Sustainability Treehouse exhibit program
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Case Study By
Volume Inc.
Duration
October 2011–July 2013
Client
Boy Scouts of America
Project Title
Sustainability Treehouse exhibit program
Team
  • Firm: Volume inc with Studio Terpeluk
  • Creative Director/Exhibit Design: Adam Brodsley
  • Creative Director/Exhibit Design: Eric Heiman
  • Exhibit Design: Brett Terpeluk/Studio Terpeluk
  • Designer: Bryan Bindloss
  • Designer: Brice McGowen
  • Designer: Daniel Surgeon
  • Production: Ragina Johnson
  • Copywriters: Brian McMullen, Michael Rigsby
  • Content Developer: Natasha Fraley
  • Project Management: Erin Kemp, Hanna Thomson
  • Exhibit Fabricator: Pacific Studios
  • Lead Architect: Mithun
  • Architect of Record/Executive Architect: BNIM

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.

The problem was to design an exhibition program that tells a sustainability story through the Sustainability Treehouse at The Summit, an adventure center for the millions of youth and adults involved in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). The Summit is sited on former strip mining land and will permanently host the BSA's Jamboree gatherings.

The design avoids outdated and formulaic exhibit solutions and, instead delivers information in surprising and unexpected ways, down to the humorous and irreverent tone of the exhibit text. Nature's processes inform the exhibit program which then translates these principles to everyday life.

Brief

The Boy Scouts, through their nature-based activities and larger mission, have always been agents of sustainability. This project was part of a larger initiative to amplify this facet of scouting to help the BSA remain relevant and affect change. The main goal of the Treehouse was to educate Scouts on principles of sustainability and provide them with tools to incorporate these principles into their everyday lives.

The Boy Scouts (ages 11-18) who visit the Summit area where the Treehouse is situated are the primary audience. Parents, locals and other visitors taking advantage of summer programs at the site are the secondary audience.

Environmental sustainability is one of the most pressing societal issues of late, and the planet’s future is somewhat dependent on educating and enlisting today’s youth to help make our world better for tomorrow.

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On the second floor, both the Spin-O-Pledge wheel and typographic mural give Scouts tips on how to be more sustainable in their everyday lives. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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A complete tree (with root ball, even!) that is suspended horizontally in the first floor space, which (through a variety of specimens, videos and other content) illustrates its own self-sufficiency in nature and also provides the model for how the building works. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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Treehouse theater area. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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Stairs between treehouse levels. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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The “Recyclotron.” (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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On the second floor is the “Recyclotron,” a Rube Goldberg-esque rolling ball machine encased in a wood slat ball machine encased in a wood slat “mini-house” structure. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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Visitors can power the machine, most memorably by pedaling a custom-designed tricycle that both lifts the balls to the top of the track and shows the effort needed to power an incandescent bulb versus a fluorescent one. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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A “Rain Chain,” made of stainless steel camping cups that transfer rainwater falling from the roof into a cistern below. The cistern then cleans and purifies the water for the drinking fountain adjacent to a LED message board that displays how much has been collected and consumed. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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A “Rain Chain,” made of stainless steel camping cups that transfer rainwater falling from the roof into a cistern below. The cistern then cleans and purifies the water for the drinking fountain adjacent to a LED message board that displays how much has been collected and consumed. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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A “Rain Chain,” made of stainless steel camping cups that transfer rainwater falling from the roof into a cistern below. The cistern then cleans and purifies the water for the drinking fountain adjacent to a LED message board that displays how much has been collected and consumed. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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On the second floor, both the Spin-O-Pledge wheel and typographic mural give Scouts tips on how to be more sustainable in their everyday lives. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

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Scouts can etch a personal sustainability commitment pledge onto a dog tag and attach it to the series of vertical wires installed on the roof. (Credit: Joe Fletcher)

Background

The Boy Scouts have existed for more than a century and helped foster leaders in all walks of life. However the organization is seeing declining membership numbers fall—down 6% as of 2014—based on the myriad of extracurricular activities available to today's youth. Bad press and some poor decisions haven't helped. (Though, ironically, some of their good decisions—such as accepting openly gay boys—have also been partially responsible for their membership decline.) Currently the Scouts consist of 2.5 million youths and 1 million adults across the United States. The opening of the 10,000 acre Summit site in 2013 was seen as the key success for the organization.

Budget

Development budget: More than $50,000
This project is: Either a retainer relationship nor an in-house on-going monitoring relationship
Production/execution budget: More than $100,000
Source of funding: Client

Strategy

For any exhibition project we take on, collaboration is key since so many kinds of expertise are necessary to complete it. Philosophically, we look less to exhibition design conventions and more towards what will actually engage people. The typical, overly didactic science museum approach would be especially inappropriate for a younger audience situated in a primarily outdoor environment of fun and exploration (as opposed to a more educational one such as a classroom or traditional museum).

Volume, Studio Terpeluk (our architecture consultant on the project) and exhibition content development experts worked collaboratively with the client to identify the main narrative and communication goals, through both traditional and ethnographic research. Based on the results, Volume, Studio Terpeluk and the content experts translated these concepts into concrete design, which leaned more towards the tactile and analog due to research results, the Treehouse’s remote location and the sustainability-oriented mission of the Boy Scouts.

Pacific Studios then helped us execute the exhibition program and writers (including a McSweeney’s editor) crafted prose that was more lively and engaging than the usual science exhibition fare. Lastly, we worked with RedGate Studios to create an original Moonrise Kingdom-meets- An Inconvenient Truth film to loop across three monitors in the Treehouse’s theater area.

The Summit was set to open in July 2013, and the Treehouse had to be completed by the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Research

At the start of the project we conducted a workshop with the client and the Treehouse architects to better understand the audience and then unearth the big idea(s) that would drive the exhibition program. We did a number of brainstorming exercises, including mapping content to the vertical-oriented footprint of the building and brainstorming potential design solutions that would best communicate sustainability principals. Informal research included speaking to as many children, ages 11-18 (some of whom were Scouts), as possible about our design ideas throughout the process.

Solution

Using design as a tool to spark interest in creating a more sustainable world is not easy, especially when it's competing with numerous other (and much more immediately engaging) distractions such as skate parks, rock climbing and river rafting. This exhibition program shows Scouts (and often their parents) how impactful sustainability can be, in a voice and manner with which they can connect.

The project is a significant departure for The Boy Scouts, who are normally more conservative around matters of design. The departure, though, was intentional on the client’s part, and, to their credit, they trusted our expertise and left the design and implementation to us. We did our due diligence (in regards to content and budget) to ensure the design would be engaging and appropriate. And we were pleasantly surprised and inspired by the client’s enthusiasm and support from start to finish: A rare partnership, indeed.

Challenges

The main challenge was to create an experience that would engage Boy Scouts eager to find the next adventure activity, leave them with new perspectives on sustainability, and give them tools to implement what they’ve learned into their everyday lives.

Another was to create an immersive experience in a building on a remote site, exposed to the elements and organized vertically as it climbed through the forest canopy. How could we pace the experience with a variety of interactions to keep visitors interested? How could we keep such a large and diverse team on track to create a cohesive, well-crafted result?

Effectiveness

The Sustainability Treehouse was deemed a “smashing hit” at the 10-day Jamboree gathering of Scouts. During that period, more than 23,000 visitors came through the space. After they visited, 2600 Scouts completed a digital survey, positioned at the to the Treehouse entry. On a 1 to 5 scale, the experience scored 4.55 on all fronts. Handwritten responses included: “Magical,” “Fantastic” and “Lots of fun.”

Tales of a Deep Green Scout from Volume Inc. on Vimeo.

Juror Comments

“I like how this solution holistically blended the teaching and stewardship aspects of the Boy Scouts with the larger thematic of sustainability. The exhibits and graphics are smart, environmentally pleasing and above all, highly immersive given the natural setting they occupy.” —Dana Arnett

“This is one of those rare projects where everything comes together perfectly. From the choice to build a treehouse to promote sustainability to the interactive displays and the modern extension of the Boy Scout brand, this project works on every level. It’s fun, interactive and educational. While we often think of Boy Scouts as an older brand, the design is 21st century in its use of materials and colors.” —Kate Aronowitz

“It’s not easy to take on a client with such a history. The exhibit embodies the positive messages of the Boy Scouts of America. The total sustainability experience–from the treehouse entrance to the spin-o-pledge—is appropriate and forward-thinking.” —Cameron Campbell

“We really loved each element used here. The signage, video, sound and interactivity nailed it.” —Joe Gebbia

“Learning about sustainability can be like taking your vitamins. The Sustainability Treehouse combines zip lines and climbing areas with information and inspiration to make a clear but fun statement on the participatory nature of sustainability. (And there's no "boys only" sign.)” —Jennifer Kinon

“Dynamic, appropriate and aspirational throughout, this project demonstrates all the criteria of the “Justified” competition: insightful engagement with a critical contemporary issue, design as an interactive human experience and the highest standards of refinement. The result is an end in itself rather than simply an accessory to something else.” —Jeremy Mende

“Superficially, the Boy Scouts Sustainability Treehouse looks like best-in-class exhibit design. It’s interactive and engaging, with solid typography and a playful sense of material and scale. For most design competitions that would be enough to recognize it with an award. ’Justified,’ however, digs deeper. And the deeper one digs with this project, the more satisfying the design solution becomes. Educational content is presented with relevance and humor. The purpose—inspiring youth to make sustainability a value—is both admirable and urgent. The materials and practices used to create the exhibit are themselves environmentally accountable. The craft at every level is masterful. And the Scouts love it. It’s hard to imagine a project that better exemplifies the power, utility and need for great design.” —Christopher Simmons

Tags sustainability Case study exhibition design Justified