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IslandWood Teaches Nature in Pacific Northwest

Credits: ©2010 IslandWood

Inspiration for IslandWood came from the land itself, and the knowledge that half of Seattle School District children did not receive overnight outdoor education programs. Paul and Debbi Brainerd learned in 1997 that over a thousand acres of land were being sold on the south end of Bainbridge Island. Debbi proposed the idea of a children's outdoor education center to teach children about the natural and cultural history of the Puget Sound region. The idea became one of the most sustainable projects in the Pacific Northwest, featuring passive solar design, photovoltaics, rainwater collection, a Living Machine, natural ventilation, reuse of site-cleared trees and many others - along with fulfilling a mission that provides exceptional learning experiences to inspire lifelong environmental and community stewardship on a unique 255-acre outdoor learning center.


Islandwood Courtyard

At Islandwood, solar meadows and building orientations maximize passive solar gain. High performance windows optimize solar heat gain and reduce energy consumption. Natural ventilation replaces air conditioning and computer modeling was utilized to locate window openings and operable skylights for maximum air circulation. ©2009 Robin Rogers

Debbi conducted a six-month feasibility study with Puget Sound teachers and Washington State educational administrators that confirmed the need for such a facility. It was learned that Washington State declared environmental education mandatory in 1990 -- yet no funding for teacher training, student programs, or facilities was ever allocated. Moreover, the feasibility study showed that roughly half of the children from economically challenged communities in Seattle had never participated in a residential outdoor education program -- or spent time outside the city.

In 1998, an educational study called Closing the Achievement Gap was released that became the basis for IslandWood's educational vision and philosophy. This study funded by the Pew Charitable Trust examined models of learning in children and showed that by taking children outside the classroom, by focusing on actively doing rather than reading or being lectured to, children's academic performance goes up in every discipline. In math and science scores went up by over 90%, and discipline problems decreased while attendance increased. This research inspired our desire for IslandWood to become a model for how all learning should happen.

Learning from Others
At the end of 1998, 255 acres of land were purchased by the Brainerds from Port Blakely Tree Farms and donated to the new nonprofit now known as IslandWood. The planning then began in earnest as to the best way to create an educational center that could be a "magical place for kids."

Scientists and other educators were then brought to the property to discern what educational "stories" could be taught from the land. Biologists were thrilled by the property's rich variety of ecosystems: 62 acres of wetlands, a bog, second growth forest, a stream, and access to a marine estuary in Blakely Harbor adjacent to the property. Cultural historians were excited by the stories of the largest mill in the world that once operated in Blakely Harbor, as well as the history of the Suquamish tribe who had used this land for many years before the arrival of the white settlers.

The Vision Becomes Reality
Islandwood is an outdoor education center to teach children about the natural and cultural history of the Puget Sound region in the Pacific Northwest. Its 255-acre campus provides visitors with discovery-based learning and outdoor field experiences. Fifteen buildings are models of energy conservation and community living, with preserved ponds, wetlands, marshes, bogs, and forests encourage learning adventures for 4,000 schoolchildren each year. The buildings are naturally ventilated and oriented for solar gain, with additional heat from a high-efficiency in-floor hydronic heating system. Photovoltaics provide half of the classroom energy. Operable awnings shade dining and office spaces while T-5 fluorescent lamps light offices and classrooms. These strategies work in tandem with the buildings' optimal orientation for daylighting and lighting controls that prioritize natural over electrical light. Water conservation is featured, too, employing low-flow fixtures, rainwater collection, and onsite wastewater treatment with both a Living Machine and constructed wetlands. The campus is almost exclusively vehicle free using natural-gas-powered vehicles where necessary.

Mithun architects and The Berger Partnership designed the educational structures, trail systems and outdoor field structures with the help of kids. University of Washington landscape architecture students worked with over 250 children in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades in design charrettes, to learn what their ideals would be for learning in the natural world. The children's ideas focused on adventure-based learning, with their design ideas generating specifics like a floating classroom, suspension bridge, forest canopy structure and several tree houses.

Fund raising began in 1999. The total project cost was $52 million: $5 million to acquire the land, $32 million for construction and site infrastructure, $10 million for an operations endowment, and $5 million to establish a scholarship endowment for children from underserved communities. The Brainerds provided half of the campaign goal, and the additional $26 million was raised from the community. The campaign was successfully completed in 2005.

The official groundbreaking for the center was held in the summer of 2000. With construction nearly completed in spring 2002, pilot programs were conducted to test the four-day program for 4th and 5th graders.

Today IslandWood targets approximately two-thirds of its students from schools on free and reduced lunch programs for its School Overnight Program. Proceeds from other IslandWood programs and special events help support these efforts by providing scholarships for those who need financial assistance. It is our goal to allow all children to be able to have an IslandWood experience.

General Overview of Sustainable Features of Islandwood

• Solar meadows and building orientations maximize passive solar gain. High performance windows optimize solar heat gain and reduce energy consumption.

• All concrete contains 50% flyash, a recycled utility waste product of coal.

• Natural ventilation replaces air conditioning. Buildings designed using computer modeling to locate window openings and operable skylights for maximum air circulation.

• Walk-off mats at entry doors are made from recycled tires.

• Many building materials are left untreated to reduce off-gassing of volatile organic compounds.

• Roof rainwater collected at several buildings used for landscape irrigation.

• Wood harvested from solar meadows used for exterior siding and interior trim throughout project.

• More than 50% of wood products are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.

Main Center – includes Welcome Center, Great Hall, and Administration

• The small sections of carpet located in the Administration Office are made from 95%-recycled carpet.

• A 92-foot, 120-year-old salvaged wood beam serves as a major design element in the primary roof truss.

• Flooring is assembled from salvaged wood.

• Skylight and mechanically operated louvers provide solar heating and natural ventilation.

Dining Hall • Solar-heated water for kitchen, restrooms, and laundry operation.

• Photovoltaic-powered fans for room ventilation.

• Bathrooms feature recycled glass tiles in floor and wainscoting.

Educational Studios • Photovoltaic roof panels provide 50% of lighting and electrical needs.

• Composting toilets eliminate water use.

• An interpretive interface in the Sustainability Classroom allows students to electronically monitor their energy and water consumption.

• Each classroom features a different sustainable flooring: cork, bamboo, recycled rubber, and concrete.

• Bathroom stall partitions are made from recycled plastic.

• Each classroom countertop features a different sustainable surface: recycled-content concrete, recycled yogurt container composite, or soybean/sunflower seed bio-composite.

Creative Arts Studio • Walls are constructed from straw bales.

• High-efficiency wood stove provides alternative heat source.

• Skylights and bay windows provide natural day lighting.

Sleeping Lodges • Solar-heated water from roofs preheats water for showers and sinks.

• Upstairs areas feature cork flooring, a renewable resource and sound absorber.

• Throw rugs in bunkrooms are woven from upholstery remnants and discarded clothing.

• Flooring in Great Room and Loft made from recycled wood.

Living Machine • An on-site treatment system provides tertiary treatment of wastewater. The reclaimed water is used for low-flush toilets and potential landscape irrigation.

Landscape • A detailed site and resource analysis was used to locate campus buildings in areas that would cause the least impact to the most sensitive areas— including mature forests and wetlands.

• Initial "bio-mass re-use” of all organic debris on site during the clearing and construction.

• Children and visitors help restore the site with native plants from an on-site nursery.

• Extensive native plantings throughout, and long-term planning for invasive species eradication.

• Vermiculture and "Earth Tub" composting systems for food and plant waste.

• All wastewater is treated on site using either the Living Machine or constructed wetlands. Both systems utilize a natural biodegradation process in which aquatic plants, microorganisms, and snails consume the organic matter and produce a highly treated effluent that can be re-used or applied safely to the surrounding soil.

Wood Use • Sustainably harvested wood was purchased and used in 75% of the entire project"s construction.

• Site-harvested trees, cleared for siting the buildings on campus, were dried and milled, and used in exterior and interior trim.

• Untreated plywood and oriented strand board (OSB), made from smaller trees and chips, cover interior surfaces.

• Engineered lumber and trusses were utilized for roof and floor framing, reducing the need for large and older growth timber. Engineered lumber is more resource efficient than standard lumber–sawdust, fibers, chips, and small pieces of lumber are used in their assembly. Engineered lumber performs better with less material than conventional lumber. Trusses and glu lams are also made from sustainably harvested woods

• There are several types of engineered lumber materials:

1. Glue lam beams, which are manufactured by end joining individual pieces of dimension lumber together with adhesives to create long length laminations. The laminations are face bonded together to create large size beams with small dimensional lumber.

2. Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) is engineered lumber manufactured by using built-up veneer sheets and bonding them together with adhesives to create a stronger beam than an equivalent size dimensional lumber.

3. Parallams (PSL) is engineered lumber manufactured by using horizontal wood fibers bonded together with adhesives to create a stronger beam than an equivalent size dimensional lumber.

Technology • Low energy computers and monitors for instructional and administrative uses consume one third of the energy of most common desktop computers.

• Integrated phone, data, and video network with a fiber optic backbone between buildings save six miles of copper wire over traditional wiring techniques.

• Affordable electricity production from readily available renewable resources is featured throughout the site, including: wind-power at the Learning Studios, a micro-hydro component at Mac's Pond, and the photovoltaic on the classroom roofs.


  Islandwood Article 2008 Metropolis magazine (293 kb)

  Islandwood Book by Mithun Architects (1,453 kb)

  Islandwood Sustainable Map (322 kb)


Islandwood Slideshow on Flickr

IslandWood Case Study