Only minutes from downtown Kansas City, Mo., lies an urban oasis: 11 acres of prairie, wetlands, and wildlife habitat surrounding the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center. Completed in 2002, the 38,600-square-foot Discovery Center serves as an urban centerpiece for the Missouri Department of Conservation, providing a rich mix of sustainable design along with a strong community connection.

Visitors arrive in a parking area that is surrounded by bioswales and native landscaping. On any given school day, busloads of schoolchildren parade past photovoltaic arrays and reclaimed brick walls, and into an energy-efficient interior that is filled with daylight and fresh air. There, they experience firsthand the wildlife, soil, plants, and broader ecosystems unique to Missouri. The building program emphasizes education from the lobby exhibits, 240-seat auditorium, and meeting spaces to six hands-on classrooms. These classrooms include “Nature’s Garden,” which features native plants for landscaping; “Woodworking for Wildlife,” which provides visitors an opportunity to build nest boxes and feeders; and “Nature’s Aquarium,” where visitors study water quality.

The Discovery Center’s design was intended to be used as a teaching tool. Inspired by successful interactive exhibits at other nature centers, the architect of record, Kansas City, Mo.–based BNIM, wanted to create a transformative place for learning. “We had an opportunity here to start dreaming about an environment within which you could immerse kids and adults and expose them to a larger view of life,” explains Bob Berkebile, one of BNIM’s founders and the principal in charge. “While we had achieved similar designs before, this was a chance to create an entire facility—the landscape and the building—that became pedagogical and therefore part of the teaching.”

As a result, the building form and orientation optimizes daylighting. A geothermal heat pump for heating and cooling and four PV arrays with a total of 74 collectors reduce annual energy use by 33 percent and 1 percent, respectively, over conventional systems. Every space features environmentally friendly materials such as calcium-silicate masonry units and glue-laminated beams, along with countertops, paints, carpet squares, and restroom stall partitions that contain post-consumer recycled materials. Yet the central attraction is the facility’s Living Machine ( This wastewater system reclaims all water from the building’s toilets, sinks, showers, and drinking fountains for treatment within an exposed greenhouse setting and for later reuse in flushing toilets and to recharge the outdoor wetland.

Designing the center in 1997 was equally transformative for BNIM as a firm. At the time, the firm applied many of the building’s concepts to another project, Montana State University’s Epicenter, a LEED pilot project. BNIM’s architects also were beginning to incorporate the input of clients, engineers, subcontractors, and other key stakeholders as a critical part of the design process. The project architect, Laura Lesniewski, notes how this established a precedent for BNIM, “particularly for high-performance buildings. The importance of having an integrated team has been a constant since then.”

The power of storytelling also drove many design decisions. “At that time, we were going beyond the normal considerations of buildings, while taking a systems approach to understanding the place,” Berkebile recalls. BNIM used Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition along the Missouri River “as a lens to reveal a new approach to materials, resources, and issues,” he adds. For Lesniewski, the site’s story opened up a new way of design thinking: “I became more aware of this connection and that, 200 years after Lewis and Clark, we need to be more conscious of our limited resources. I had never before spent so much time on each material in the building to decide whether it was appropriate.”

Today, the Discovery Center is busier than ever, booked solid with school group and community programs about rain gardens, outdoor photography, and more. And after nearly 10 years, the mission of this urban conservation campus remains vital: to connect Missourians to nature and their past.

David R. Macaulay is the author of Integrated Design: Mithun and the blog Green ArchiTEXT,