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center

questions and answers

The new Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center will enable Garden scientists to pursue essential conservation work. Answers to some questions about the building are below.

What is that building?

PHOTO: exhibit with seed bank in the backIt is the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. Located along the southeastern border of the Garden, across from the Evaluation Gardens, the 38,000-square-foot building serves as a laboratory and research facility for the Garden’s staff of 31 full-time scientists and research assistants. It also features dedicated teaching facilities and houses the country’s first-ever doctoral program that focuses exclusively on plant biology and conservation, offered in partnership with Northwestern University.

The building has nine research laboratories that can be viewed from inside the visitor gallery. Interactive exhibit stations line the viewing gallery, engaging visitors in the fascinating and diverse world of plants, and inspiring them to get involved with plant conservation. The Plant Science Center also serves as a vehicle to educate the public about plant conservation and why it is so important to save the plants in order to save the planet.

The building is designed to earn a gold LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. A 16,000-square-foot green roof garden tops off the building and is accessible to the public via a grand staircase. It features an overlook with interpretive panels educating visitors about the benefits of green roof gardens.

The Plant Science Center is the anchor for a 15-acre science campus, to be developed over the next 10 years at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

PHOTO: rainwater glenWhy is the building on stilts?

The Plant Science Center is situated on 4.5-foot stilts because it was built on a floodplain (flat or nearly flat land adjacent to a stream or river that experiences occasional or periodic flooding). So if the area does flood, there will be no water damage to the building.

What is the Rainwater Glen?

The shallow, troughlike depression that surrounds the Plant Science Center is called the Rainwater Glen, and it functions like a river’s floodplain. It is designed to hold back stormwater runoff, allowing deep-rooted native plants to facilitate absorption and help filter impurities. The Rainwater Glen will contribute to improved water quality at the Garden and, importantly, in each of the ecosystems it flows through.

What are those large black panels that border the top of the building?

Those are solar photovoltaic panels—288 of them, to be exact. They supply 5 percent of the building’s electricity. Since the building is a laboratory, it will require a considerable amount of energy, so 5 percent represents significant energy savings. By choosing to incorporate solar panels onto the roof, the Garden demonstrates its ongoing commitment to sustainable building and development practices.

Where does excess rainwater runoff go after the plants on the Green Roof Garden have soaked up as much as they need?

Excess rainwater from the roof filters down the building and ends up in the Rainwater Glen. The planting beds in the Green Roof Garden are made of several layers, beginning with a waterproofing layer, two layers of hard foam insulation, a root barrier fabric, a drainage tile to allow water to drain away from the roots, a filter fabric to keep the growing media from clogging the drainage holes, and growing media as the top layer. The semi-intensive media is a gravel-like soilless mix formulated specifically for roof gardens. It is lighter weight and more porous than soil, allowing water to drain quickly, thus reducing the weight load on the roof.

What are the gray counters in the labs made of?

The gray counters are made of a recycled powdered slate cast into a “flowable binder” (like epoxy). Slate was neither milled nor cut to make these counters; instead, the counters contain scraps and ground slate that was poured into a mold until it hardened. This is a responsible way of building counters, creating no waste slate.

What does low-E glass mean?

The low-E means low-emissivity. Emissivity means holding heat; low-E glass bounces back infrared rays and doesn’t heat up. It reflects infrared rays and filters ultraviolet light.

Where did the wood in the ceilings (inside and outside) come from?

The wood in the ceilings is hemlock from midwestern forests. The ceiling wood needed to flow from the inside of the building to the outside. Cottonwood cannot be used outside.

Cottonwood and walnut felled from the construction site were used to make the Visitor Gallery planters and a wall in the library respectively.  Was lumber from the site used anywhere else in the project?

No. Some of the cottonwood was used to make bonsai benches unrelated to the project. The outside planters and Woman’s Board Footbridge are made of ipe (pronounced "ee-pay") wood, a very strong Brazilian wood harvested from naturally sustainable forests. The attractive movable benches on the Green Roof Garden (with wood and metal dovetailing) are factory-made mahogany.

PHOTO: green roofWhat kind of plants are on the Green Roof Garden?

A total of 320 different plant taxa were selected by a team of Garden staff and the lead design firm, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. The team looked at plants that have been successful in other green roof applications as well as regional and national native plants, but didn't want to rule out plants that showed potential.

The Ellis Goodman Family Foundation Green Roof Garden South is planted with North American native plants only. The Josephine P. & John J. Louis Foundation Green Roof Garden North is planted with a mix of plants currently accepted as good green roof plants, as well as exotic and native plants that have potential for green roof use.

Some of the plants featured in the Green Roof Garden:

PHOTO: penstmon* Andropogon gerardii – Big bluestem
* Aquilegia canadensis – Eastern red columbine
* Armeria maritima 'Rubrifolia' – Red-leaved sea thrift
* Aster laevis – Smooth aster
* Campanula rotundifolia – Bluebell bellflower
* Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Firewitch' – Dianthus
* Echinacea purpurea – Purple coneflower
* Eriogonum umbellatum – Sulfur flower
* Hieracium spilophaeum 'Leopard' – Spotted hawkweed
* Lespedeza capitata – Round-headed bush clover
* Monarda fistulosa –Wild bergamot
* Nepeta 'Walkers Low' – Catmint
* Oenothera fremontii 'Lemon Silver' – Evening primrose
* Papaver alpinum – Alpine poppy
* Penstemon grandiflorus – Large beardtongue
* Phlox subulata 'Snowflake' – Creeping phlox or moss phlox
* Schizachyrium scoparium 'Carousel' – Little bluestem
* Sedum acre 'Octoberfest' – Stonecrop
* Stachys byzantina 'Big Ears' – Lamb’s ear
* Thymus praecox 'Coccineus' – Creeping thyme
* Verbena stricta – Hoary verbena

What are the scientists doing in the laboratories?

The Plant Science Center features nine state-of-the-art laboratories where scientists provide leadership on solutions for plant conservation problems caused by climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, and pollution. The following is a list of the laboratories:

  • Plant Systematics Laboratory: dedicated to the study and classification of plants, used for ecological research and restoration activities.
  • Population Biology Laboratory: houses the Growth Chambers (one of which is funded by the D & R Fund), two environmental chambers with temperature, light, and humidity controls, used to grow plants for experiments that require very specific environmental conditions and careful monitoring.
  • Abbott Ecology Laboratory: dedicated to the study of ecosystems, water quality, and other ecological factors important to restoring and managing native habitats.
  • Soil Laboratory: dedicated to the study of the human impact on the intricate networks of soil, soil microorganisms, and plants.
  • Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank Preparation Laboratory and Seed Bank: houses seeds from the tallgrass prairie region flora. The Garden is committed to collecting 30 million seeds from 1,500 native species. After seeds are collected, they are placed in the Dr. Scholl Foundation Seed Quarantine Chamber to ensure that no pests or diseases will infect the established collection.
  • Reproductive Biology Laboratory: dedicated to the study of seed germination, pollination, and the quantity of seeds produced by different species.
  • Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory: increases the Garden’s understanding of the genetics of rare and endangered plants, and how to better manage and preserve these plant communities.
  • Economic Botany Laboratory: examines the complex relationship between plants and people, exploring cultural uses of plants and determining potential applications for medicine or food.
  • Josephine P. & John J. Louis Foundation Microscopy and GIS Laboratory: houses several microscopes outfitted with digital cameras and analysis systems that will be used to examine plant anatomy, plant fossils, fungal specimens, and other samples, and serves as a geographic information system (GIS), made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation. GIS equipment uses satellite data, aerial maps, and traditional maps to determine relationships, patterns, and trends. Plant locations, soil conditions, and other environmental characteristics will be mapped to predict other locations where a species might occur or determine appropriate sites for plant restoration.

Can I go into the laboratories?

The laboratories are not open to the public. However, a central visitor gallery runs the length of the Plant Science Center and rises two stories to a height of 25 feet. Ribbon windows line the gallery along the first floor, providing visitors the opportunity view scientists and researchers working in the laboratories.

Laboratories that can be viewed from the visitor gallery include (north side, from left to right) the Herbarium, Plant Systematics Laboratory, Population Biology Laboratory, Abbott Ecology Laboratory, and Soil Laboratory; (south side, from left to right) Microscopy Laboratory, National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank Preparation Laboratory, Reproductive Biology Laboratory, Economic Botany Laboratory, and Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory.

How much did this project cost?

The project cost $50.9 million, including $10 million for an endowment. Corporate support for the Plant Science Center has been provided by Baxter International, The Abbott Fund, and Underwriters Laboratories Inc. The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation made an $8 million challenge grant.

Can I go into the Lenhardt Library in the Plant Science Center and take out books?

The Lenhardt Library’s second location in the Plant Science Center is not open to the public. If visitors would like to take out scientific journals or books from the Plant Science Center, they must go to the Lenhardt Library in the Regenstein Center and make a request. The item will then be transferred from the Plant Science Center, and visitors can pick up their items up in the Regenstein Center location.

Why do we need to “Save the Plants, Save the Planet”?

By 2050, the world could lose 34,000 plant species. In the United States alone, we risk losing 25 percent of the plant species that exist today. The Chicago Botanic Garden is determined not to let this happen. Our division of Plant Science and Conservation focuses strengths in research, training, and education so we may preserve and protect plants, and teach others to continue this essential work. For more information on the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plant Science Initiative visit

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Join us for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Plant Science Center with Bill Brown, the Garden’s vice president of facilities and planning. The building was designed using materials and systems to earn a gold LEED rating for sustainable design from the U.S. Green Building Council. Bill will tell us what that means for the Garden and how he and his team made it happen.

View the tour of sustainable features with Bill Brown.

» Garden Blog - view video tours of the Plant Science Center.