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April 20, 2000

Water comes to life at the Cedar River Watershed Education Center

Jones & Jones

Its all about water. When the Cedar River Watershed Education Center opens next June, visitors to the four-acre building and landscape complex will feel, hear and see the city of Seattles water at its source and see some ways it is collected and channeled.

After immersion in the exhibits and the environment of the new campus, visitors of all ages will have an awareness of where our water comes from, where it goes, and why it is so important to conserve this precious resource.

The facility, located in the Cascade foothills near North Bend, will serve school groups and drop-in visitors, and will provide facilities for special events such as teacher training sessions, receptions, and tribal gatherings.

Cedar River Watershed Education Center
The Cedar River Watershed Education Center
Courtesy Jones & Jones
The centerpiece of the future campus is a naturalistic stream that begins in a spring, travels in a progression of rivulets and marshes through the Forest Court, flows under part of the building, and presents itself to arriving visitors as a pool in the Entry Court. The stream collects the surface drainage as well as the roof waters that are allowed to drop their full height from the broad building eaves. In the Forest Court, a collection of rain drums created by the project artist will amplify the sounds of raindrops. And when the sky is dry, the system will play world rhythms via water droplets discharged through computer-controlled emitters.

Now more than ever, there are good reasons for celebrating the Cedar River watershed. It is the primary source of water for Seattle and more than two-thirds of King County. It is one of the only municipal water sources in the United States that does not need to filter its water but instead, protects it at its source. Seattle Public Utilities manages the more than 90,000 acres of the upper river basin to balance water quality and quantity with stewardship of the lands natural and cultural resources. The watershed, which has been designated as an ecological reserve through a recently-approved Habitat Conservation Plan, is closed to the general public in order to protect the drinking water quality.

The site for the new buildings was chosen carefully. It once held a small settlement, with an existing remnant alle of maples.

Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects has designed a facility that integrates interior and exterior spaces to provide places for meeting, teaching, learning and discovery. The three main buildings, with a total of 9,800 square feet, include an interpretive hall with a welcoming room, an auditorium, classrooms, a library, offices and archives - all linked by a series of courtyards.

The campus is sited along a narrow ridgeline that follows the historic Milwaukee Railroad corridor and overlooks Rattlesnake Lake. To support this intrinsic linearity the main buildings and smaller supporting structures are connected by a sod-roofed walkway aligned with an existing allee of 80-year-old big leaf maples planted on top of the ridgeline.

With small building volumes, simple post and beam construction, wood siding, stone foundations, and the sheltering roof overhangs, the complex is meant to evoke the previous historic settlement on the site, and resonate with the surrounding forest and mountain landscape. From interior openings and a viewpoint at the edge of the Forest Court visitors will be able to enjoy the view of the lake and the dramatic landform of Rattlesnake Ledge.

The courtyards thread together the interior spaces, and each has a distinct character and function. The Entry Court provides a tree-enclosed gathering and orientation space with low stone bench walls. There is an information kiosk and the stream drops into a native-boulder lined pool.

The central Forest Court is a lowland-Cascades woodland partially edged by the stream, featuring a loose ring of vine maples in which the rain drums will be installed, with a moss garden at the center. The Heritage Court, flowing between the auditorium and classroom buildings to extend both interior spaces through generous door openings, is paved with historic clay tile artifacts from the watershed and features a viewpoint over the lake to a former townsite.

The area receives well over 60 inches of precipitation a year. Wherever possible, falling rain is displayed, and its course demonstrated. The metal and earthen roofs are model "watersheds," with water gushing from the metal surfaces, in contrast to the absorptive and slow-release function of the planted earth covering. Where roof gutters cannot directly feed the stream, the falling water is caught and celebrated in boulder basins.

In the Heritage Court stormwater is carried through a curved runnel and shot over a stone wall before infiltrating back into the ground. Drainage from the parking lots is channeled into bioswales planted with wetland shrubs that will slow and clean the water before it reaches the lake. On rainy days, teaching staff will be able to use these on-site examples of how water can be caught, controlled, and treated.

Jones & Jones has designed the project to demonstrate principles of ecologically sustainable design. Materials for the buildings and site have been selected for their durability, longevity and fit with the surrounding natural landscape. All wood for the project has been specified to be either re-used, or sourced from certified well-managed forests. A primary landscape and building material is natural stone, much of which will be collected locally.

Soil preparation will include a high proportion of compost and use of mulch topdressing to reduce water requirements, and where feasible, topsoil will be stripped and re-used. Only native plants representing different habitat areas of the watershed were specified, and areas of native drought tolerant micro-environments will serve as examples for residential water-wise gardening.

The centers exhibits will interpret the history and habitats of the watershed and show the workings and management of the water system from reservoir to river to drinking fountain. The idea is to inspire and support the visitor by sending home a vision of using our resources carefully. The conservation of water is not only important for the long-term health of the city, it is intricately tied to protection and recovery of the variety of habitats in this watershed. The fish and wildlife depend upon the health of those habitats. On the largest scale, the way we use forests, fuel, power, and other natural resources affects each and every local and global environment. Its all part of the same picture.

The education center has been funded by a partnership between Seattle Public Utilities and Friends of the Cedar River Watershed. The rain drum project, as well as an interior art installation, is being created by Seattle Arts Commission project artist Dan Corson. The center is part of SPUs recently-completed park upgrade and landscape restoration project at Rattlesnake Lake, designed by Jones & Jones.

Park visitors and hikers arriving via regional trails will be able to join the new lake trail along a restored shoreline, meet a reconstructed stream and waterfall, then follow the streams new tributary to the Education Center Entry Court, gaining new awareness of and respect for the magic and preciousness of water.

Nancy Rottle is an associate with Jones & Jones and served as project manager for the Cedar River Watershed project.

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