Case Study: Exploratorium at Pier 15

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The Exploratorium is an interactive and educational museum located in San Francisco, CA. In 2013, it moved from the Palace of Fine Arts to a new location at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. The existing pier was renovated and adapted to suit the needs of this modern museum, while preserving the historical character of the original structure. The project is certified LEED Platinum, earned an AIA COTE Top Ten Award for sustainable design strategies.



Laser Cut Steel Wall Panels With Images of Photoplankton – Photo by Bruce Damonte

Basic Project Information

Project Area: 330,000 sq. ft

Location: Pier 15, The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111

Year Built: 2013

Context: Historic Urban Waterfront

Coordinates: 37.80 N, -122.39 E

Elevation: 10 ft (~sea level)

Design Team: EHDD Architects and GLS Landscape Architecture


San Francisco is a coastal city that is known for heavy fog, wet winters, and cool, dry summers.  The city is located on the northern tip of a peninsula, surrounded by cool Pacific waters. The topography and coastal setting produce many microclimates within the city limits – it tends to be warmer in inland areas, and less foggy to the east of the city’s steep hills.


Adaptive Reuse of Existing Pier – Photo by Bruce Damonte


Adaptive Reuse

The new design embraces the existing historical structure. It was renovated to  remove asbestos and lead, to improve seismic performance, and to restore the building, maintaining a balance between honoring the history, and modern design innovations. Museum exhibits were planned around the original building’s structural grid, and spaces are designed for flexible uses over time. During the second phase of construction, the adjacent Pier 17 will be repurposed into museum space.



Clerestory Windows – Photo by Bruce Damonte


The existing historical structure has clerestory windows along the entire 800’ long building. These windows provide ample natural daylighting for the museum galleries.  In the renovated part of the building, high-performance glazing and fritted glass help prevent excess heat gain during the day.  There is enough natural daylighting to keep overhead lights off during 50% of daylight operating hours.

Water Management

The building uses rainwater harvesting, coupled with high-efficiency plumbing and appliances, to reduce the amount of potable water used in the project. Designers took stormwater runoff into consideration when selecting materials–the site is on a sensitive marine area, and it is important not to pollute the bay water with toxic compounds.


Diagram of Bay Water Radiant Heating And Cooling – Kristina Woolsey, Sustain. 2012

Bay Water Radiant Heating & Cooling System

The museum utilizes water from the adjacent San Francisco bay to provide water for a radiant heating system that runs through the concrete floors.  The bay water is at a temperature between 50° and 66°. It is utilized as a heat source/heat sink for heating and cooling systems.

Energy Production & Consumption

The Exploratorium uses 55% less energy than a typical building of this type and scale. Some museum exhibits require a large amount of energy to operate, but the rooftop photovoltaic array should generate enough energy to keep the building running. Plug load control and state-of-the-art energy modeling provide the metrics to ensure the building meets it’s net-zero energy goal.

Tinkering Studio & Machine Shop

The Tinkering Studio is a workshop within the museum, where visitors can come to explore materials and technology in a hands-on environment. The Exploratorium also invites artists to make use of their manufacturing tools, experiment with new ideas, and explore their creativity.  Take a look at the current featured artists here.


I used these resources to gather information about the project. If you are interested in this project, follow these links to learn more.

AIA COTE Top Ten Projects: Exploratorium at Pier 15 (retrieved Jan. 18, 2017)

Exploratorium Net-Zero Press Kit (retrieved Jan. 18, 2017)

US Green Building Council: Exploratorium at Piers 15/17

Sustain: The Museum as Exhibit. Kristina Woolsey, 2012

Green Architecture and Building Report: Exploratorium

EHDD Architecture


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