Environmental stewardship comes alive in spectacular fashion at the new Westwood Hills Nature Center, an interpretative center in the heart of St. Louis Park, Minnesota that blends energy efficiency, environmental education and beautiful architecture. Designed by multidisciplinary design firm HGA, the center not only serves as a teaching tool about Minnesotan flora and fauna but also as a beacon of sustainable architecture with its net-zero energy design. With passive and active strategies installed, from solar panels to high-performance thermal mass walls, the Westwood Hills Nature Center is on track to achieve International Living Future Institute’s zero-energy certification — the first of its kind in the state.

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gray and light timber building surrounded by forest

Commissioned by the City of St. Louis Park as an extension of its Green Building Policy and Climate Action Plan, the new Westwood Hills Nature Center was built to replace a small, nondescript building from the 1980s. At 13,000 square feet, the environmental learning center will have ample space to host classrooms and public events in multipurpose rooms as well as an outdoor classroom space, an expanded public exhibit, offices for staff and additional flexible learning and support spaces.

Related: Ugakei Circles sustainable nature park set to open in 2021

people looking a exhibits inside a nature center building

The architects drew inspiration for the building design from nature. The structure features Alaskan Yellow Cedar glue-laminated columns and beams left exposed in a nod to the larger scale of “the microscopic structure of bundled parallel cellulose fibers of wood.” The varied cladding mimics bark-like layers while the fiber cement panels and wood window designs abstractly evoke the geometry of trunks and branches.

people sitting on benches looking out windows in a hallway

To meet zero-energy standards, the architects used several site analyses to optimize daylighting and natural ventilation while minimizing exposure to glare and biting, wintry conditions. Active energy strategies — put continually on display on an interactive dashboard — include a geothermal wellfield, in-floor radiant heating and solar panels. The building also captures rainwater as part of its responsive stormwater management plan. 


Photography by Peter J. Sieger via HGA