Smithsonian-Mason Conservation Studies Program Housing
The Smithsonian-Mason Conservation Studies Program Housing project immerses students in an active research community, where they live among and work side-by-side with scientists and scholars from both the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and George Mason University (GMU) in a LEED Silver-certified facility. The SBCI was established by GMU and the Smithsonian Institution to serve as an umbrella for the latter’s global effort to conserve species and train future generations of conservationists. That initiative created the need for improvements on land owned by the Smithsonian, which is nestled within the bucolic landscape of northern Virginia.
The project includes two new buildings – a student dormitory and a dining hall – along with renovations of an existing research lab and instructional spaces into an academic building with classrooms and labs. Following careful study of the site conditions, these thoughtful interventions afforded the team the opportunity to go beyond the project’s original scope and create an identifiable heart of the campus that previously existed as a loosely organized compound of buildings. The dining hall and its patio both offer stunning views of a national park. The L-shape of the dormitory, with 60 double-occupancy rooms as well as separate areas for exercise and study, effectively frames outdoor space with the dining hall completing the partial enclosure of a new quadrangle that opens northward to the pre-existing campus.
To create a wholly new campus fabric, the design team arranged the two new buildings to complement an existing farmhouse structure and capture interstitial outdoor space. The designers also organized the open-air grounds with a blend of the traditional collegiate quadrangle and a more naturalistic response to the site’s rolling topography. Also, a new, winding roadway for service and emergency vehicles delineates the campus zone and emphasizes the older farmhouse building now adapted for offices and meetings.
The design team considered the project’s landscape component as carefully as its buildings. The landscape design gives two-dimension support to the three-dimensional outdoor space captured in between the buildings, with its flowing lines effectively reinforcing the spatial transition from the relatively ordered to the relatively naturalistic. In a three-dimensional sense, the landscape design supports a stormwater retention trough that runs through a series of weirs and planted drainage absorption fields. The designers also integrated areas within the grounds for outdoor dining, group meetings, and individual rest and study.
The buildings also demonstrate environmental sensitivity, which in turn reinforces the client’s guiding principles by providing a real-world example of sustainable living. Among the eco-friendly features are geothermal energy, planted roofs, a rain garden, wildlife-friendly landscaping that requires no irrigation, and low-flow plumbing fixtures. In addition, automobiles are confined to perimeter areas at the outer edges of the newly inaugurated “walking campus.” The entire campus has achieved LEED Gold certification.
Prior to the design phase, the project team analyzed the existing building stock, hand-annotating the historical images with notes regarding the forms, fenestration, architectural details, materials, and use of color. That formed the basis for proposing a design vocabulary for the two new facilities. The designers also studied the history of the site to gain an appreciation for its unusual and significant background, originally used as a U.S. Army “remount depot” that supplied horses and mules for military operations just prior to World War I and later as a prisoner of war encampment housing 600 captured German and Italian soldiers.
The project was delivered as part of a design-build partnership with the W.M. Jordan Company in a fast-track schedule which allowed only 14 months for design and construction. So successful was the outcome that the client now offers the secluded campus as a retreat venue for its corporate partners supporting its mission to advance research to achieve the goal of “understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet.”