Seminar in the Woods

In 1998, when the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, engaged Seattle-based Mahlum Architects to work on a new building for its heavily forested campus, it posed a set of daunting challenges. The school wanted its new 168,000-square-foot Seminar II classroom facility to match its mostly drab 1970s-era concrete structures. It also wanted the architects to make the project as “green” or “sustainable” as possible. In other words, it should look like the 1970s and behave like the twenty-first century.

The location was the last remaining parcel off of “Red Square,” the campus center, and the architects were to install the building without impacting the forest on the site. The more time the architects and green-building consultants Paladino & Company spent at Evergreen, the more eccentric the requests became. “We came to the first meeting with the campus committee,” recalls Tom Paladino, of Paladino & Company, “and they started laying out pretty difficult standards. They wanted a ‘classroom in the forest’ that consumed 20 percent less power than a typical energy-efficient building of its size. And they also said that they wanted the building to ‘celebrate rain.’” The last—a celebration of what is generally regarded as a curse in this part of the country—is practically tantamount to the Green River Valley celebrating the Green River serial killer.

Founded in 1971 as an experimental college—and long famed for an unconventional, highly democratic approach to both education and administration—Evergreen required the architects to submit to an uncommonly high level of supervision from a committee made up of administrators, staff, faculty, and students. “We expect a degree of involvement that’s unusual,” says Rob Knapp, a professor of physics and sustainable design who served on the college’s design committee. “The process,” adds a laughing Anne Schopf, the project’s principal for Mahlum, “was very…participatory.”

Mahlum’s mandate was not only to make the process participatory and the building sustainable; the results also had to be in harmony with Evergreen’s educational culture. “We have a kind of teaching here that keeps students and faculty together over a long, long period,” Knapp says. “In a week you’re spending fifteen, sixteen hours together, so we wanted a close linkage between the rooms for large, small, and tiny groups, as well as with the faculty and student advisors’ offices—a general-purpose academic space with a lot of different kinds of uses over the life of the building.”

Early on, the Mahlum team discovered that “classroom in the forest” meant in part that the students wanted to see the outdoors no matter where they were in the building. Schopf began to imagine ways of using Seminar II to connect the harsh concrete campus with its lush forest surroundings without compromising on environmental principles. “The buildings from the 1970s are really kind of tight, nasty buildings—some people won’t even go into the library because it makes them sick,” Schopf says. “Evergreen had an environmental health and safety person on staff who was very exacting about everything that went into the project and worked very hard to understand every single chemical being used.”

This combination of factors led Mahlum to break up the building into five separate structures clustered together and connected by outdoor covered walkways, allowing students to walk from room to room under the forest canopy. Clustering and an abundant use of glass allowed the architects to let daylight into all of the classrooms and faculty offices, and to arrange the offices, lecture halls, seminar rooms, and semiprivate meeting spaces together throughout the complex. The net result, from a lighting standpoint, is quietly spectacular. Sunlight is generally fleeting in the Pacific Northwest, but Seminar II is so well daylit that, according to Schopf, it could function fully without power.

The five-cluster arrangement also forced the architects to come up with innovative solutions to manage the building’s heat and ventilation. Small hot-water radiators with separate thermostats control the temperature and ventilation in rooms and spaces within each cluster, and windows can be opened for natural air and temperature regulation. The entire building has trickle vents under the windows to circulate fresh air, as well as vents over the doors to let warm air into the corridor and up to the top of the building, where adjustable vents release it to the outside. “This is very standard natural circulation stuff,” Knapp says. “Warm air floats up and draws other air behind it through the vents and up to the roof, which is basically a chimney—an outlet that just quietly and gently pulls air out of the building. There’s a fan to assist circulation at the top, but it’s basically natural.”

Seminar II is the first LEED Gold university building in the state of Washington, and both Knapp and Schopf take great pride in their collaborative efforts in pursuit of a green agenda. “There’s always an issue with sustainable stuff,” Knapp says. “Does it cost more? And the answer is, Yeah—if you don’t design! If you take a normal building and slap stuff on the outside, it costs more, but if you integrate sustainability into the design from the beginning, you can balance things out.” He remembers with a laugh a speech by then governor Gary Locke at the project’s dedication. “He congratulated us on using the ‘latest technologies’—such as windows that open and radiators you can control.”

With its energy efficiency, its conservative footprint preserving much of the forest on the site, and its unassuming exterior, the building is an ideal expression of Evergreen’s values. But while the architects’ careful attention to the community accounts to a great extent for its political and environmental success, that doesn’t necessarily explain its aesthetic impact: the way the natural light plays off the unfinished concrete surfaces so that on rainy days the complex all but melts into its surroundings. “If you ask me,” Knapp says, “part of the story is that they made it beautiful.” Schopf demurs. “Everybody was so bought into this project,” she says. “In the end it was a very productive process, and the building is much better for it. It feels like them. It feels like it’s a part of their culture.”

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