Chicago may be known for its skyscrapers and deep-dish pizza, but the Windy City also sits on one of North America’s major bird migratory routes, making it a great spot for bird watchers, too.
One of those spots lies on the far southeast side of the city, where a new building celebrates the history and ecology of the region and educates visitors about its wildlife. Located next to Lake Calumet, the Ford Calumet Environmental Center was built for people, but also for the 200 bird species that live nearby, and the millions of birds that fly over the region during migration season.
Every year, between 100 million and 1 billion birds are killed by colliding into buildings, especially those with large expanses of glass, because birds can’t see transparent materials. To remedy that, the center sports an opaque facade with recessed windows that birds can’t fly into, minimal lighting that could be confusing for birds, and clever window shutters that open upward to block views of the glass windows from above.
Designed by Chicago-based architecture firm Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (VDTA), the center sits at the gateway of a 280-acre park called Big Marsh. Once natural wetlands, the site was contaminated by waste from nearby steel mills that were closed and demolished more than 30 years ago. In 2016, the brownfield was reborn into a verdant park, complete with a 40-acre bike park, walking trails aplenty, and vast wildlife habitats.
Amid all of this, the Ford Calumet Environmental Center lives up to its name. For example, the $7.8 million building includes Chicago’s first wastewater wetlands system, which processes black water from the center and transfers clean water back into the ecosystem. “This building was about reinhabiting a landscape that was devastated by 20th-century industries,” says Joe Valerio, a founding principal of VDTA. But one of the building’s biggest testaments to the environment is the host of protections it includes for birds.
The Calumet region is a major resting stop for migratory birds along the Mississippi flyway, so the building’s facade couldn’t feature large expanses of glass; birds could see landscape reflected in it and collide. The architects clad the building with an opaque rain screen made of weathered steel (a nod to the site’s industrial history) and kept the landscaping around the building low to prevent birds from nesting near it. “Anything to draw birds into the building, we tried our best to eliminate,” says Alexander Raynor, an architect and project manager at VDTA.
The steel envelope is punctuated by several windows that let natural light into the space, but even those windows are shielded by perforated metal screens that can hinge upward and form an awning. When the screens are closed, natural light can still filter into the space through the perforations. When they’re open, the awning blocks the view of the glass for birds flying above it. (The screens are mostly open during the day, except during migratory seasons in the spring and fall, when they will be kept closed all day.)
Slotted on top of the building, two hollow timber structures funnel even more daylight into the building with large windows recessed by 2 feet from the exterior wall. These windows come with a fritted pattern that breaks up the reflective surface and further prevents bird collisions. Meanwhile, the recessed nature of the windows serves as yet another visual barrier for the birds.
In tune with Chicago’s Lights Out initiative, which encourages building owners to reduce the total amount of light emitted at night, external lighting was kept to a minimum: no uplighting, no decorative lights—just one light at the exit, two illuminated bollards denoting the entrance, and three flags that must be lit per municipal code.
And when the building closes for the night, all the lights are turned off completely so they don’t disturb the birds. It’s a simple yet significant feature that other cities should take note of.