Surrounded by the forests of the Delaware River Gap National Recreation Area, the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) is a unique public-private partnership — a non-profit that sits on federal parkland. PEEC has provided a departure point for visitors of all ages to interact with and learn about the natural world for over 40 years. When Bohlin Cywinski Jackson was engaged to design a new hub for visitor activities on the site, we were inspired by PEEC’s commitment to demonstrating our interdependent relationship with nature and its strong connection to the surrounding environment.
The 3,600 square-foot Visitor Activity Center has evolved to support many uses in its lifetime and continues to do so during a year of uncertainty and change. Its identity as a welcoming place to learn about environmental stewardship and holistic sustainable design remains more relevant than ever.
Of the Land
Through onsite exploration and conversations with PEEC staff, we grounded the project in a location that minimized sacrificing mature trees and provided an arrival experience that encouraged immersion within the site. Visitors approaching the Activity Center first encounter its dark, undulating north façade as they transition from native forest to a walkway over wetland. Drawing closer, the cut and layered tires comprising the exterior come into focus. These tires, many of which were reclaimed from the nearby river, were converted to shingles onsite, and provide powerful statements about reclamation as well as the building’s use as a home for environmental education and a teaching tool itself.
Like the creative solution to the building’s exterior, the Center’s principal materials were selected for their durability, life span, and low environmental impact. These include the exposed fly-ash concrete floor slab and frame, ground-face concrete masonry units, and wood structural system. The building’s orientation, with its long dimension running east-west, maximizes solar gain on south face while minimizing exposure to north winter winds. Manually operable windows were integrated to naturally ventilate the interior — allowing users to learn about the principles of natural ventilation while controlling the flow of air in the space.
Over time, the building has served a range of activities for youth and adults, in service of its mission to further environmental education, stewardship, and outreach to educational groups and youth from regional cities like New York and Philadelphia.
As PEEC’s main dining hall, the Center has long served as a place to gather and enjoy food prepared onsite. Its adaptability has become especially important in recent months, as PEEC has expanded its services, with the help of its accompanying commercial kitchen, to meet the needs of the community. Speaking with the Pike County Courier in June, Jeff Rosalsky, PEEC’s executive director, noted “here we sit with a gleaming empty kitchen, vans, and hot boxes, so how can we put it all together to help the community?” With a grant from the Greater Pike Community Foundation to purchase food supplies, PEEC did just that, producing hundreds of meals for those in need.
Recipient of an AIA Honor Award and AIA COTE Top Ten Award, the Visitor Activity Center has been widely recognized for its holistic approach to sustainable design. Decades on, the project continues to meet emerging challenges by serving as an anchor for its community.