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A Soaring Environmental Education Center Sets an Example of High Performance

Glen Jean, West Virginia

By David Sokol
May 2014
Photo © Joe Fletcher

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) held the first National Scout Jamboree in 1937, when thousands of Scouts converged on the Washington Mall for 10 days of learning and activity. Since 2013, the Summit Bechtel Family Scout Reserve has served as the permanent home of the quadrennial events. There, the Mithun-designed environmental education center known as the Sustainability Treehouse greeted 30,000 Scouts to last year’s inauguration of the rural West Virginia venue.

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Achieving this milestone was a troop effort. The Sustainability Treehouse is among the first facilities slated for the Summit, which comprises 10,600 acres formerly used for mining and logging. Due to the scale of the undertaking, BSA tapped Fort Worth, Texas–based Trinity Works as master developer of the reclaimed land. Five mutually exclusive design leads, including De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop and Lake|Flato Architects, were then selected; their projects are unified by common specifications, as well as partners like landscape architect Nelson Byrd Woltz and executive architect BNIM.

Mithun associate principal Susan Olmsted says BSA and Trinity Works “had the bold idea that the Reserve transform a place of resource extraction to a place of renewal and conservation. The Sustainability Treehouse was always envisioned as a catalyst project that would inspire visitors to take sustainability home with them.” Besides teaching sustainability practices, the treehouse is supposed to embody them, namely by meeting Living Building Challenge criteria.

To start realizing these goals, experts from all selected consultants held their own jamboree: a 10-day charrette at the Summit, where teams hiked the reserve, collaborated on various site plans, and conceptualized individual assignments.

As a result of this initial process, Mithun landed upon both a location for the Sustainability Treehouse and its programming strategy. “One of the early things we did was take a closer look at the building program,” Olmsted says, and by rethinking outdoor spaces as activity zones, “We slowly whittled down 20,000 square feet of indoor program to approximately 3,400.” Thickly wooded with white oak and tulip trees, the property lacked obvious places to stake a larger claim. More important, “Wanting to protect the site as much as possible really was a big driver. And of course, if you build less, then you don’t need as much energy to support those interior spaces.”

To minimize disturbance to the site, the remaining indoor functions were stacked vertically, alternating with 2,450 square feet of decking and platforms. The vertical configuration fulfilled other aspirations. From the perspective of environmental education, for example, it provided opportunities to teach visitors about the ecosystem at ground level, inside the tree canopy, and then from bird’s-eye view.

The height also provided opportunity to harvest photovoltaic and wind energy above the second-growth forest, in accordance with the Living Building Challenge’s net zero performance requirements. Employing a Cor-Ten steel armature engineered by Tipping Mar, the Sustainability Treehouse tops out at 125 feet. Resembling the towers that once served the region’s industrial economy, the structure contains a 6,450-watt photovoltaic array and two 4,000-watt wind turbines designed by MEP engineer Integral Group.

The blunt display of these technologies serves the education mission in turn. Of this “eco-revelatory idea,” Olmsted says, “Our intervention in the site can reveal something about our relationship to the world around us.” By exposing sustainability systems, visitors are made aware of natural systems, as well as how they can be harnessed. Another example is water strategy: The restroom volume’s inverted roof captures and funnels precipitation into a 1,000-gallon cistern, and an opening in an adjacent breezeway provides views of that rainwater and occasional snowmelt cascading down the roof and into the tippy-cup rain chain that supplies the reservoir. These design decisions blend seamlessly with interactive exhibits by Volume, Inc. that also showcase green technology, such as the “recyclotron” bicycle-powered light display.

Thanks to its net-zero capability, historically sensitive design, and for providing object lessons in environmental performance, the tower has already won multiple architectural badges. It has even earned Eagle status, landing in this year’s AIA Top Ten. 



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