Boy Scouts Sustainability Treehouse

A Scout’s Treehouse

How do you make an exhibit on sustainability as much fun as zip-lining? At the Boy Scouts adventure camp in West Virginia, a new five-story treehouse makes conservation cool.

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.

The Sustainability Treehouse opened at the new Summit Bechtel Reserve in Summer 2013 just as the Boy Scouts introduced a new sustainability merit badge. Designed by Mithun architects to Living Building Challenge standards, 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.

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. (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?”

Audience and story

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

 “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 Living Building Challenge

Mithun designed the treehouse following Living Building Challenge sustainability standards that set high benchmarks similar to LEED. One such standard was a clearly specified Red List of (prohibited) materials that applied to the exhibit fabrication as well as the architecture. Volume included the LBC requirements and specifically the Red List in the instructions to bidders for the fabrication and development of the exhibit. “These requirements can impact pricing so it was important to have those included from the beginning,” notes Schapker.

Red List materials include added formaldehyde, polyvinyl chloride, and phthalates. Temporary exceptions can be made only when there are current material limitations. Meeting LBC standards required exhibit fabricator Pacific Studio (Seattle) to provide Trinity with a manual listing major materials and sources. Marc Burns, sales/project manager for Pacific Studio, says specifications included low-VOC Sherwin Williams latex paints and locally milled lumber and wood scraps. Material decisions were also made mindfully around not creating waste and keeping as much of the exhibit as long as possible. “Sustainability is always the most cost-effective solution in the long term,” says Schapker.

Recognizing the Living Building Challenge standard on waste handling and management, Pacific Studio used reusable packing blankets to transport the exhibit elements from their shop to the site. Shop materials were packed onto one truck for a single trip, reducing energy consumption and pollution. Schapker says Pacific Studio “understood the goals of the project,” sourcing materials local to West Virginia where possible and hiring local labor for installation. An LBC performance review will be conducted in July 2014, one year after opening, to determine if the treehouse meets the Living Building Challenge.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is encouraged throughout the exhibit, says Schapker, “not by explaining what systems thinking is, but through understanding the interconnectedness of things.” For example, the Net Zero Recyclotron House allows visitors to see the impact their decisions make. The house is a Rube Goldberg-esque rolling ball machine encased in a wood slat “mini-house” structure.

“We wanted to compare the Net 0 house building system to a tree’s Net 0 system: water, rain, roots, leaf litter, and compost material,” says Brodsley. “A Net 0 system creates and manages everything it needs. The Net 0 house is a model of how we should be building the homes we should be living in, and not burning through resources.”

Leading by example, the team also recognized the scout camping principle of “leave no trace behind” and created as little waste as possible; no hand-outs or brochures were produced for the exhibit.

High up in the treehouse, there are also places to simply sit and peer through window openings, encouraging visitors to look out and consider their own relationship to the woods and the many different types of homes. Visitors can also see a 9-foot section of earth core taken during the geotechnical site survey undertaken to determine how stable the earth was for building the treehouse. The camp is built on the site of a former strip mine, and a coal seam still exists 230 feet beneath the campers’ feet. It also became part of the story of sustainable planning for the future.

“We’re dependent on the ability of future generations to understand the interconnected relationships of systems thinking; this was a major underlying goal,” says Schapker. With that understanding, young visitors are instilled with a sense of agency. “Changing the behavior of their families and friends is the biggest role kids can play. Showing kids what they can do today to make that happen was another major goal.”

After all, says Brodsley, “Scouting is all about DIY (Do it Yourself).” It’s up to the scouts to become change agents, and the treehouse certainly makes getting started fun.

--By Naomi Pearson, eg magazine No. 09, 2014


Client:  Boy Scouts of America/Trinity Works

Location:  Mount Hope, W. Va.

Budget:  Confidential

Project Area:  5,000 sq. ft.

Open Date:  July 2013

Design:  Volume Inc. / Studio Terpeluk

Design Team:  Adam Brodsley exhibit design/principal; Eric Heiman creative director/principal; Brett Terpeluk exhibit design joint venture (Studio Terpeluk); Bryan Bindloss, Brice McGowan, Daniel Surgeon designers; Ragina Johnson production; Brian McMullen, Michael Rigsby copywriters; Natasha Fraley content developer; Erin Kemp, Hanna Thomson project management

Fabrication:  Pacific Studio

Architecture:  Mithun design architect, BNIM architect of record/executive architect

Consultants:  Red Gate Films main theater film

Photos:  Joe Fletcher

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