There is no shortage of green at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. The 900-acre garden in Chapel Hill shows off several shades of green in its gardens, which are filled with lotus lilies, orchids, tobacco, pitcher plants, trilliums, mountain laurel and heartleaf pickerelweed alongside thousands of other species. The garden has been showcasing native plants and habitat gardens since it was founded in 1971.

For more than three decades, staff and volunteers have been working in an outdated building with insufficient room for research and programming. The need for more space coupled with a desire to update their facilities to more eco-friendly digs led the North Carolina Botanical Garden to undertake a $12.5 million eco-friendly makeover. It was important to the staff and volunteers at the garden that the new facilities mirror these commitments to the environment.

“The garden has always focused on conservation,” says executive director Peter White. “We wanted to showcase what gardening in an environmentally sustainable way should be about.”

The garden, which is part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has had numerous successes in its quest to be a leader in the sustainability movement. It was one of the founding institutions for the Center for Plant Conservation, took an active role in writing state laws that led to the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program and holds the honor of being the first garden in North America to establish an exotic pest plant policy. The garden has also set a goal to reduce the collection of native plants from the wild, propagating them from seed instead.

Planning for the project began in 2006. The ambitious design plans called for all aspects of the building from the materials to the energy sources to be as eco-friendly as possible. Raleigh-based architect Frank Harmon designed the building to meet the garden’s goal of achieving LEED Platinum status.

“If we achieve LEED Platinum status, we’ll be the first public building in North Carolina to reach that rating,” White says.

The list of green architectural features certainly appears impressive enough to allow the garden to reach its goal. The 31,000 square-foot facility comprises three buildings for offices, classrooms and exhibit space.

As few trees as possible were cleared from the site to make space for the new buildings; those that were cleared were taken to the lumberyard and planed into the wood that was used in the trim throughout the buildings.

“These are the types of decisions we made to help celebrate the ecosystem that was once here,” White says. “We used these materials to help tell the ecological story of the building.”

The building is made from materials with high levels of recycled content; everything from the steel framing to the walls and the carpets once served other uses, including the flooring in the staff lunchroom, which was salvaged from an old farmhouse that was being torn down. The attention to the green details is admirable: Solar panels will help generate 15 percent of the overall energy needs, the lighting systems are motion-activated, the elevator has a sleep mode and the glass used throughout the buildings has different levels of transmissivity depending on which direction the windows face.

“This building will use one-third of the energy of our current building and 60 percent less energy than some of the older buildings on campus,” White says.

It should come as no surprise that maintaining nine display gardens and numerous research gardens requires a lot of water. According to White, water conservation was a major concern in the building design. To that end, a series of stormwater retention ponds have been installed, and cisterns collect stormwater runoff used to irrigate the gardens. The plethora of drought-tolerant native plants in the garden also helps reduce water needs.

Part of the funding for the new green facilities came from the students at UNC Chapel Hill. The Congress of Students awarded the North Carolina Botanical Garden a $210,000 grant to fund construction; the monies are part of a $4 fee paid by each student to help fund renewable energy projects. An ambitious fund-raising campaign also helped to raise much-needed funds to make the project feasible.

“The entire time we were raising money for the project and talking about it with board members, staff, volunteers and members of the community, there was not a single dissenting voice,” White says. “We had widespread support for this project.”

White believes the new facilities, which include an exhibit center that will feature rotating exhibits that highlight conservation and gardening, and expanded space for classes and lectures, will draw more visitors to the garden. More visitors will lead to more opportunities to spread the word about conservation. According to White, it’s a win-win-win — for the North Carolina Botanical Garden, the community and, of course, for the environment.

Jodi Helmer is the author of The Green Year: 365 Small Things You Can Do to Make a Big Difference.

North Carolina Botanical Garden gets a green makeover
Garden leaders hope the 900-acre Chapel Hill gem will become state's first LEED platinum-certified public facility.