The Center for Resilient Cities, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit committed to revitalizing urban communities, has opened shop on Madison's south side. Located just off Rimrock Road, the boxy faade of the Resilience Research Center seems a bit imposing, in part because of its disproportionately small parking lot. The limited number of spots encourages visitors to arrive by foot or bike, for which there is ample parking.
As I enter the building, a lime green wall curves to my left, guiding me toward the makeshift front desk where I sign in. There I am greeted by former Madison Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner, the center's board president, and Kate Stalker, the project director and a landscape architect by trade.
We sit down in the entrance room to talk about the three partners housed in the new building: the Resilience Neighborhood Center; Badger Rock Middle School, a charter school focusing on experiential education and sustainability; and the Madison operations of Growing Power, an innovative urban agriculture program.
Bringing these three entities under one roof is phase one for the Resilience Research Center. The target date for phase two, which is expected to include meeting rooms, retail shops tailored to the nearby community and a gymnasium, is 2014.
There is a sense of purpose in each detail of the new building. The windows on each side are designed to capture or deflect light depending on the season. The trees felled in construction were milled on site and repurposed into interior walls, windowsills and doors. Ninety percent of the building that previously stood on the site was incorporated into the center, and new construction materials, including the ground level's floor made with stones from the Mississippi River, were sourced as locally as possible.
The emphasis on keeping things local extends beyond the selection of building materials. The neighborhood center serves the Southdale, Moorland-Rimrock and Indian Springs neighborhoods exclusively - those in walking distance. "We're not a community center, we're a neighborhood center," Sensenbrenner says.
There's a dynamic tension between these hyperlocal goals and the center's desire to be an international model of sustainability. Sensenbrenner says the center is aiming to earn the platinum accolade from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and become "the highest-rated LEED building in North America, Europe and Asia."
"A lot of these things haven't been done before, or haven't ever been done together before," he says.
A culture of thoughtfulness
In contrast to most building tours, the mechanical room here is something to see. For instance, inside the boiler room is an original piece of art on loan from Erdman Holdings, Inc., one of many throughout the building. There is also a Duchampesque air vent, signed by those who worked on the building. Chris Quandt, one of the center's many enthusiastic contractors, wrote in blue marker: "A bright future for all of us."
Likewise, arrows and labels on pipes indicate the direction of flow: "from geo field" or "to geo field." Geothermal heating, a system of ground-sourced heating and cooling that uses a series of 300-foot-deep wells, maintains the building's base temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Resilience Research Center's design features are often simple, but innovative. In the kitchen, the garbage disposal has a basket that lifts out food scraps to feed the worms that aid in composting, or vermiculture. The kitchen also doubles as an incubator space for industrious individuals interested in testing potential products like salsa or pickles in a commercial kitchen. To this end, community chefs can rent kitchen lockers to store their ingredients.
The cafeteria is likewise adaptable, with tables that convert to either desks or benches for lectures. I imagine students eating lunch while looking out over the garden, being reminded of exactly where their food comes from.
Creating a culture of thoughtfulness is exactly what the groups at the center are trying to do. Beneath the stairwell, for instance, is a transparent holding tank for the water that falls on the roof of the stair tower. It provides a visual for the volume of stormwater that falls on just a few square feet during a rainfall.
Upstairs, each pair of classrooms has a sliding barn-style door (made from trees on site), providing the option of a larger room for combined lessons. Each classroom pair has shared balcony access for immediate connection to the world outside.
In sharp contrast to the MacBooks and the SMART boards in classrooms is the thrift-store feel of mismatched furniture. Stalker and seven men from the neighborhood spent days salvaging furniture donated by Gorman Furniture from an old school. Erdman Holdings, Inc. donated ceiling tiles, cabinets and removal labor as well. "We saved [this furniture] from the landfill and saved ourselves a lot of money," says Stalker.
The hodgepodge decor in the classrooms echoes the mixed-purpose "commons" in the center of the second floor. Yoga mats, lockers and, eventually, a movie screen will occupy this space, which can be used for free community events.
In the commons, Solatubes - fancy skylights - prismatically regulate natural light, making the backup fluorescent lights all but obsolete during daytime hours. Watching the Solatubes adjust their brightness can feel like staring through the wrong end of a kaleidoscope.
Integration of opposites
Throughout my wanderings at the Resilience Research Center, I am constantly reminded of the integration of opposites. Of the outside and inside worlds. Of impressive technology and frugal practicality. And, of course, of intention and execution.
It is still a work in progress.
Many of the goals of the neighborhood center, for instance, are as yet unrealized. The room we are chatting in, labeled "cafe" on building maps, is still waiting for a community group to step up to run it.
Further down the hallway is a locker room that serves as a mudroom and storage space for gardening. Growing Power Madison is a branch of the flagship urban farming organization out of Milwaukee. Still new, the locker room is sparkling clean, the lockers unadorned and unoccupied. Red wheelbarrows sit at the ready, shovels and hoes lean against a wall, and five-gallon buckets sit next to watering cans under the sinks.
The greenhouses have the same sort of underutilized feel, since their aquaponics system - a Growing Power trademark that integrates raising fish and plants in a symbiotic filtration system - is not yet functional.
The Center for Resilient Cities' logo, an interweaving of multicolored threads, is an apt image for what the Resilient Research Center aspires to. The infrastructure is there, but only time will tell if this fabric will hold.