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IslandWood - Buildings That Teach

IslandWood (formerly the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center) is an educational campus that provides young people with a deeper understanding of the natural environment through hands-on project and outdoor field experience.

The 70,000 sf facility is located on 255 acres on the south end of Bainbridge Island, Washington. The site offers a great variety of eco-systems for educational opportunities including a pond, a stream and wetlands. The educational core of the center includes the main center (interpretive center, great hall, administration), learning studios, dining hall, art studio and maintenance building. Visitor accommodations include three lodges and a guesthouse. North of the educational core is a staff housing area. Shelters, bird blinds, walkways and lookouts are featured throughout the site. The shelters and walkways are connected by a system of primary and secondary trails.

The main center, dining hall, and learning studios received a LEED® Gold certification in 2002 – one of five in the country at the time, and the first one in Washington State.

Project Highlights


  • Detailed site and resource analysis mapping exercises were used to locate campus buildings for minimal impact on sensitive areas on the site.
  • Southern building orientations maximize solar gain. Window sizes and locations are optimized for solar heat gain and high-energy performance. Retractable canopies lower summer heating load.


  • All wastewater is treated on site to tertiary levels using either the Living Machine® or constructed wetlands. Water from the Living Machine® is re-used for toilets.
  • Roof rainwater is collected for irrigation and for future use in toilets at visitor lodging.
  • Composting toilets and waterless urinals reduce water demand.


  • Photovoltaic installation provides over 50% of power for the learning studio building.
  • Rooftop solar hot water panels reduce hot water demand at lodges and dining hall by 50%.
  • Natural ventilation replaces air conditioning by using T.A.S. (Thermal Analysis System) computer modeling to locate window openings and operable skylights for maximum through-ventilation.
  • High efficiency fluorescent lighting with photocells is used for energy use reduction.
  • Computer monitoring of water and energy use throughout campus is used as an educational tool.


  • All concrete has 50% flyash substitution for cement.
  • Most building materials are left untreated to reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or any off-gassing that might occur due to toxicity of finishes. Durable, low VOC finishes are used throughout the Center.
  • Walls are insulated with 100% recycled content cellulose.
  • Over 57% of the wood products including all framing, trusses, and glu-lams are FSC Certified.
  • All interior trim and 50% of siding are salvaged from site-harvested cedar, fir, alder, maple, and hemlock.


The architectural and consultant team included ten LEED accredited designers and various environmental engineering experts. The project began with a green visioning charrette, including a number of nationally recognized experts in the field who tracked and critiqued the design at multiple intervals throughout its development.

A detailed site and resource analysis mapping exercise was performed with landscape architects and planners to locate campus buildings with minimal impact within sensitive areas including mature forests and wetlands.

Buildings were modeled using T.A.S. (Thermal Analysis System) software to optimize natural ventilation. This integrated process between the architects and mechanical engineers was essential for developing the building form and fenestration so that thermal comfort could be achieved without air conditioning and to minimize heating. Iterative 3D models and revisions to the architectural design continued throughout schematic design.

The general contractor was added to the team during design development to research and develop methods for obtaining key environmental building components and to strategize methods for minimizing site impact during construction. Key issues included: sourcing FSC certified lumber, construction waste recycling and alternative framing techniques.

Site and Ecosystems

IslandWood site encompasses nearly a complete watershed including numerous wetlands, a pond, a stream, and different examples of native northwest landscapes. The site was logged extensively for the past 130 years, and an overlay mapping exercise was used to locate the least fragile building sites within the 255 acres.

An extensive survey catalogued every tree over 8” in diameter over a 16 acre forested area. This allowed the design team to locate individual structures around significant groupings and mature individual specimens. Trees removed for building sites and solar access meadows were either mulched and used on site, or milled and used for wood siding and trim. All interior trim and over 50% of siding are from site-harvested lumber.

Stormwater patterns for the site remain unchanged from pre-development conditions. Building roof water is collected for irrigation and overflow is recharged into the site’s natural watershed systems.

All new landscape is comprised of native northwest species requiring no irrigation beyond initial planting and establishment. Native grasses are used in meadows to encourage wildlife habitat and provide an irrigation-free education/exploration area for students.

Community and Connection

Formerly slated for an extensive “suburban-style” housing development, the IslandWood Master Plan took a different approach to the site. All buildings are set back from property lines to eliminate any visual neighborhood impact. Only 6 acres out of 255 are used for individual building sites.

Community members, artists, teachers, and local school children were involved at early stages of the design process through a series of workshops and charrettes. Work “parties” involving these community members continued the effort by removing invasive species from the site. Numerous local craftspeople and artists were commissioned to produce environmentally sensitive furniture and artwork for the project.
Most visitors to the site arrive by bus and/or ferry. Drivers are encouraged to carpool to the site and make use of the prioritized carpool parking. Alternative fueling is provided for propane vehicles, and bike storage and shower facilities encourage alternative means of getting to work.

The city agreed to a reduced number of parking spaces contingent on IslandWood allocating land where additional spaces could be added in the future if required. Many of these spaces are crushed rock with heavy vegetation around the perimeter. If left unused, these “grow-away” spaces will slowly disappear over time.

Long Life, Loose Fit

All IslandWood buildings are designed for long life and low maintenance to work with the center’s limited non-profit operating budget. Wood structures are set off the ground with high fly-ash content stem walls and large overhangs to protect siding from potential water damage. High quality metal roofs and metal clad windows will provide long life in the heavily wooded Northwest environment.

Primary structural systems comprised of FSC certified lumber and glu-lam trusses are bolted together with steel connections allowing members to be easily recycled and/or reused at a future date. Spaces such as the dining hall, meeting hall, learning studios, and open offices are designed to accommodate multiple uses, allowing for maximum program flexibility over time. Lodge bedrooms are equipped with bunk beds for children’s programs during the week and queen-sized Murphy beds, which can be folded down for adult or family weekend program use.

Most interior materials are left unfinished and in their “natural” state. This eliminates the need for many typical maintenance routines such as painting, replacing carpeting, and repairing more fragile surfaces such as drywall. In-floor radiant heating systems combined with natural ventilation, eliminate the need for ductwork, reducing maintenance and improving air quality issues.

Low Energy and High Performance

The initial energy goal for the project was to meet the LEED 1.0 energy credit requiring no active heating or cooling for 8 months of the year. This goal was pursued by utilizing the T.A.S. modeling discussed in the “process” section. As a result of this iterative process, a “butterfly” roof form was developed for a number of the buildings to optimize passive solar gain to the south, and still provide a large south-facing roof for solar hot water or P.V. panel installation. This section also enhances natural ventilation.

Solar meadows were created within the dense forest to allow direct sunlight into the buildings.
These meadows provide a program-required play area for children, while the felled trees were milled for siding and trim. Buildings are heated with high efficiency in-slab radiant heating systems and are cooled with operable windows, P.V. and electric powered ceiling fans.

Rooftop solar hot water systems provide 50% of annual demand at the visitor lodges and dining hall. A 23KW photovoltaic installation provides 50% of electrical loads at the learning studios. R-40 roofs and R-19 cellulose insulation walls combine with high efficiency windows to provide an efficient building envelope. All occupied rooms have daylight access and T-5 lighting with photoelectric controls.

Water Conservation

All building wastewater is treated on-site to tertiary standards using a Living Machine® and Subsurface Flow Constructed Wetlands. Water from the Living Machine® is re-used for toilet flushing at the dining hall and main center bathrooms. Additionally, composting toilets and waterless urinals help reduce potable water usage at the main center, dining, and learning studios by 36% annually.

Rainwater is collected from building roofs into concrete cisterns for irrigation and boot washing. The visitor lodges will be plumbed for grey water re-use when funding becomes available.

All new landscape is comprised of native Northwest species requiring no irrigation after plant establishment. A greenhouse and exterior garden allow for the growth of native plantings for replacement of invasive species.

Students are able to monitor their water and energy usage in various buildings through an integrated computer data network. Over the course of their 4 day stay at IslandWood, they quantify and track their improvement and learn conservation strategies.


The ultimate “sustainable” material is “no material at all.” Working toward this goal: steel and wood roof structures are left exposed and unfinished; structural slabs-on-grade are left exposed in most areas; interior OSB shear walls serve as final wall surfaces; and drywall and paint are eliminated from all areas except bathrooms and where required by code.

Where paints, coatings, adhesives, or sealants were required, only low VOC, LEED compliant products were used. Over 57% of wood in the project is FSC certified. Other sustainable materials include: 50% flyash (cement replacement) concrete, 100% recycled cellulose insulation, 95% recycled content carpeting, recycled glass tiles, recycled rubber flooring, strawboard, formaldehyde-free MDF, cork, bamboo, salvaged fir flooring, recycled plastic toilet partitions, and site-salvaged wood used for trim, siding, and custom furniture.

Over 95% of construction waste (by weight) was recycled and recycling stations will be provided at each building. Food waste from the dining hall is composted and used for organic gardening. Sustainable materials are highlighted throughout project and used as part of the center’s educational curriculum.

Health and Happiness

All occupied spaces have direct connection to the outdoors with operable windows, operable skylights, and natural ventilation. Buildings are sited on the north side of solar meadows set against the tall trees and dense vegetation with direct views into the forest. Each child staying at IslandWood will have their own small window by their bunk bed with a view into the trees.

Indoor air quality is maintained by eliminating toxic finishes, carpeting (in most areas), and mechanical ductwork. Additionally, two week building “flushouts” were performed prior to owner occupancy.

In the administration area, open offices allow for flexibility and strong team collaboration. Daylighting is controlled with natural wood blinds, retractable canopies and mechanized skylight blinds in many areas.

The mix of campus buildings is sited to create a “deep in the woods” outdoor experience, and are connected with a network of primary and secondary trails across the 255 acre site. All cars are left at the perimeter of the site, and each visitor must travel through the woods before reaching any structures.

Lessons Learned

Finding creative, committed, and collaborative contractors, subcontractors, and consulting engineers are critical to achieving the highest sustainable design goals. Materials sourcing, permitting strategies and construction techniques for alternative systems must be coordinated early on in the process or critical items stand the chance to be eliminated due to time and budgetary constraints.

During construction administration, it is imperative to be quick, thorough and nimble in the review of material submittals and substitution requests.

Permitting alternative wastewater systems is a slow, difficult and expensive process in the State of Washington, but will hopefully get easier as more projects are put through the process.

The team shared the LEED tracking and documentation process among many team members. In hindsight, it would have been more effective to have a single person dedicated to this task.

Project Economics

IslandWood is a privately funded, not-for-profit organization that relies on private donations for development and operating costs. Many of the sustainable design features of the project became important fundraising and public relations tools during the course of the capital campaign. In fact, one of the learning studios was dedicated to the study of energy and sustainable design issues using the campus as an educational tool. The design team attended many fundraising events and gave numerous tours of IslandWood in order to promote the educational opportunities presented by the sustainable design features of the project.

Difficult economic choices had to be made during the entire design process to balance issues of sustainability with program and aesthetics. Exposed concrete slabs replaced wood floors, tiles were removed from many bathrooms, FSC certified wood siding was cost prohibitive, and more sophisticated rainwater harvesting systems were put on hold for future installation. In all, most sustainable goals were achieved, which will give IslandWood a highly efficient and healthy long-term home.

Rating System Results

The main center, dining hall, and learning studios received a LEED Gold rating in 2002. The residential buildings (which don’t fall within the LEED program) are constructed in accordance with the “Build a Better Kitsap” environmental construction program.

TEAM Architecture and Interior Design: Mithun

Landscape and Planning: The Berger Partnership

Master Planning Team: William Isley

Structural: Magnuson Klemencic

Mechanical: Keen Engineers (now Stantec)

Electrical: Cross Engineers (now Hultz/Bhu/Cross)

Civil: Browne Engineering

Alternative Water Systems: 2020 Engineers

Photovoltaics: Mike Nelson, Washington St., Schott Applied Power

Solar Hot Water: Heliodyne

Environmental Consulting: David Rousseau, Archemy Consulting

Suspension Bridge Design: Sahale

General Contractors:

Educational Core: Rafn Company

Art Studio & Site Structures: Drury Construction

Staff Housing: Woodside Construction