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Bernheim Arboretum Building Mimics Tree (USA)

Credits: ©2009 Bernheim Arboretum

"The Bernheim Visitor Center represented a magical opportunity; a chance to design a building like a tree. Made up of biological and technical 'nutrients' the building exemplifies the Cradle to Cradle approach to design. Imagine a building like a tree; it makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, purifies water, builds soil, provides habitat for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates micro climates and changes colors with the seasons. The Bernheim Visitor Center in Kentucky can do all this and more. If a building could be alive it would be this building." William McDonough, author of Cradle To Cradle and architect of the green building project, said in a press release. The visitor center’s design roots the building firmly in its woodland context by blurring distinctions between in- and outdoors, and by placing the building’s lifecycle within that of the forest. Construction emphasized safe, closed material loops of biological nutrients, which break down and safely return to forest soil, and technical nutrients, which are remanufactured into new objects. Mechanical connections and reconfigurable modules allow for building alterations with safe material use.


Bernheim Arboretum Visitors Center

The visitor center at the Bernheim Arboretum in Clairmont, Kentucky, is a simple post-and-beam structure of reclaimed and sustainably harvested woods—including cypress planks salvaged from pickle barrels—echoes the rhythms of the trees and frames views of the surroundings. Like the forest of which it’s a part, the building captures light, water, and air to the benefit of the surrounding landscape. Much of the roof is vegetated, producing oxygen and absorbing rainwater. Photovoltaics produce energy on site. Ponds collect rainwater for reuse and provide visual, acoustic, and thermal comfort. Geothermal heating and cooling creates a quiet environment and connects the building to the earth. ©2009 William McDonough + Partners

discussion of design for adaptability and disassembly techniques incorporated:
The visitors’ center optimizes material use over the life of the building by integrating flexibility and disassembly into the design. Large interior spaces and free plan organization provide programmatic flexibility. The structural system’s bolted connections, reusable brackets and removable infill panels allow for reconfiguration or building additions in any direction. At the end of its useful life, most of the visitors’ center can be unbolted, loaded on a truck and delivered to another site for reassembly or repurposing with ease.

Wood was a natural choice for the structure and skin of the visitors’ center given its role as the gateway to an arboretum and research forest. The building’s structure is a simple 12-foot post-and-beam grid. The wood cladding highlights local tree species: Kentucky coffeetree, hickory, cherry, walnut, sassafras, hackberry and black locust. Much of the building’s wood was either reclaimed or harvested regionally, and only 8 trees greater than 4” in diameter were removed from the site during construction, and large existing trees were given wide berth. The building structure is old-growth cypress from decommissioned curing vats of an Ohio pickle factory. Wood for ceilings and walls was salvaged from a dismantled warehouse on an adjacent property. By using reclaimed sources, the design celebrates the important role of trees without logging. In addition, a cypress grove was planted on the grounds to replace the (reused) cypress beams of the primary structure.

Where reclaimed content was not available, materials with recycled content were specified. Fly ash replaced half the Portland cement in the concrete slab, and the aggregate was supplied from a local crushed concrete stockpile. Insulation came from recycled newspapers, and toilet partitions, bathroom tiles, and the protective TPO roof membrane all contain high recycled content. Additionally, all building materials were screened for their impact on humans and the environment.

Environmental Implications:
Integrated passive systems and smart HVAC make the building 51% more efficient than ASHRAE requires. Daylight in 90% of the interior and stack-driven natural ventilation at the tall pavilions reduce energy use and reinforce outdoor connection. The concrete floor stabilizes the interior temperature against daily extremes of heat and cold; deciduous trees and trellis vines provide summer shade but let winter sunlight warm the thermal mass. Preference is given to passive strategies, but supplementing these are a combination of a ground-coupled hydronic and fan-forced systems with energy recovery.

Site selection was driven by proximity to natural amenities, and site design by protection of them. Vegetated bioswales reduce runoff into downslope lakes while a planted rain garden creates habitat and allows infiltration. Reclaimed sources provide 60% of water used: the effluent of a peat moss blackwater treatment system is used for irrigation, and rainwater is used for flushing toilets.

Green job creation or other economic/policy implications:
This building’s institution has a history of providing state residents with practical information on horticulture and the natural sciences; it now provides a regional model of environmentally responsible building practices. Various governmental representatives have visited to learn lessons from the building, and the awareness raised within the regional construction industry helped inspire creation of the local USGBC Chapter.

How the entry advances lifecycle building education:
A sustainable design agenda for a forest preserve visitors’ center is a natural fit, but its primacy to the organization’s mission makes the Visitors’ Center unique. Having long served as a place of learning and instruction for gardeners, weekend botanists, and wildlife lovers, the client wanted its new building to function similarly and to operate as a hands-on, “minds-on” environmental role model for state residents.

A vehicle for educational outreach programs, the visitors’ center introduces new paradigms for the relationship between human activity and natural systems. The beauty of the structure’s exposed timber-framing reveals the aesthetic possibilities for reclaimed materials. Integrated signage, technology and brochures explain the history and future of building components and systems to people not directly participating in an educational program. Guides discuss embodied energy and water use, and the connection of building material production to water pollution.

Educational programs weave through the building and site telling a hands-on story about water cycles. To begin their tour, visitors can handle rich smelling micoremediation mulch inoculated with oyster mushrooms that digest hydrocarbons from parking lot runoff. At the building itself the green roof, peat-based on-site wastewater treatment system, and rooftop water collection demonstrate practical applications of existing technologies that visitors can put to use at home. The rain garden and constructed ponds allow exposure to native flora and fauna, and guide understanding of how their water needs intersect with those of people.

By engaging visitors at this personal level, the center also challenges them to think about their place in the larger environmental and social context and inspires them to take action and protect the natural world.

Estimated building square footage:

6,400 square feet

- Tons of concrete reduced/conserved: 178 tons Explanation: 50 percent of aggregate was from a local stockpile of recycled aggregate. 50 percent of cement was replaced with type F fly-ash from a local power plant.

- Tons of wood reduced/conserved: 40 Explanation: Structural timbers were made from vats recovered from a local pickle factory, originally made from trees grown on the project site. Wall and roof panels used salvaged wood from a local warehouse. Twelve more tons of wood waste were diverted by recycling.


Bernheim Arboretum (Kentucky, USA)

Bernheim Arboretum Building Article

William McDonough + Partners