DS+R: Water and Ground

Obama Presidential Center

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The Obama Presidential Center will be a model of sustainable building design and community regeneration, carrying forward of the spirit of Barrack Obama’s historic leadership. The OPC will capture the unique qualities of Chicago’s South Side, engaging the local environment and community to become an incubator for testing innovative and emerging practices. Beyond being a good neighbor, the OPC will be a hub for broadening the approach the next generation of innovators sustainable living and training the next generation of innovators in the field.

The Jackson and Washington Park site proposals share a common goal of creating a Net Zero campus that seeds sustainable urban growth within the local community. The design employs forward-thinking sustainable practices that include high performance envelopes, radiant HVAC systems, passive ventilation, habitat renewal, and renewable energy generation with the goals of both LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certification. But more importantly, at the heart of the proposal is drive to create a place where visitors and staff relax, gather energy, and experience the environment with all their senses – sights, smells, taste, touch and hearing – and become aware of being in harmony with the social and ecological community rather than at their expense.

While buildings at each site begin with common sustainable strategies, Jackson and Washington Park offer very different opportunities. Each design proposal responds with a unique site-specific strategies, drawing inspiration from the inherent strengths and qualities of the context. The Jackson Park design focuses on Water and its relationship with Lake Michigan, while Washington Park harnesses the latent potential of the urban Ground and emerging neighborhood social networks.


The design for Jackson Park will be an extension of the existing ecological community -- a Living Machine within the Park. Beginning with the roof, the design relocates the park landscape above the building resulting in no net loss of ecological territory. It actively exchanges resources and waste within the site boundary and drastically reduces the dependencies and burdens that conventional projects place on city infrastructure.

Water quality is both the foundation of a healthy ecosystem and a Living Machine building system. The roof will harness Chicago’s 36 inches of annual precipitation to supply the 600,000 gallons of potable water demand for building operations, but more importantly create a net positive quantity of nutrient rich water for habitat renewal and agricultural practices. The system’s 55,000 gallons of storage ensures a potable water supply through the driest periods of the year while surplus water is used in seasons of excess to increase productivity of the closed loop aquaponic agricultural practices. The Living Machine building system will treat storm and waste water to passively condition semi-enclosed spaces while providing a clean water exchange with the lagoon wetlands to improve water quality and accelerate habitat renewal.


Positioned between the city and the Lake, Jackson Park utilizes water as the foundation of its sustainable initiatives. Upon agreement with the city and the Chicago Parks District, the adjacent lagoons can be activated as a resource for thermal comfort as well as the focus of long term habitat renewal within the large Park. The lagoons offer refreshing breezes in the summer as well as a constant seasonal water temperature of 43º F. This temperature difference can be utilized as a heat exchange as a primary source of cooling. Water cooled by the lagoon will be distributed through radiant surfaces to absorb the heat and transfer it to the active water treatment processes of the living machine. In the winter the lagoon may act as a heat sink to passively condition outdoor spaces and keep surfaces above freezing. This heat exchange reduces the overall maintenance costs and removes harmful salts and chemicals from the local ecosystem. More importantly water may be used as a heat source to increase comfort within and around the building as well as facilitate the aquaponic agricultural processes throughout the winter.


To achieve a high productivity energy source that does not negatively impact the character of the Park, we propose the use of water photovoltaics—“Electric Lilly Pads.” Placed in the lagoons with Park District permission, this feature connects wildlife renewal with renewable energy collection. The shallow PV floats just below the surface of the water, visually concealed, utilizing the water to cool the panel and increase energy conversion by 9%. This system of floats are distributed across 6% of the lagoon to sustain the anticipated power demand of the facility, but more importantly create favorable conditions within the local habitat for the creation of fish spawning grounds. These unique PV’s will strengthen the natural productivity of the local ecosystem as well and act as a resource for research, education, and the aquaponic agricultural practices. The Electronic Lilly Pad system will demonstrate how emerging distributed infrastructure can have stronger ecological relationships that foster better environments for people and/or wildlife.


In addition to utilizing water throughout the building and site’s metabolism, it’s productive role in the landscape will foster active and healthy engagement with the Woodlawn Community. Micro-farming on the southern site will be an active place for community participation in local food growing. Baseball fields, basketball courts and a meandering running track (following a public route to the top of the building), all integrated within the restored prairie and woodland areas, create an attractive range of settings for local residents to gather for recreation and leisure. The OPC at Jackson Park cultivates a new ecology of health and comfort within the South Side.