Ground was broken last week on the new home of the Exploratorium museum at Piers 15 and 17, two piers on San Francisco's historic northern waterfront at Embarcadero and Green Streets.

Ground Broken on Exploratorium's New San Francisco Home
Ground Broken on Exploratorium's New San Francisco Home
Ground Broken on Exploratorium's New San Francisco Home

Developed in two phases – starting with Pier 15 – this future nine-acre campus on the Embarcadero, a 10-minute walk from the Ferry Building, will unite the Exploratorium’s educational activities under one roof, as well as offer significant room for future expansion into Pier 17.

The project team includes Wilson Meany Sullivan (developer), EHDD (architect), KPM Consulting (project management) and Nibbi Brothers (general contractor).

Construction in and around Pier 15 will provide 230,000 sq ft for the Exploratorium as a destination for experiential learning and an R&D facility for creating innovative ways to teach and learn across the world.

Outdoors, there will be over two acres of free public open space, some of which showcases new displays that combine the Exploratorium’s interactive exhibits with direct experience of the surrounding bay and city.

Indoors, highlights include quintessential Exploratorium exhibits in four large galleries; space for professional teacher training; room for after-school programs, educational camps and lifelong learning; a theater; the Exploratorium store; and a café.

The Observatory Building, the only completely new construction on the piers, will stand at the eastern end of Pier 15. It is a mostly glass structure – conceived like an aperture – through which spectacular views of the bay will complement a new gallery, outdoor terrace and a bayside restaurant.

In addition to the historic rehabilitation of Pier 15, the asphalt parking lot between Piers 15 and 17 will be removed. This will provide a civic space on the Embarcadero, with the newly exposed bay taking center stage down the middle between the two piers – open water traversed by two pedestrian bridges. For the first time in decades the public will have significant opportunities to visit the waterfront around Pier 15.

Dredging has already begun and next up engineers will be driving piles underneath the bay to a depth of 160 ft to replace, or, in some cases, repair and seismically upgrade, hundreds of dilapidated pilings and the substructure, which date to the early 20th century. At the same time, construction crews will begin on the east end, demolishing the non-historic building that connects Piers 15 and 17, and begin work in the interior of Pier 15, while preserving its impressive truss structure, which covers the 820-ft length of the pier — the equivalent of a New York City block.

The current timeline calls for a grand opening in 2013. The Exploratorium will remain open to the public in the Palace of Fine Arts for the foreseeable future.

Designed by San Francisco-based EHDD Architecture, a leader in sustainable design, the new Exploratorium will be green inside and out. Taking advantage of the piers’ location on the bay, the project will offset as much energy as possible with a 1.4 megawatt photovoltaic array on the roof, an innovative bay water heating and cooling system, and other components that contribute to the Exploratorium’s goal of being a LEED gold, net zero energy facility, perhaps the largest, net-zero energy museum of its size in the world.