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Sustainability Drives Boys up a Tree

Quick – when was the last time you learned anything at all about sustainability…willingly? Exactly. Now try getting a group of boys ages 11 to 17 to put down their iPhones and game consoles long enough to ponder a tree and you can see what the Boys Scouts of America (BSA) was up against.

  • Signs
  • interactive exhibits
  • video
  • photo

The solution turned out to be something even more etched into every red-blooded American boy’s DNA than video games: a tree house. OK, a cross-media tree house, but a tree house just the same.

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The Sustainability Tree House
Take 5,000 square feet of vertical building space situated on a large tract of land in the mountains of West Virginia, and create an engaging experience that will leave a target audience of teenage boys with a fresh perspective on sustainability. Do this on a fixed, donor-funded budget.

This, essentially, was the design brief that guided San-Francisco’s Volume Inc. as they created the BSA’s Sustainability Treehouse exhibit program.

The Treehouse itself, created by design architect Mithūn and architect of record BNIM, opened last summer and is part of a larger development called The Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve.

The Summit, a “high-adventure center” on previously strip-mined land, is being developed for the millions of young boys and adults involved in the scouting organization. According to BNIM, the complex is set to include an estimated 400,000 square feet spread across 31 buildings on a 13,000-acre site, and will serve as the new permanent home of the National Scout Jamboree.

“We spent over a year, off and on, designing every aspect of the exhibits inside and outside the building,” says Adam Brodsley, a principal at Volume. “It was amazing, challenging and exciting,”

Volume set up the project as a joint venture between themselves and San Francisco’s Studio Terpeluk. Together they assembled a 12-person team – including additional talent such as a writer from McSweeney’s Publishing – to conceive, design and fabricate signage, graphics, interactive displays, content and videos.

“We collaborated with some extremely gifted people to create not only exhibits, but an identity for this building,” explains Brodsley.

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The Sustainability Challenge
According to the BSA: “The Summit has been built with sustainability front and center. Sustainability describes a way of planning and operating that balances environmental stewardship, economics and people to ensure what you do today can be sustained into the future. The Summit Sustainability Pledge program includes the Sustainability Treehouse – a self-contained structure demonstrating sustainable practices…”

A commendable goal, certainly, but you can already see the problem all concerned were facing here. If Boy Scouts had come this far, it’s because the allure of being with their friends on a trip had trumped working or hanging out around the house. Simply droning on at them about sustainability was not going to endear the Treehouse to them.

Volume knew its displays and messaging would need to:

  • Appeal to teenage boys also attracted to the zip lines, skate parks, rafting and climbing areas available during their time at The Summit.
  • Spur commitment and impart the idea that sustainability was doable in everyone’s daily life.

Inventive visual elements, interactive displays, and content with an unexpectedly quirky attitude achieved these goals admirably.

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Inside the Treehouse
To evoke a secret clubhouse feeling immediately, Volume designed a cryptic graphic with four quadrants: a tree, a forest, a house, a treehouse. Additionally, a series of mysterious, incremental trail signs – reminiscent of the Burma-Shave road signs – appear along the path to the Treehouse (e.g., Who Knew / A Tree / Could Be / So Waste Free?) These are meant to create a sense of anticipation and adventure.

Meanwhile, messaging begins at a comfort station, the first area that visitors encounter. It features a “rain chain” made of stainless steel camping cups. The cups transfer rainwater falling from the roof into a cistern below, which cleans and purifies it for all the water needs of the building. An adjacent LED display shows how much water has been collected and consumed.

Climbing the first flight of stairs, visitors enter the Treehouse exhibit located near the bottom of a five-story structure resembling two giant boxes sitting atop each other. A belt of stairs circles the exterior.

“The concept of the exhibit narrative, which unfolds vertically through the building, is to show how any house could work the same way a tree does in the forest,” explains Brodsley. “Nature’s processes inform every inch of this exhibit space.”

The design team suspended a tree –complete with its root ball – horizontally on the first floor. Through a variety of specimens, videos and other content, this display illustrates the tree’s self-sufficiency in nature, and also provides the model for how the building itself functions.

“We imagined displays like the 20-foot-long Rube Goldberg-esque rolling-ball machine that would convey a memorable message,” says Brodsley. “We weren’t sure it could be constructed, but one of our partners, Pacific Studio, made our intricate and wild vision a workable reality.”

Visitors can power the rolling-ball machine – a wood slat mini-house structure with an array of moving parts – by pedaling a custom-designed tricycle dubbed the Recyclotron. The Recyclotron’s energy lifts balls to the top of the track. As the balls roll along, they trigger various actions and videos that teach lessons about how a home can be more sustainable. For example, the pedaler can see the amount of effort needed to power an incandescent bulb versus a fluorescent one.

On another floor, scouts can sit in an amphitheater and look out to the trees beyond the windows. Here, videos such as Yuck (about decomposition, naturally) and Tales of a Deep Green Scout (about how the Treehouse creates all its own energy, captures all the water it needs from rain, and recycles all its waste) loop their educational and entertaining messages. The music is upbeat and contemporary, the images engaging, and the content appealing without a hint of preachiness or condescension.

Once at the top of the Treehouse, newly inspired visitors can write a sustainability pledge on a metal tag and suspend it on a wire structure. Two wind turbines and photovoltaic panels operate from this level as well.

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The Key to Putting it All Together
“This was a very ambitious project,” admits Brodsley. “We enjoyed being able to coordinate the whole picture, not just one part of it, and were fortunate enough to have a client that supported our ideas and basically said, ‘You’re the experts.’ ”

And Volume proceeded to do what any company does when putting together a cross-media campaign – they assembled the best talent they could from a variety of disciplines: content developers, writers, graphic designers, exhibit designers and film production experts. The team selected all the materials, worked closely with the fabricators, and traveled to The Summit to supervise the installation of the displays.

“The key is workflow: getting the details aligned, assigning project timelines, obtaining approvals and responses, and following through on deadlines,” explains Brodsley. “We kept to the client’s budget by being resourceful and by making wise choices such as going more low-tech on some of the interactive displays.”

Brodsley’s final bit of advice? Why it’s really just an extension of that legendary Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. In short, you have to have  “…the right partnerships with people who will help you figure out what you don’t know.”

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Author: Cyd Peroni

Cyd Peroni is a Phoenix, Ariz. writer and owner of Three Figs Villa, an online boutique that creates and sells fine art letterpress prints for writers and wordies.

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