Developing a green building requires thoughtful design, sustainable practices and the integration of natural systems. Accomplishing those goals is more challenging when one is working adjacent to pristine wilderness. But that’s just what the partners did in building the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center! As a result, the Environmental Learning Center has been awarded LEED Silver certification by the U.S. Green Building Council in recognition of a high level of achievement in sustainability and integration with natural systems.

Buildings are a prime example of how human systems integrate with natural systems,” said Rick Fedrizzi, President, CEO and Founding Chair, U.S. Green Building Council. “The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center efficiently uses our natural resources and makes an immediate, positive impact on our planet, which will tremendously benefit future generations to come."

Designed by HKP architects and completed by Dawson Construction in 2005, this 38,500 square foot residential environmental learning campus contains fifteen buildings, infrastructure, roads and paths on a remote lakeshore site within North Cascades National Park. The campus includes a main services complex of classrooms, laboratories, a library and administration buildings which are sited to form a sheltered commons space. The campus also includes a staff and graduate student housing, a renovated dining hall, an amphitheater, outdoor learning shelters, maintenance and a recycling/composting buildings.  Trails leading to the surrounding wilderness enhance the visitor’s experience and provide a vast outdoor classroom into the North Cascade ecosystem.

Sustainable highlights of the Learning Center include:

  • Locating buildings on preexisting building pads and shaping them to fit the topography of this steep site to reduce the amount of earthwork needed. This allowed many trees and plants to be saved. The Dining Hall was previously a restaurant built in the 1970s and more than 75% of the walls, floors and roofs were retained. 
  • Using regional materials to support local economies and reduce fuel consumption for shipping. More than 50% of the total materials for this project were manufactured regionally and 57% of these regional manufactured materials were made from materials harvested locally.
  • Using Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, which is grown and harvested in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. FSC-certified sources account for 84% of all the wood for the Learning Center, including rough framing, glue laminated beams and columns, cedar siding, flooring and doors.
  • Using recycled content materials including cellulose insulation, metal roofing, trex decking, gypsum wall board, flyash in concrete, ceramic tile, structural steel and rebar and linoleum. More than 10% of the total materials for the project used recycled products.
  • Powering the Learning Center with hydroelectricity doesn’t pollute the atmosphere. Housing was designed to exceed Built-Smart requirements with extra insulation and triple-pane low-e argon windows. This keeps the buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter while conserving energy. The Lodges and Staff Housing buildings were designed to meet the Built-Smart requirements, which means they have extra insulation and triple-pane low-e argon windows. Roofs are insulated to R-38 instead of the required R-30 and exterior walls are insulated to R-26 instead of R-19. The U-value of the windows is U= 0.34. This keeps the buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter, while conserving energy. Also, all the buildings have operable windows and are naturally ventilated. Generous overhangs and window shading devices keep the buildings cool in the summer.
  • Using durable materials and construction practices, the Learning Center is built to last. Many of the new buildings being constructed today are not designed to last more than 10-20 years. When demolished, the construction waste ends up in the landfill, contributing 30-40 percent of the landfill volume. We hope it will last forever, but if the Learning Center is ever demolished, the wood, concrete, and steel that make up much of the Buildings can be recycled. Wherever possible, we avoided materials like composites, asphalt shingles, and vinyl that cannot be recycled.
  • Allowing stormwater from roofs to soak into the ground to slow runoff and prevent flooding and erosion. Splashpads, swales and rockery areas along the path of stormwater flow were created for this purpose.
  • Using lighting systems designed to limit light trespass to improve visibility of the night sky and protect nocturnal environments. Low wattage fixtures on trails are shielded to prevent uplighting. Building lighting is also shielded with large overhanging roofs that prevent light from shining up into the night sky.
  • Restoring all the areas disturbed by excavation before and during construction with native plants that were propagated locally or grown from seed collected at the site. Native plants planted by volunteers hold the soil and perform their part in the natural ecology without the need to irrigate, fertilize or spray pesticides.

The Learning Center was designed for the partnership of the City of Seattle, the National Park Service and North Cascades Institute. The partnership was committed to insuring that the development of this natural site was executed with the least amount of detrimental disturbance. The goal was not only to demonstrate the utmost stewardship toward the natural resources, but to serve as a working model of sustainable practices to educate all the visitors to the site.  We hope that after a visit here, folks will come away with more knowledge and ideas about how they can help the environment in their own homes.