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Island’s first ‘green’ building has garden home

The month of May broke on Kaua‘i amid a fervor of energy alternatives, renewable fuel sources and sustainability. All four Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative renewable energy contracts had been announced, gas prices were still skyrocketing and the ethanol mandate was a hot topic.

It’s only fitting, then, that May 1 was the day the National Botanical Tropical Garden broke ground on Kaua‘i’s only truly “green” building.

“This has been a dream of our organization since the concept of this headquarters came to be in the mid 70s,” said NTBG director and CEO Chipper Wichman.

Barring any setbacks with the permitting process, construction on the Juliet Rice Wichman Botanical Research Center will not officially begin until September, though there’s plenty of excitement already.

About 100 people turned out for the ceremonial ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting on what is to become the first building on the island with a Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Program.

“Even the contractor, Unlimited Construction, has to agree to recycle all the construction materials,” Wichman said.

The two-story reinforced concrete building, consisting of more than 13,500 square feet of enclosed space and almost 6,000 square feet of exterior space, will be equipped with short- and long-term emergency backup systems, hurricane-proof walls and a system to capture rainwater on the roof to irrigate the gardens below.

The NTBG is much more than a garden, though.

“A lot of people think that botanical gardens are just a place to grow plants, but there’s some serious science going on,” Wichman said.

Wichman said the NTBG, chartered in 1964 by the U.S. Congress, focuses on reproduction biology, systematics and ethnobotany research.

Understanding the reproduction of plants is essential in conservation, Wichman said. Hawai‘i is the only U.S. state that falls within the tropics, home to 90 percent of the earth’s biodiversity. According to the NTBG, Hawai‘i is home to more endangered plants and animals than almost all of the other states combined.

Systematics, or the classification of plants, is necessary in understanding the interrelationships of plants, Wichman said.

Ethnobotany research, however, may be the most important. Two NTBG scientists, Paul Cox and Diane Ragone, have been conducting internationally acclaimed research, Wichman said.

“Paul Cox may have found an anti-HIV drug in Samoa that’s about to go through testing,” he said.

In Guam, Cox studied plants in search of medicines to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and ALS.

Wichman said Cox has become so famous, the NTBG had to spin off the Institute of Ethnomedicine, of which Cox is the director.

Ragone, director of the Breadfruit Institute, has done groundbreaking work studying the nutritional value of breadfruit, which the Polynesians have been using for more than 5,000 years.

Back at home, the NTBG was quickly outgrowing its space. The herbarium, housing a complete index of all native Hawaiian plants, for example, contains 50,000 specimens, adding approximately 2,400 a year.

“Right now we have a real problem with space,” Wichman said. “(The research center) will fill an absolutely essential need.”

Currently, the NTBG houses its four main facilities — the library, herbarium, laboratory and education space — in four separate buildings.

“It was very difficult for researchers to work efficiently,” Wichman said.

Scientists had to carry precious books and extinct specimens between buildings, in and out of climate-controlled environments. Upon return, the books and specimens had to be frozen for a week before re-entering a “clean” building, Wichman said.

Now, with the $14 milllion Botanical Research Center, all four facilities will be under one, hurricane-proof, water-collecting roof.

“The dream has been to bring all of it under one roof in a clean building that will allow complete interchange without any degradation,” Wichman said.

The challenge, then, fell to the architect to design an environmentally friendly and efficient building not only compatible with nature, but also the current facilities designed by Vladimir Ossipoff, the world-famous Hawaiian architect who died in 1998.

“I was architect number five,” said Dean Sakamoto, an O‘ahu native currently on faculty at the Yale School of Architecture in Connecticut.

After an exhausting search, Sakamoto, it turned out, was the perfect man for the job. Much more than just an Ossipoff aficionado, Sakamoto is also the curator of an exhibit featuring the modernist’s work starting next year at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

“The biggest issue was making the new building sympathetic to the existing buildings and the landscape,” Sakamoto said.

Both Wichman and Sakamoto agreed on a low-profile structure that would not stand out from the topography of the Kalaheo area, so Sakamoto set it into a hillside.

“It looks like a one-story building from Papalina Road, but when you enter it, it drops down to two stories,” he said.

Named after the family patriarch, the new research center that bears the name of Juliet Rice Wichman will long be a source of pride for a family — and an island — earnestly interested in conservation.

“She had been a trustee (of the NTBG) for 25 years or so,” said Hobey Goodale, an NTBG trustee and one of Wichman’s three sons. “She gave the original gift of Limahuli Garden (that would become the NTBG campus).”

Wichman, a lifetime conservationist, died in 1987.

“The idea is that the family got together to honor her,” said Charlie Wichman, another son and trustee. “She was particularly interested in the mission to conserve and preserve all of Hawai‘i’s endangered plants.”

When all is said and done, Charlie estimated that his family will have given between 40 percent and 45 percent of the total amount spent, and he is proud that the rest also came from private funds.

Juliet Rice Wichman’s legacy lives on at the NTBG in almost every way. Her name will adorn the premier facility. Two of her sons serve on the board of trustees. And the director, Chipper, is her grandson.

• Ford Gunter, staff writer, may be reached at fgunter@kauaipubco.com, or 245-3681 (ext. 251).

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