Cabin Upgrade

The Boy Scouts commission sustainable accommodations for a Catalina campground.

In some ways, the Boy Scouts are traditionalists. Campfires, s’mores, merit badges—why change the good stuff? So when the Scouts’ 85-year-old campground in Catalina Island’s Emerald Bay, 19 miles off the coast of Southern California, was due for a revamp, they could have kept the military-barracks-style cabins that housed generations of youths.

“But environmental education is one of the long-term values that Scouting is founded on,” says Lee Harrison, the camp’s executive director. In accordance with the organization’s “leave no trace” philosophy, the Scouts wanted alternative, ecologically sound accommodations suited to the island, a protected wilderness once owned by the Wrigley family. They also wanted the cabins to be a teaching tool that the Scouts would have no choice but to interact with. Nonetheless, when Gensler’s Santa Monica office proposed a structure based on a reclaimed shipping container, acceptance was not immediate. “The philosophy of the idea we liked, but we weren’t sure of the aesthetic value,” Harrison says.

Architects, of course, have been playing with shipping containers for years, and Gensler’s Richard Hammond, who led the pro-bono Emerald Bay project, had witnessed his firm’s experiments with them for a Google office and for Shigeru Ban’s Ashes and Snow exhibition. “The Boy Scouts have been looking to modernize their image,” says Hammond. With a bit of coaxing, they were willing to embrace the idea of container dwellings that acted more like open tents than completely enclosed cabins.

The greatest challenge of the project was balancing environmental considerations with Gensler’s design goals—local goods were employed wherever possible. The deck, for example, is made of reclaimed lumber from the camp’s recently rebuilt pier. The Westminster-based construction company that donated the prototype container (20 more cabins will eventually be built) also cut out the top and made window openings. “I felt that the container was too much of a box,” Hammond explains.

“I wanted to make the roof glow.” Gensler created a vaulted roof, made by a boat-cover manufacturer, of stretched silicone-coated fiberglass, the same material that Massimiliano Fuksas used in his landmark Strasbourg music hall. The floors are rubber, a novel choice that led Jacob Smith, a Scout from Long Beach, to call the cabin “a splinter-free place of wonder.” Primus Lighting, run by a former Emerald Bay camper, donated the LEDs that are powered by a solar PV system. All of the elements that must be imported from the mainland can be packed into the container itself for shipping—with one exception. The footing for the structure—originally intended to be made of recycled tires—ultimately needed to be poured-in-place concrete in order to meet code.

The designers and the Scout leaders hope that when the remaining cabins are raised, the boys themselves will have a hand in building them. “But getting them to concentrate on this is a real challenge,” Hammond says. “They’re focused on getting their badges.”

Addendum: Gensler notes that this project was 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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