Joe Fletcher

Continuing our coverage of the 2014 AIA COTE Top Ten green projects, this article is part of a series of 10 pieces that examine a specific, defining design challenge or innovation of each of this year's winners.

When the Boy Scouts of America acquired a 10,600-acre post-industrial site in West Virginia—now known as the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve—it wanted to create an exhibition and educational space that Scouts and others could use while visiting the expansive grounds. In keeping with the organization’s environmental ethos, the group also wanted the project to set a high standard for energy performance. To do this, it tapped Seattle-based architecture firm Mithun, architect of record and executive architect BNIM, and Charlottesville, Va.–based Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

The architects set their sights high, both in terms of environmental benchmarks and the physical structure itself, which soars 125 feet above grade. They determined that the building would be certified as part of the Living Building Challenge, which stipulates that projects must be net-zero energy, waste, and water over a full year of occupancy.

As a way to achieve maximum efficiency, the building’s form and performance are one and the same. Its verticality, for example, allows it to keep a tight footprint, maximizing the interior exposure to natural light and minimizing interference with the surrounding forest. A Cor-Ten steel frame, left exposed, allows the structure to double as finish, referring back to the site’s industrial past. As the jury put it, “the structure exhibits a very exuberant and expressive design while being contextual and respectful of the site.”

The architects were able to cut energy demands by carefully orientating spaces and by taking what was originally meant to be 20,000 square feet of indoor space and transforming it into a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces, with, ultimately, a much smaller amount of that—3,360 square feet—becoming indoor space. As a result, much of the building’s programs will take place on a series of shaded outdoor terraces, an ideal setting for what will be a summertime audience of Boy Scouts.

Joe Fletcher

But the 23,357-square-foot building has active energy demands, so the architects needed to devise a system that would keep it up and running—without placing a burden on the grid. They accomplished this by coupling strategies: a 6,450-watt photovoltaic array (PV) with two 4,000-watt vertical axis wind turbines. With an estimated annual energy consumption of 48,164 kBtu, the PV offset amounts to an estimated 27,774 kBtu per year while the turbines are estimated to yield 20,472 kBtu per year, amounting to a net negative energy consumption of 82 kBtu per year. While a rooftop terrace pierces the top of the treeline, providing panoramic views of the forest, it also frames a view of the building’s energy systems, underscoring its educational role. 

One of the other benchmarks of the Living Building Challenge is net-zero-water use, and, here, the building rises to the challenge again, using only rainwater for its needs. A composting toilet system further cuts water demand, and, like the turbines and PVs, the water system is made to be legible for the purposes of education. A kinetic rain chain lets visitors track the movement of water from the sky through the building and into a 1,000-gallon cistern. Though it works as an exciting environment for Scouts to meet and explore, the architecture itself serves as a demonstration of the organization’s environmental focus.

Click here to access our full coverage of the 2014 AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects, including more information on each project, additional images, and exclusive Q&As with each winning firm.