For architect Hagy Belzberg, FAIA, principal of Belzberg Architects in Santa Monica, Calif., putting the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMH) underground made perfect sense. “We were building within a park, so we had a responsibility to maintain public open space,” he says. “It also sets up a powerful metaphor. As visitors progress through the museum, they learn the stories about what was happening [in eastern Europe] in the 1930s while people were literally having picnics yards away.” The building uses the power of architecture to tell a compelling story—about the Holocaust, but also about how even the edgiest of designs can be sustainably built and operated. The museum, which opened in October, is anticipated to receive LEED Gold certification.

A privately funded project with a budget of $15 million, LAMH is at the northwest corner of Pan Pacific Park in central Los Angeles. The park flows up and over the building, which is covered with a 15,000-square-foot green roof planted with grasses such as blue grama and esparto that insulates the building, provides substantial thermal mass, mitigates the urban-heat-island effect, and minimizes stormwater runoff.

The museum is entered by a drop-off area on the corner of the park, and visitors exit via a 110-foot-long ramp that gradually ascends back to the park. From the time Belzberg began working on the museum design seven years ago, it was always conceived as an underground structure. “I think the thing that helped me win the commission was the idea of not sticking a building on the park, but to integrate the two,” he says.

Inside, an open gallery is organized into 10 exhibit areas, populated by simple black display cases that tell the story of the Holocaust primarily through images and videos. Instead of the expected straight planes, the ceiling curves upward. And the walls have sculptural cutouts, architectural abstractions of the curving park pathways. From the lobby, visitors receive an introduction to prewar communities in “The World That Was.” As they move through the exhibits, which total 8,200 square feet, the path slopes downwards and the ceiling gets lower, so that the exhibits that cover the ghettos and concentration camps are also the darkest. The area below the exit ramp doubles as a display case for personal artifacts from Auschwitz.

“One of the strengths of Hagy’s architecture is that it provides an aesthetic entrée into the information, but avoids Jewish iconography that veers towards kitsch,” says E. Randol Schoenberg, the president of the museum’s board. “We wanted the museum to be flexible enough to be meaningful and accessible to people who have a little information, as well as those who have a lot of information.”

At 32,000 square feet, LAMH is Belzberg Architects’ largest built project. While preoccupied by what looks cool in the digital age—e.g., intricate patterns and unorthodox shapes—the firm has also readily incorporated an emphasis on sustainability into its design sensibilities. Its own Santa Monica offices, completed in 2009, also received LEED Gold certification.

The key green aspect of LAMH is that nearly the entire building is below grade, enabling it to be naturally cooled by the earth and the area’s high water table during L.A.’s scorching summers. The green roof will also do its part to keep the temperature cool. A conservative calculation of its R-value is 33, but factoring in the effects of the thermal mass of the soil and the plants when mature, the effective R-value will likely be closer to 40 (which is more than 50 percent better than what is required for the region). With a high-efficiency HVAC system that incorporates 100 percent air-side economizers, along with energy-efficient lighting, the building is estimated to use 40 percent less energy than a comparable building. “Most green buildings have a lot of light and air and windows, but we were able to reach a lot of the LEED efficiency values even without those elements,” says Lauren Zuzack, a design team member for the project for Belzberg Architects.

Natural lighting is a difficult thing to incorporate in museums, but Belzberg was able to introduce it into the center of the building using the ramp, which has frosted glass walls. Going down the LEED checklist, the firm received credit for recycled materials and used recycled steel rebar and up to 30 percent flyash in the concrete. Because flyash darkens concrete, less was used in the highly visible portions of the building, such as the façade, while more was used in the parking garage. The firm also installed six LED solar light poles from Inovus Solar. Wrapped with films of solar panels and equipped with motion sensors, the poles are self-sustaining and get brighter as people approach, with each pole using 39 watts of power and outputting 2,880 lumens.

“Every project we’re doing now has a sustainable minimum of LEED Silver,” Belzberg says. “It’s our culture; it’s what the office is all about. I think that’s our opportunity—making design and sustainability reliant on each other.”

With the assistance of Belzberg Architects, the museum is planning to offer special tours that specifically go over the green features of the building. Meanwhile, park-goers who come across the curious structure with grasses spilling over the roof—and more often than not are inspired to walk up it for a better view of the surrounding landscape—are already seeing how a building can indeed be green.

Lydia Lee writes about sustainability and architecture from Menlo Park, Calif.