In 2013, the Boy Scouts of America made conservation a stronger focus of the organization by introducing a new sustainability merit badge and opening an educational center in the 10,600-acre Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia. Using the Living Building Challenge as a guide (a rigorous set of construction standards similar to LEED), Seattle-based architecture firm Mithun spearheaded a multidisciplinary team to create a tree house that would turn lessons into an adventure. Sited on a former coal mine, the building features a locally made prefabricated steel megastructure, FSC-certified black locust wood housing, a photovoltaic array, a wind turbine, and a rainwater catchment system. Visitors learn about energy and water conservation as they climb outdoor staircases that lead from the forest floor to the 125-foot-high rooftop rising above the leaf canopy. Brendan Connolly, a partner at Mithun, takes pride in the architectural promenade: “The experience of moving through the trees was more powerful than we imagined,” he says.
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Visitors learn about energy and water conservation as they climb outdoor staircases that lead from the forest floor to the 125-foot-high rooftop rising above the leaf canopy. Photo by Joe Fletcher.
The Sustainability tree house is home base for the National Scout Jamboree, a weeklong event that's usually held every four years. The 2013 event was the first held at the new location in the Summit Bechtel Reserve. Seattle-based firm Mithun led the multidisciplinary team that worked on the project. BNIM is the architect of record, Nelson Byrd Woltz masterminded the landscaping, the structural engineering is by by Tipping Mar, and the exhibit design is by Volume, Inc. and Studio Terpeluk.
Mithun designed the tree house so that it would tread lightly on the land. The firm originally considered prefabricating the entire structure offsite but, in the research process, concluded that craning large modules into place would potentially harm the canopy. A combination of a bolted-together prefab structure and site-built wood housing yielded the least intrusive construction option.
The Summit Bechtel Reserve is located in West Virginia's coal mining country. The architects looked to the local structures—bridges, mining apparatus, and other industrial buildings—to inform the tree house's design. A 166-ton Cor-Ten steel megastructure supports the 125-foot-tall building. The use of regionally appropriate materials, like steel and black locust wood, was important to the architects.
Visitors scale a series of outdoor staircases that wind their way up the structure. Volume and Studio Terpeluk turned the risers into a teaching moment about energy use and the impact of every day activities.
At the structure's top, a 4,000-watt wind turbine and 6,500-watt photovoltaic array offers lessons about renewable energy.
The "Tippy Cup Rain Chain" teaches the children about water conservation.
A bench offers a place to rest and take in the surrounding tree canopy. Creating opportunities for contemplation is another key element of the structure's design.
The structure's mission is to teach visitors about the environment and sustainability. San Francisco–based studio Volume designed the exhibition program, which offers interactive displays about water conservation, energy use, recycling, and more.
An exhibit on biodiversity offers insight into local flora and fauna.
Mithun wanted to engage the scouts with all elements of the forest: the floor, the canopy, and a perspective above the tree tops. In one of the viewing rooms, visitors get the feeling of being fully surrounded by leaves.