Core Design Team

Firm: McGranahan Architects
Design Team: Michael F. McGavock, AIA
Christopher J. Lilley, AIA
Glenn Myles
Dion Serra
Scott Waytashek
Benjamin Fields, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Seong Shin


General Contractor: Forma Construction
Structural Engineer: PCS Structural Solutions
Civil Engineer: Coughlin Porter Lundeen
Electrical Engineer: Hargis Engineers
Mechanical Engineers: Metrix Engineers
Landscape Architect: Cascade Design Collaborative
Acoustical Engineer: SSA Acoustics
Acoustic Design: SSA Acoustics
Cost Estimator: The Robinson Company

Project Narrative

The Environmental Learning Center (ELC) was conceived out of the need for a permanent presence for the Science and Math Institute (SAMi), a Tacoma public high school located within Point Defiance Park. Since its founding in 2009, SAMi has created a powerful community of learners that partners with the conservation and education mission of Metro Parks Tacoma and Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (PDZA). Amenities in the park include the Zoo and Aquarium, rose and rhododendron gardens, beaches, miles of trails and most notably, a stand of old growth forest. The Park is SAMi’s “lens for learning;” the park itself is the primary learning environment. The new Environmental Learning Center (ELC) is the first permanent facility designed around SAMi’s approach to education.

The planning process engaged SAMi students, teachers, zoo educators, curatorial staff, community partners and local artists who affirmed that connection to nature is an essential characteristic of SAMi and that the conservation mission, and education, is strengthened through partnerships. Participants offered directives like “not pristine”, “semi-permeable membranes” and “invite creativity and experimentation” that became essential drivers in the design of the new Environmental Learning Center.

Students explore and gather artifacts in the forest, Zoo and waterfront ecosystems, and bring them back to the Center to analyze, interpret and demonstrate so that upon return to nature they see it with new eyes. Students and teachers engage with community partners through citizen scientist workshops, interpretive exhibits, as well as advance the research and educational mission of the Park and Zoo. Designed to put student and partner work on display to the public, the new ELC is a community asset that supports greater understanding and appreciation of nature’s ecological systems and our relationship to them.

The facility is designed to connect learning to its unique surroundings. The ELC takes advantage of a unique adjacency between the Zoo environs and the extensive forest trail system. Entry from the south is on a boardwalk to minimize disruption to the hillside vegetation, and on the north side an accessible bridge connects learning settings directly to the forest trails. The ELC is a collection of diverse workshop settings for a variety of learning modalities: discourse, design, experimentation and fabrication. Small group contemplative-learning “eddies” between the workshops spill into a ubiquitous collaborative space that connects interior learning settings to each other and to the outdoors. Visual connections to the outdoors are afforded through the eddies and by floating the sheltering roof to provide views to the surrounding forest.

The ELC encourages sustainable living by cultivating a relationship with nature and is currently pursuing LEED Silver certification. The ELC provides visual and physical connections to nature and abundant daylight throughout. The scale, fenestration and material choices for the Center were inspired by biophilic principles and the experience of solid and void of the trees in the forest.