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Prairie Ridge Ecostation for Wildlife and Learning
Raleigh, NC
Frank Harmon Architect

Frank Harmon Architect designs a tree-houselike observation perch for students of the natural world

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Photo © Timothy Hursley

By Sarah Amelar

"Spending my childhood along a stream at the edge of a city shaped my life," says architect Frank Harmon, FAIA, of his boyhood in North Carolina. So when the Museum of Natural Sciences, in Raleigh, North Carolina, approached him to create a place where students of all ages could immerse themselves in the natural realm and learn about sustainable living, the fit felt unusually right.

The museum engaged Harmon to design the 1,400-square-foot "Outdoor Classroom" for its newly founded Prairie Ridge Ecostation for Wildlife & Learning—a 38-acre field site, 1.5 miles from the museum's main building, in downtown Raleigh.

The brief was relatively simple, calling for a screened-in observation deck/classroom with prime views of the site, a small director's office, and restrooms.

Since 2004, Prairie Ridge has become a nature preserve, gradually bringing back purple martins, caterpillars and butterflies, soaring hawks and vultures, thickets of beauty berries, and trails that engulf visitors amid tall, windblown grasses.

As Harmon realized, his building needed to be a teaching tool: a structure that would not only respond to this landscape, but also embody lessons about sustainability. Siting, orientation, forms, materials, and construction methods were all essential considerations. He positioned the Outdoor Classroom on a gentle slope to yield a range of views: bottomland, pine forest, meadow, hardwood forest, woodland fringe, and stream bank.

Perched like a tree house, the $300,000 structure sits lightly on the terrain, letting the land flow beneath it. Much of the building rests on three triangular heavy-timber frames on a concrete pad.

The structural lumber, indigenous southern yellow pine, is parallel strand, a composite (made of scrap pieces) favored for its strength, rot-resistance, and renewable attributes, diminishing the impact on old-growth forests. All siding and interior panels are of Atlantic white cedar from the Carolina swamps. With this entire wood-frame building dimensioned to reduce waste, the roof's plywood sheets, for instance, required no cutting. And to avoid erosion, the team disturbed as little earth as possible.

Screened in on three sides, the classroom catches southwesterly breezes all year. Its deep south-facing overhang maximizes sun exposure in winter and shade in summer.

Nearly everything about this rustic, unpretentious building appears in full view—joints, lumber members, and for the bathroom, a cistern with a pipe from the roof gutter—all forming part of the overall composition. Soon, photovoltaic panels, set in a field, will take Prairie Ridge off the grid.

Want the full story? Read the entire article in our November 2006 issue.
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Formal name of project:
Prairie Ridge Ecostation for Wildlife and Learning

Raleigh, NC

Gross square footage:
1,400 sq. ft.

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Frank Harmon Architect
706 Mountford Ave.
Raleigh, NC 27603
919-829-9464 tel.
919-829-2202 fax


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