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Bernheim Forest Visitor Center Featured in ED+C

Bernheim Forest Visitor Center

Bernheim Forest Visitor Center, a Gray customer, was featured in a web exclusive editorial of Environmental Design + Construction (ED+C), the premier source for integrated high-performance building, is dedicated to efficient and sustainable design and construction. Since 1997, ED+C has supported the progressive architect, designer, specifying engineer and building developer to enhance the sustainability of new and existing buildings.

Gray Construction provided LEED construction services for the Visitor Center which achieved the status of the first LEED Platinum rating awarded in Kentucky and the surrounding region. If you have LEED construction needs, please contact Bob Lowry, Senior Vice President, Architecture & Engineering at

Please read the ED+C article below or visit

Building Like a Tree

by Michelle Amt AIA, LEED AP

July 1, 2010

While all of our projects are collaborations with clients, collaborations with kindred spirits create truly unique places that embody an organization’s mission and serve its passion every day. At Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Ky., we were given a special chance to create a new visitor center that embodies the idea of a “building like a tree”: It creates oxygen, sequesters carbon, filters water, and changes with the seasons. It is also a dynamic teaching tool – it’s truly alive, evolving over time to do things ever more effectively. It, like the trees and forest in which it stands, is a vivid example of what a building conceived as an organism might be.

We continue to be inspired by the way the Bernheim Arboretum leaders cultivate their visitor center and its role in their education mission. Here we ask Mark Wourms, executive director, and Claude Stephens, director of education, some questions about their thinking and their building.

Michelle Amt: Why build a building? Your mission up until this project had been about the natural environment. Why, as “tree people,” did you decide to extend your efforts to the built environment?

Claude Stephens: Our mission is to “Connect People with Nature.” As humans, we spend far too much time indoors – thus a building like this bridges the divide between the built and natural environment. We had ideas about ecology, but we didn’t understand how to build with innovation. So we developed the building program requirements, which ended up looking more like a job description. Thinking of a “building like a tree” changes the visitor’s perspective. It opens their eyes to alternatives, to sustainability concepts. This building grows ideas in those who visit. For example, one of the things that we do now is to talk about economy and ecology as expressions of the same thing.

Amt: One of the primary objectives of the building was to create a teaching tool. Is it working? How does the building help Bernheim connect with both visitors to Bernheim and the larger public?

Mark Wourms: The first responsibility in the Visitor Center’s job description is to invite people into Bernheim and provide some orientation for their day. This building is a starting point and focal point for many of our visitors from around the world. Its ambiance is warm and welcoming in all four seasons. Indoors and outdoors meld, providing a sense that all places are connected, parts of bigger systems. You have a sense that you are immersed in the forest while still enjoying creature comforts and reviewing possible uses of your time with miles of trails, diverse gardens, fun classes, environmental art and more.

This building is also responsible for storytelling. Live and graphic interpretation compare and contrast ecological cycles with the way the built environment handles water, energy, light and air. Since this building was designed to be “like a tree,” telling the story of how rain is collected to flush toilets and then naturally filtered and returned to our landscapes as irrigation is immediately appreciated. From a very practical starting point, we are then able to talk about any ecological concept.

Another item in the Visitor Center job description is to promote nature and responsible environmental choices. As a LEED Certified Platinum building, the Visitor Center places Bernheim in a leadership role in ecological stewardship. There is a synergy between the Visitor Center and our ecological programs, including scientific research, horticultural investigations into appropriate plants (particularly native plants) for living roofs in the central United States, and stream-restoration techniques.

Like a tree, this building also propagates itself. We have provided hundreds of tours of the Visitor Center to architects, designers and city planners from all over the world. This building has positively contributed to the sustainable design movement locally, nationally and internationally.

Amt: It sounds like you really do see the building as alive – something you are cultivating over time. That’s different than how the AEC industry typically regards buildings.

Stephens: In so many ways, the building has continued to grow, continued to improve. The interior is flexible, so we regularly try new layouts and interpretives.  This allows fine-tuning of messaging and experience while providing a dynamic energy that matches the surrounding flow of nature. Unlike most building projects, in this construction process, this site actually increased in biodiversity. Nature and our horticulture crew continue to add to the biological diversity.

Amt: What about cost? Bernheim had a tight budget for this project. How did you manage a tight budget and ambitious goals?

Wourms: The Bernheim board of trustees and staff had the insight to understand that reaching for the highest ecological and energy standards was the right thing to do. They understood the intangible benefits of leadership, potential energy savings and practicing what you preach would eventually prove to be tangible. We held back a few master plan concepts at the time in order to complete this “building like a tree.” Quality and outcome were never sacrificed, and today we reap the benefits of those decisions.

From an owner’s perspective, can you describe why a LEED rating was important for the project? How do you see that rating in the context of your broader aspirations for the building now and in the future?

Stephens: We hope that in five more years, LEED Platinum is “standard” practice, even though it was innovative in its time. Every building should be this green. In fact, now Bernheim is pushing into regenerative design concepts – where nature is the teacher and our inspiration. On our land and in our projects, trees are always a focus for Bernheim. An example of this connection is the planting of our cypress-tupelo swamp to replace the reused Cypress wood from pickle vats, which now graces the walls of the Visitor Center.


Client/Owner: Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

Design Architect: William McDonough + Partners

Architect of Record: Barnette Bagley Architects

Landscape Architect: McIlwain + Associates

Contractor: Gray Construction

Mechanical Engineer: Prajna Design & Construction Inc., Shrout Tate Wilson

Structural Engineer: Buell, Fryer, McReynolds

LEED Consultant: Topia Design

Exhibit Design: ESI Design 

    July 02, 2010

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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