GWWO Architects recently designed and built the first nature center facility in Howard County, MD. The main objective of the new center is to bring people together with nature, to learn, to experience nature and the environment around them, and to promote an ethic of stewardship of the land.
The new center is designed to immerse visitors into a dynamic environmental learning experience from the moment they arrive on site through their entire visit. The three-story structure is nestled into the sloped site, with much of it below grade in order to minimize impact on the site. The result is a building that appears modest upon approach, and that does not distract from the experience of the site. The center’s exterior is constructed primarily of wood and stone, reminiscent of the historic Simpsonville Mill, the remains of which are located nearby, and of agricultural structures similar to those found on the Robinson homestead. The use of wood and stone continues throughout the building’s interior, which also features stained concrete and cork flooring. Expanses of glass offer views out from within at every step in the visitors’ journey, maintaining connections to nature and enhancing the interpretive experience.
As visitors approach, they are at the level of the forest floor, literally walking on it. However, through the nestling of the building into site topography, as they enter the center and move towards the primary exhibit, they transition to the level of the tree canopy, both inside (into the top level of the exhibit that explores the forest ecosystem) and out (at the north end of the site where views are to the tree canopy). The transparent building enables visitors to see and feel this transition. They then circulate down through the primary exhibit, to the forest floor again, and continue to explore additional exhibits, including one on nocturnal habitats that takes them into an area appropriately positioned and darkened to reflect habitat conditions.
The Robinson Nature Center achieved LEED Platinum certification—the highest level of LEED certification from the USGBC. Key sustainable features include:
—FSC-Certified & Reclaimed Wood
—Geothermal Heating & Cooling
—Locally Produced Materials
The center was designed as a teaching tool to promote the Robinson Nature Center mission of sustainability, and throughout the building there are narratives and explanations integrated into the design to educate visitors about the extensive green technologies used.
The new 26,000-SF facility includes exhibits, classrooms, 150-seat auditorium, “Naturesphere” theater, gift shop, special event spaces, administrative offices and support spaces, storage and workrooms. In addition, the site includes ADA accessible trails, rough terrain walking trails, and demonstration gardens and landscaping.