Like a Tree at Bernheim Arboretum

Bernheim ext 3 © William McDonough Partners-1

The visitor center at the Bernheim Arboretum in Clairmont, Kentucky, which was completed in 2005, continues to garner attention.  In 2007, it was awarded LEED Platinum certification.  Most recently, the visitor center has received the EPA's prestigious Lifecycle Building Challenge Award.  This is the third year that the EPA has held the challenge where entrants are judged on their building's ability to minimize waste, reduce energy consumption, and be disassembled for material reuse.  The visitor center took an award in the Building–Professional Built category and an Outstanding Achievement Award for Best Greenhouse Gas Reduction. 

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While the LEED Platinum visitor center is primarily constructed of wood, very few trees were cut down for building materials or site clearing.  Only eight trees greater than four inches in diameter were removed for site construction.  To offset them, 256 cypress trees were planted to make a new cypress-tupelo swamp along a lake. 

Speaking of trees, deciduous trees on the south-facing side provide shade in the summer to lower cooling costs and allow for passive solar heating in the winter when the leaves have fallen.  In addition, the building's columns and beams were created with cypress wood sourced from old pickle vats and bourbon rack house lumber.  Some other environmental aspects of the project include:

  • A green roof that reduces runoff, provides additional insulation;
  • An 8,000 gallon underwater cistern that provides water for flush toilets;
  • A rain garden with plants and trees that hold and purify water;
  • A sloped parking lot that carries polluted runoff water to oyster mushroom beds, which transform the pollutants into compounds that don't harm the environment;
  • Bathroom partitions made from high recycled content high density polyethylene (HDPE);
  • Concrete with a mixture of 50% fly ash and 50% sourced from a local stockpile of recycled aggregate; and
  • Polished concrete floor that eliminates the need for carpet.

In a press release, William McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle, said, "The Bernheim Visitor Center represented a magical opportunity; a chance to design a building like a tree. Made up of biological and technical 'nutrients' the building exemplifies the Cradle to Cradle approach to design. Imagine a building like a tree; it makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, purifies water, builds soil, provides habitat for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates micro climates and changes colors with the seasons. The Bernheim Visitor Center can do all this and more. If a building could be alive it would be this building."

Bernheim Arboretum Visitor Center © John Nation, courtesy William McDonough Partners

Bernheim Arboretum Visitor Center Detail © William McDonough Partners

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Photo credits:  William McDonough + Partners and Bernheim.


  • http://www.empire-solar.com/ Richard

    I think that it’s great to give credit to those who want to help preserve the cause of environmentalism. The building’s interior is just gorgeous. I think more and more homes should be built this way.

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