CASE STUDY: COTE TOP TEN WINNERS
Pocono Environmental Education Center
The Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) wanted its new visitor activity center to be highly sustainable, and more importantly, economical to operate. In these days of innumerable smart technologies aimed at upping building performance, the two goals could have easily been at odds. But design architect Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) proved they could be simpatico in a simple, shed-roofed structure.
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Completed in 2005, the $2-million, 7,750-square-foot facility located in hemlock forests on the Delaware River of eastern Pennsylvania functions as a flexible gathering space for dining, meetings, lectures, exhibits, and other environmental learning activities for children and adults. In addition, the building itself serves as an educational tool. A long path through the forest leads to a narrow, low-hung entrance through which visitors embark under a low-slung entry hallway to a single room, gluelam beams hoisting the ceiling upward in the dramatic clear-span space. There, visitors are greeted with sweeping views of the forest through a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass. Yet for all the architectural theater, the building was built and is being operated “on a shoestring,” according to BCJ’s project architect, Alex Kachel. From the concrete structural frame to the cladding of cement-board siding and tire-tread shingles, Kachel says, “Everything had to be made as simple as possible.”
The nonprofit center’s modest means can be traced to its unusual birth in the 1960s as a protest movement against a dam the National Park Service hoped to build—a dam that would have turned the valley surrounding this stretch of the Delaware River into a 12,500-acre, 37-mile-long reservoir. After stopping the project, activists turned into educators and in 1972 formed PEEC, teaching out of a nearby resort purchased by the park service. By the 1990s, PEEC’s seasonal programs and international educational exchanges had grown so popular the organization needed a new, more fitting home. But to build it PEEC’s supporters faced a tall order: raising money for a facility that they would operate but the park service would own. For Kachel and his team, that meant designing the building without knowing the final budget until construction bidding. “We designed a basic building plus alternate bid packages for an add-on classroom and porch,” he says, “but only the basic building got built.”
The resulting facility is basically one large room that wraps around a kitchen and service module, positioned at the entrance. Oriented to the compass points, it has two distinct faces: The south elevation rises up in what Kachel describes as a “passive solar machine”—hard-edged metal and glass engineered for pure performance. The north elevation nestles into the landscape and is literally clad in material from the site: treads stripped from tires collected by the park service along nearby roads. A huge hit with the public and the COTE award jurors, the material was serendipitous, says Kachel. The designers originally specified a material manufactured out of recycled tire treads, but the source company went out of business. A hasty Web search for an alternative discovered MooRoof, operated by two brothers from British Columbia who quickly drove cross-country in their diesel VW bus and set their portable machinery up on the site to strip sidewalls off the collected tires. “This project grows from the site,” said COTE juror Marvin Malecha, adding, “This is how to mainstream Sam Mockbee.” Even the furniture is recycled, salvaged from a nearby country club.
The space frame of concrete and gluelams is bolted together for easy disassembly should the building ever need to be recycled. The steep shed roof connecting the two elevations deflects the northern winter winds. The large south window wall bathes 93 percent of the public areas in natural light and provides plenty of passive solar heat gain. In the coldest months, radiant-heat floors augment the sun, cheaply maintaining enough heat for what Kachel calls the building’s winter “hibernation,” when it’s completely shut down. For the humid northeast summers, the building is cooled thermodynamically with low-set north windows, which draws cooler air from the adjacent, grass-planted rain-water collector. Wide overhangs block the most intense periods of sun. Warm air escapes out of high-set windows on the south side; this circulation is aided by ceiling fans on the hottest days. The architects explored computer controls for the windows, but PEEC’s administration vetoed any automatic systems, preferring to make manual temperature-tuning of windows and fans teachable moments in the center’s daily curriculum.
However modest, this building has proven virtually maintenance-free while becoming an instant icon. The simple shed design with its V-shaped columns and wall of glass, photographed at dusk, has quickly become a staple of tourist brochures, while the whimsical, if highly functional, tire-tread shingles deliver an eye-popping introduction—not to mention indelible memory—to visitors on how simple and affordable sustainable living can be.
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