The Sustainability Treehouse by Mithun Is 5 Stories of Engaging Education

The Sustainability Treehouse by Mithun architects for The Boy Scouts of America is a five story, 5,805 square foot structure that stands 125 feet high on a 10,000-acre reserve.

The Sustainability Treehouse by Mithun

The Sustainability Treehouse by Mithun

The Sustainability Treehouse, a Living Building Challenge targeted interpretive and gathering facility is situated in the forest at West Virginia’s Summit Bechtel Reserve. The towering treehouse serves as a unique icon of camp adventure, environmental stewardship and innovative building design. Mithun led the integrated design process and a multidisciplinary team to achieve the engaging, high-performance facility.

full treehouse

The Treehouse provides dynamic educational and gathering spaces for exploring and understanding the site and ecosystem at the levels of ground, tree canopy, and sky.

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The towering Corten steel frame elevates visitors to extraordinary vantages and provides an armature for green building systems, such as photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, and a large cistern and water cleansing system.

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Interactive exhibits showcase and celebrate sustainable technologies.

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Overall, the Treehouse captures the wonder of childhood exploration and places environmental education at the forefront of meaningful experiences and camp messages for thousands of annual visitors to take home.

EG magazine reports:
When the Boy Scouts of America decided to build a five-story treehouse at its new 10,000+ acre high-adventure camp in West Virginia, the goal was to create a living model reaffirming its conservation heritage.

Volume_Scouts-26 above: A white-painted “crest” at the entrance employs merit badge-inspired graphic symbols to depict the building of the treehouse.

The Sustainability Treehouse opened at the new Summit Bechtel Reserve in Summer 2013 just as the Boy Scouts introduced a new sustainability merit badge. The treehouse was intended to “tell the story of sustainability in a way that is authentic to the Scouts and to West Virginia,” says Allison Schapker, director of design and sustainability for Trinity Works, the Summit site developer.

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It also had to compete with the camp’s zip line, climbing wall, skate park, and other fun activities available to the scouts. So when Volume Inc.of San Francisco was tasked with developing the exhibition for the treehouse, its first question was, “How do you engage kids who just arrived at an adventure park to learn about sustainability?”

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Collaborating with architect Brett Terpeluk, Volume set out to create exhibits for 5,000 square feet on five levels. The exhibit goals were to emphasize the role of natural systems in our lives, encourage an understanding of the interconnectedness of things, and inspire scouts to become change agents.

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That’s some serious material for a young and active audience, so the Volume team knew it would need to abandon the “tried and true, formulaic approaches” such as text panels on walls or obligatory videos, says Adam Brodsley, principal and creative director.

Active versus passive learning was key. A Rube Goldberg-esque contraption called the Net Zero Recyclotron is activated when visitors pedal a stationery bicycle to power a ball along a track, triggering videos, interactives, and messages about how a sustainable building should function.

net zero house recylatron

Volume focused on inspiring scouts in unexpected ways, using low-tech, tactile solutions and repurposed materials. A “rain chain” made of stainless steel camping cups transfers water from the roof into a cistern below.

collecting rainwater

A red oak tree removed from the site prior to construction is suspended in the treehouse horizontally, showing its root structure and comparing its working systems to that of a Net Zero building.

Where there is text to read, the tone is irreverent and words are mixed with icons and a color palette drawing directly from the Boy Scout vernacular. “We wanted the content to be funny, but not like your dad’s jokes,” says Brodsley. A wall filled with calls to action such as “Close the damper, camper” are meant to be read in passing.

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Inspiring change is the ultimate goal, and Volume and Schapker agreed that leaving scouts with just a couple of take-home ideas was better than preaching. Their approach was, “Now that you’ve gone through the exhibit and learned things, what will you do?” A Spin-O–Pledge wheel offers ideas like “Borrow or Rent,” just one of the exhibit graphics that connects to the scouts by reflecting scout tradition.

spinopledge wheel

“The team started with the story they wanted to tell, then figured out how to tell this story on this site to this audience,” says Schapker.

The site plan:
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Longitudinal view:
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Design Architect: Mithun
Executive Architect/Architect of Record: BNIM
Exhibit Design: Volume, Inc./Studio Terpeluk

Specifications
Client: Boy Scouts of America / Trinity Works
Start: 2011
Completion: 2013
Size: 10,000-acre reserve; 5,805 sf structure; stands 125 feet high
Certifications: Living Building Challenge targeted
Location: Summit Bechtel Reserve, Mount Hope, West Virginia

Credits:
Landscape Architect: Nelson Byrd Woltz
Structural Engineering: Tipping Mar
MEP Engineer: Integral Group
Exhibit Design: Volume, Inc./ Studio Terpeluk
Lighting Design: Dave Nelson & Associates
Geotechnical: S&ME
Code Consultant: FP&C Consultants
Contractor: Swope Construction

The Sustainability Treehouse has won the following awards:
2015
AIA Northwest and Pacific Region Design Awards, Citation Award
2014
AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE), Top Ten Green Project Awards
CORE77, Design Awards: Interior & Exhibitions, Professional Award
SEGD, Exhibition Awards: Honor Award
2013
AIA Seattle, Honor Awards: Built Award

all photos © Joe Fletcher

Information and photos courtesy of Mithun and The Society for Experiential Graphic Design