Cabin Class

Environmental stewardship has been core to Scouting since Lord Baden-Powell, the movement’s founder, first urged youngsters to “try to leave this world a little better than you found it.”

So when Southern California Boy Scouts commissioned Gensler to renovate their aging campground quarters, the design team devised the EcoCabin, a pro-bono solution that supports year-round programming and teaches campers the importance of sustainable accommodation.

Charting the Course

EcoCabin represents the initial step of a comprehensive master plan for Camp Emerald Bay, an 85-year-old campground on Catalina Island, 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. With the camp’s existing master plan up for review by the Catalina Conservancy, the Boy Scouts of America West Los Angeles County Council collaborated with Gensler’s Santa Monica office to develop a far-reaching response to this once-a-generation opportunity.

To launch the effort, the Gensler team conducted a study to help the council articulate a vision for a premier youth development destination. The study generated an understanding of the council’s strategic aims and established three immediate objectives for the campground: provide semi-permanent housing to shelter more scouts in all seasons; demonstrate the council’s role as an environmental educator; and enhance the reputation of Boy Scouts as exemplars of “participating citizenship.”

Artful Lodgers

Gensler’s design team approached the EcoCabin as an opportunity to embrace sustainability in a way radically suited to the Boy Scouts’ “leave no trace” principles. The 320-square-foot shelter that replaces the camp’s barracks is constructed almost entirely of recycled material, the most prominent element being the reclaimed shipping container structure. Here, Gensler applied cargo container design experience acquired while working on Shigeru Ban’s Nomadic Museum project.

The creative transformation of the cabin’s two containers is achieved by bolting the two compartments together beneath a translucent vaulted roof of stretched silicone-coated fiberglass. By removing the containers’ tops, the interior volume is increased; and the translucent roof, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, allows filtered sunlight to illumine the cabin by day. Cutout windows and the cabin roof glow at night thanks to photovoltaic-powered LED lighting.

Insulated walls provide protection from the elements, and when combined with rubber flooring and an exterior deck constructed of wood salvaged from the camp’s rebuilt pier, turn the cabin into a sustainability classroom for scouts and their leaders.

Shelter from the Norm

The design team opted to use shipping containers for the cabin’s design, because they work equally well on structural and symbolic levels. Aside from representing a maritime artifact used in the island’s development, the cargo boxes are a model of sustainable packaging, being the largest reusable containers available. The EcoCabin is fitted out on the mainland where cabin materials are packed within the containers’ holds and then shipped to the island for unpacking and assemblage.

Once constructed, the containers’ structural rigidity offers yet another environmental advantage. Because the cabins only touch the ground at six points, the raised structure allows water to pass beneath its floor, minimizing the ecological impact on the campground. Moreover, the transformation of a shipping vessel into sustainable shelter is emblematic of an organization that seeks to nurture the physical, mental and emotional development of young men through scouting culture.

Character Buildings

Over time, 20 of the demountable cabins are planned to replace the camp’s existing barracks. When they do, the council will be able to realize its goal of continuous year-round programming, while serving more young people who would otherwise miss out on the opportunity to visit Camp Emerald Bay.

In addition to more EcoCabins, the council intends to construct an outdoor learning center that will utilize several shipping containers in varying configurations arranged around a central open space. This center will complement the tension-fabric-covered dining pavilion that Gensler designed and completed concurrent with the prototype EcoCabin.

Richard Hammond (Gensler—Los Angeles)
Christopher Keough

The EcoCabin Project Team
Photos by Richard Hammond

Project Team
Peter Barsuk (project manager), Andrew Boquiren, Farshid Gazor, Kimberly Gordon, Marc Grondin, Richard Hammond (designer), Robert Jernigan (project principal), Lucy Peng and Sanjeev Tankha

The EcoCabin project is made possible through the generosity of vendors, consultants and contractors who either donated or significantly discounted products and services: Arup (structural engineering), J. Miller Canvas (roof and doors), The RMS Group (containers and fabrication), Primus Lighting Inc. (LEDs) and nora systems inc. (rubber flooring).

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