For many people, summer camp conjures up memories of swimming, hiking, campfires, and sleeping (or being afraid to sleep) in open-sided cabins. Even for camps that have a very specific focus—for example, on tennis or spirituality—the natural world is an integral part of the camp experience. So it’s no surprise that as environmental stewardship becomes more widespread, today’s camps are increasingly looking for ways to connect campers to nature as well as to the means for living in greater harmony with our ecosystems.

Organizations whose mission is conservation are at the cutting edge of the green-camping experience. And sleep-away camp is no longer just a summer experience. More and more, schools are using overnight programs to immerse students in nature as part of hands-on science and outdoor-education programs. The goal is to give youth, particularly urban youth, a transformative experience that brings about a new or deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

For example, the Mono Lake Committee, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to saving California's Mono Lake (near Yosemite National Park) and advancing water conservation, is planning a new outdoor-education center to teach children and community groups about the affect of diverting water from the lake’s ecosystem. By bringing kids to camp to learn about the Mono Basin watershed, the committee aims to change behavior at home. The new education center’s dining hall, classrooms, administration building, bathhouse, and bunkhouses will all emphasize water conservation by demonstrating ultralow-flow fixtures, rainwater catchment, graywater harvesting, and on-site wastewater treatment.

Camp Arroyo, an environmental education center and youth camp in Livermore, Calif., focuses its curriculum on sustainable living. The camp buildings were designed to support the curriculum: each one illustrates a different sustainable-construction technology, and all demonstrate ways to conserve energy and materials. The dining hall uses straw-bale construction, the bathhouses are made with stabilized earth, and the cabins are efficiently framed with FSC-certified wood.

Interpretive signage is essential to help campers understand how systems reduce environmental impacts. The Yosemite Institute, which offers outdoor science programs to school groups in Yosemite National Park, is building a new environmental education center to support its curriculum. The camp is designed to achieve net-zero-energy use by combining superinsulated buildings with a variety of renewable-energy sources. Students will learn that harvesting energy is site-specific: in this case, the forested site has limited solar access. Buildings with good solar access will be equipped with photovoltaic systems, which will be complemented with ground-source heat pumps and biogas harvesting. While many campers may be familiar with solar power, they might be less familiar with the other two systems—and, since most of the equipment is buried underground or tucked into a basement, might not have seen it before. Signage, therefore, is essential for describing the systems and supporting the curriculum.

Green design is important from an operational standpoint as well. Most camps operate year-round in order to provide a school-year science curriculum or simply to bring in more revenue, which means that cabins and other buildings have to remain cool in summer and stay warm in winter. Creating highly efficient year-round buildings keeps the facilities comfortable with lower utility costs. But piping in fresh water and removing wastewater are more-complex matters on the typically remote sites, where bringing in utilities can be costly. Site-specific natural systems make ecological and economic sense and also provide educational, and sometimes hands-on, opportunities.

At Camp Arroyo, the cabins’ east- and west-facing windows are equipped with sliding shutters. A sign reminds kids to close these shutters when they go out in the morning. If they don’t, they get a vivid lesson about solar heat gain when they return to a hot cabin at the end of the day. At the Yosemite Institute, campers are involved in competing to lower their food waste—each cabin weighs its food scraps. In the new campus, building dashboards will allow kids to monitor their energy use and to compete to see which cabin conserves the most.

Selection and location of site infrastructure and mechanical equipment make a significant difference in the camp experience. Taking campers behind the scenes to understand the workings of the mechanical systems is a learning opportunity, but misplaced noise from mechanical systems detracts from the natural setting. At Camp Arroyo, compressors for refrigeration are placed on the kitchen roof to distance the noise from campers, while at Yosemite Institute, the refrigeration is tied to the ground-source heat-pump system, eliminating noisy compressors altogether. At the Yosemite Institute, the propane tank for the emergency generator is buried underground to reduce visual impact.

Even for camps that do not specifically focus on conservation, sustainability has become more important. Whether their mission is spiritually based or oriented toward building community, nature plays a crucial role in reinforcing the message. The natural environment takes people out of their normal routine into a place where it is possible to see things anew.

For example, spiritual learning may include stewardship of God’s creation. For the Union of Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif., the mission is to give people a positive Jewish identity and build community. One of the camp’s guiding principles is Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for "repairing the world"); in response, the camp’s current renovation and expansion project includes restoring the creek that runs through the middle of the site, restoring wildlife habitats, reducing paved areas, and pulling buildings and asphalt back from the creek. The project also emphasizes water conservation, with reuse of graywater whenever possible, in response to the dry Sonoma County climate.

Net-zero energy is the cutting edge of sustainability today, and camps are in a prime position to lead the way. They often have access to plenty of sun, which helps with daylighting and solar power, and they have much smaller energy loads than, say, office buildings. Designing net-zero-energy structures means starting with reducing energy use as much as possible because renewable-energy systems are expensive—the smaller the demand, the smaller the system can be. High levels of insulation and passive strategies such as sunshades and natural ventilation are essential.

Fortunately, because camp is generally considered “roughing it,” it’s acceptable to widen people’s thermal comfort zones to let buildings be a little warmer or cooler than at home or school. In addition, camps are often located in areas where the power may go out, so passive strategies for heating and cooling have an additional advantage. The best strategy is to design buildings that remain comfortable even when “unplugged.” For example, when we returned to Camp Arroyo to perform a post-occupancy study, we pulled the cover off the evaporative cooling system and discovered that it had been broken for months. Because the thick, straw-bale walls kept the building cool, however, nobody had noticed.

Which is ideal. The architecture should aim to embody and teach green-design strategies without getting in the way of the essential experience of camp—the immersion in nature and the building of community.

Nancy Malone, AIA, is a principal at San Francisco–based Siegel & Strain Architects.