Children’s Museum of Sonoma County Expansion Concept

The Museum came to us with the notion: “We want a fabric roof”. It was something they had seen, something we had designed for another client in the past as well. However, what evolved from the conversations and planning (playing) that ensued was an ad-hoc solution, more reflective of their culture and more representative perhaps of the inventiveness of children.

Together we designed a high canopy roof and structure as vessel for program, material, and imagination. Not unlike a big-top, the canopy roof encapsulates the Museum program in a literal sense as container, in the manner of a normal floor, wall, or roof. In addition, the structural framework and perforated roof form a figurative scaffold for learning and experience, and (we hope) for a child’s memory.

Design Challenge

Three themes permeate the expansion concept. These come directly and indirectly from Museum leadership and staff, stakeholders and volunteers, the community, and the design team. The emphasis and outcome of the design represents the goals of many: Access for All: The Museum gives priority to providing access to children and families of all socio-economic backgrounds. The qualities of the expansion concept are influenced by this commitment. The design is open, transparent, and demonstrates intended architectural “style”. This way the building might offer a common platform for people of diverse cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Free Play: This Museum places particular emphasis on free play. The goal is to accommodate a child’s self-directed learning instincts with a variety of opportunities. The design of the expansion reinforces this idea by facilitating free movement and by readily connecting to existing galleries and outdoor spaces. Sustainable Design: The Museum’s existing yard and gardens contain demonstrations of small-scale wetlands, a riverscape, and wildland environments including diverse native plantings. The site incorporates rainwater harvesting for irrigation. Solar photovoltaic panels at parking and shade canopies are used for energy production onsite. Further, the gardens demonstrate food production and local agriculture at the small-scale to incorporate a holistic vision of sustainability. The expansion will create continuity with these goals, incorporating additional native plantings, solar photovoltaics and rainwater catchment into the design. The project’s stated goal is LEED Certification.

Physical Context

Several additional ideas characterize the expansion concept and are visible in the architectural outcome. These include both universal design ideals and specific responses to the nature of the program and setting: Air and Light: One recurring theme of the Children’s Museum exhibits is Air. Many of the installations connect children with qualities reminiscent of the regional setting. The expansive interior of the new gallery is intended to provide continuity with the theme of Air, while bringing new attention to Light. The circular roof apertures pull-in sunlight, highlighting key programmatic areas and creating large-scale patterns of sun and shade across the surfaces of the building. The presence and shape of daylight places questions in front of children about the effects of the sun and light on everyday experience. Roof and Structure: The proposed high roof and steel structure unifies the diverse programs and exhibit spaces contained below. The roof serves to mark the main hall clearly, provides ample overhead space, and lends a sense of shelter. Program and Order: The administrative and staff support spaces are organized along the west edge of the second floor Gallery. This helps separate the non-public areas and maximizes clear ground space for public programs and free movement. This edge also shields the interior galleries from direct West sun and marks the Museum with a new entry façade, lacking in the originally converted church building. Inside and Out: Strong physical and visual connections to the outdoor exhibit spaces adjoining the expanded Museum abound. This openness lends an expansive feel and an outdoor quality to the interior. It also makes both inside and outside spaces relevant in all weather conditions.