We never truly seem to outgrow the awe of treehouses. There’s just something about the immersion in the woods, spectacular views, and an awareness of nature that captures our senses and allows our imaginations to run wild. These things also make treehouses the perfect places to learn about sustainability — and it’s from that exact idea that the Sustainability Treehouse in West Virginia was born.

In perfect conjunction with the initial reveal of a new merit badge aimed at sustainability, the Boys Scouts of America teamed up with Seattle-based Mithun Architects to create the 5,800-square-foot treehouse as both an example of eco-friendly design and an educational center.

The idea spawned from the history of the surrounding land, a 10,000 acre-plot in the forested slopes of the Summit Bechtel Reserve. Situated on a former coal strip-mining site, the area speaks volumes on the need for sustainability awareness, and the architecture is beginning to respond accordingly.

The five-story treehouse is vertically oriented to minimize its ground footprint and environmental disruption to the area. Spiraling 125 feet into the air, its steel frame provides views and interactive displays that teach people about sustainable living practices. Teaching by example, the treehouse is also a net-zero structure thanks to the use of strategically-placed solar panels and wind turbines. Plus, its incorporation of unfinished natural materials like Corten steel, reclaimed oak, and locally-sourced black locust in the siding and floors means a lot less upkeep is required. It’s also attained net-zero water consumption through the implementation of water collection and filtration systems. Campers rely on composting toilets to further conserve water and create a full-cycle system that’s completely free of waste.

The team from Volume Inc. was tasked with making the educational spaces as interesting as the surrounding activities at the adventure camp. To pique interest in youth while competing against ziplines and a skate park, they integrated information throughout the building in both in and outdoor exhibits meant to engage passersby. For example, a message draws the eyes up while climbing the stairs, revealing more words on the backdrop of each step that eventually reads, “Climbing stairs could generate enough energy to power a laptop, a phone, anything really, (Just climb).” Other words and phrases jump out from the corridor walls sending messages related to water consumption, electricity savings, and resource conservation.

Inspiring scouts towards environmental stewardship, the exhibits not only encourage awareness, but explain how systems work with art-like tactics. A camping cup rain chain exemplifies water collection, while a see-through glass display gives a visual representation of how power generation works.

The Sustainability Treehouse hosted the first Jamboree for the Boy Scouts of America in 2013, an event that takes place every four years and draws over 50,000 scouts from around the country. Since then, its design has caught the attention of several organizations and earned several awards, including:

AIA Northwest and Pacific Region Design Awards, Citation Award, 2015

Society for Experiential Design Exhibition Awards, Honor Award, 2014

CORE77 Design Awards, Professional Award, Interiors and Exhibitions, 2014

AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award, 2014

AIA Seattle Honor Awards, Award of Honor, 2013