August 3, 2006

Education centers show how to tread lightly on the environment

  • The Puget Sound area has several environmental education centers, which encourage a direct connection and interaction with nature.
    Jones & Jones



    Ever-increasing regional and universal environmental concerns about global warming, diminishing natural resources and buildup of toxic pollution begs the question: “How can we better understand and transform our impact on the environment?”

    Environmental education that encourages direct connection and interaction with nature has the potential to foster socio-environmental responsibility and an appreciation for the environment in all age groups, as well as motivate us to act. With strong traditions of environmental awareness and stewardship, the Puget Sound region is emerging as a leader in the environmental education movement, establishing nationally recognized environmental education programs and constructing innovative learning centers.

    Many environmental education centers in the region have been planned or completed in the last decade. Several noteworthy examples exist in or near Seattle, including the Cedar River Watershed Education Center near North Bend, IslandWood on Bainbridge Island and Carkeek Park Environmental Learning Center in North Seattle. Also, Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center is under development in Bellevue.

    Restoring lost connections

    Many environmental education facilities are built to honor local natural features and prominent landscapes. Gripping views and physical proximity to study areas inspire students to be active caretakers of the natural world.

    Photo by Lara Swimmer
    The Cedar River Watershed Education Center is nine small buildings adjacent to a 90,000-acre forested watershed preserve.

    A distinct quality of environmental educational centers is their role as models of sustainability and environmental stewardship, with facilities that practice what they preach in their own design. These centers not only house classrooms, but also physically manifest a part of the subject matter. With visible examples of recycled materials and conservation processes, visitors can experience, appreciate and delight in sustainable solutions.

    Learning environment

    Photo by Lara Swimmer
    Rain drums amplify the sound of raindrops at the Cedar River center. The drums serve as artwork that audibly calls attention to rainwater as an important resource.

    Above the shores of Rattlesnake Lake in the Cascade foothills, the Cedar River Watershed Education Center offers a connection to the invaluable source of Seattle’s drinking water. Designed by architecture and landscape architecture firm Jones & Jones, the center promotes environmental education by recreating the protected watershed environment in microcosm.

    The center’s courtyard welcomes visitors with artist Dan Corson’s rain drums that amplify the sound of raindrops; audibly calling visitors’ attention to this artful use of rainwater and celebrating its importance as a natural resource. The “out of sight, out of mind” approach of conventional infrastructure is nowhere in evidence here. Instead of shedding rainwater and carrying it through unseen pipes, living roofs collect and filter rainwater, just as in nature, and overflow feeds a stream flowing through the site. Parking lot drainage is slowed and filtered through bioswales before it reaches the nearby lake.

    “Everything from the views to the rain drums engages and entertains people, allowing them to see and appreciate the processes by which our drinking water gets to us,” said Ralph Naess, public/cultural program manager for Seattle Public Utilities. “Our hope is that every visitor who comes into the education center would leave with a better understanding of their connection to the water supply and how they can help take care of it.”

    Living laboratory

    Image courtesy Jones & Jones
    At the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, building clusters will be scaled to nestle among the trees.

    Located in a 320-acre wetland nature park, the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center is the result of a unique partnership between the Pacific Science Center and the city of Bellevue’s Department of Parks & Community Services. This wetland will be the center’s living laboratory for environmental learning programs and activities serving youths and adults.

    “At the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, we strive to teach environmental awareness, wetland ecology and stewardship to our participants,” said Brad Street, Mercer Slough program coordinator with the Pacific Science Center.

    “We are excited to have a facility that models good building practices and blends harmoniously with its surroundings,” Street said. “Our participants will be exposed to such things as living roofs and natural filtering of water. In addition, they will gain whole new views of our wetlands from treetop walkways and a treehouse. Our hope is that they will choose to be a part of this type of positive change in the future.”

    The center, also designed by Jones & Jones, is coming together as an informal grouping of shed-roofed buildings nestled on a hillside of big-leaf maples and firs overlooking Mercer Slough, the largest remaining urban freshwater wetland in the state. Emphasizing low-impact design, the structures will be lifted above the forest floor to minimize the built footprint and heighten the forest canopy learning experience, as well as creatively control the amount of stormwater runoff into the sensitive wetlands.

    Designing teaching places

    Photo by Lara Swimmer
    The site and buildings at the Cedar River center teach the profound interaction between the natural world and human needs.

    Design of an environmental education center can significantly enhance a person’s education experience by becoming a working example of environmental practices in action. For example, operable windows not only allow a building to breathe, but connect people to the sights and sounds of nature. Radiant floor heating provides warmth to children’s classrooms where they need it most, not only keeping them comfortable but also doing so using less energy.

    While studying birds and other forest canopy life, lessons might range from broader discussions of forest conservation and management to the value and practicality of keeping large trees on a building site to maintain shade and preserve animal habitat.

    Environmental education centers will play an increasingly key role in raising awareness of environmental problems and solutions, and with their help, current and future generations will become equipped for environmental stewardship and empowered with the level of understanding needed to make a difference in the Puget Sound region and beyond. Promoting and enhancing this connection to nature through these facilities and their programs will produce passionate caretakers of the Earth.

    Mark T. Johnson, AIA, LEED a.p., and Paul J. Olson, AIA, with Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, specialize in designing ecologically and culturally sustainable architecture that integrates and resonates with the landscape.

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