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The Center for Human Ecology, College of the Atlantic

Susan T Rodriguez | Architecture • Design

Bar Harbor, ME, United States

September 2021


Susan T. Rodriguez


OPAL, Silman, van Zelm Engineers, Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture, Brandston Partnership Inc., Hedefine Engineering & Design, Harvey Marshall Berling Associates


Darron Collins, President, College of the Atlantic


Trent Bell, Jen Holt Photography, Jameson R. Lowrey, John P. Gordon


The design for the new Center for Human Ecology embodies the mission and pedagogy of the school, serving as a spatial counterpoint to the extensive outdoor field research and place-based learning at the core of College of the Atlantic’s philosophy. Providing a wide range of indoor teaching and research spaces to support the curriculum, the design reflects the college’s unique character and culture: simple, intimate, pragmatic, and always foregrounding the natural world. Every space reinforces a hyperconsciousness of “being here” with a view of the rugged coastline or campus landscape, from every space. The design was inspired by the college’s ambitious and comprehensive sustainability goals regarding site, energy use, materials, water conservation, waste, adaptability, durability, comfort, health, wellbeing, and budget. The design, from the overall massing to the detailed development, materials, and textures, evolved as a synthesis of the aspirations of a campus culture deeply committed to the preservation of the natural world.


Sitting atop a rocky promontory on the rugged coastline of Mount Desert Island, between sweeping views of Frenchman Bay and Acadia National Park in northern Maine, the design for the Center for Human Ecology was inspired by College of the Atlantic’s pedagogy of deep, hands-on engagement with the natural world. The building expands the campus northward, forming a new academic core and heart of campus. At its inception in 1969, the college was the first in the US whose mission centered on the wholistic study of humans’ relationship with the environment. The design of the new center reinforces this engagement and a heightened awareness of the unique ecology of the site and surrounding context. The overall configuration of the building frames a new campus landscape with protection from harsh ocean winds while optimizing solar gains from the south and west that mitigate heating demands during Maine’s long, cold winters. A series of spatial cuts through the building provide views of the Atlantic Ocean -- the college’s backdrop and namesake and visually connect the interior spaces with the powerful landscape and coastline. The design incorporates a palette of locally sourced materials, including a nearly all-wood structure and exterior envelope that recalls the culture and traditions of the working waterfront. The building weaves together the interdisciplinary study of human ecology with environmental sustainability, forming a dynamic new academic center that amplifies and reinforces an immersive learning experience at the intersection of land and sea.


As College of the Atlantic’s first purpose-built academic building since its founding in 1969, the Center for Human Ecology is a tangible expression of the school’s mission, culture, and commitment to environmental stewardship demonstrating a high standard of energy performance and a unique interpretation of the regional context. A utilitarian network of functional, flexible spaces including art studios, science laboratories, research spaces, and a greenhouse, as well as faculty offices and multi-purpose classroom spaces for lectures, exhibitions, and collaboration support an institution free of departmental divisions. Generous public spaces, both indoor and outdoor, allow the center to transform from academic building during the day to campus center after hours and a venue for public programs year-round. The integration of rigorous Passive House standards includes an efficient framework of building systems, high-performance building envelope with a 100kW photovoltaic rooftop array. Wood construction, including the primary structure, framing, insulation, finishes, and cladding, acts as a carbon sink, effectively offsetting the project’s lifecycle carbon footprint. Combined with a palette of local materials, this ensemble creates a highly sustainable environment that serves as both institutional symbol and a daily learning experience for the campus community. Measured success in energy efficiency and lifecycle resource management establishes this project as the embodiment of the college’s community values and commitment to sustainable living. It has become the backdrop for campus life, hosting the college’s 2021 convocation ceremony and weekly community gatherings, as well as providing the primary home for students’ daily academic experience.

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