Photos: © Curt Clayton

Located within 1,100 acres in southwest Michigan, the Kalamazoo Nature Center (KNC) Camp is a nature-based summer program serving campers ages 3 to 18 years and committed to providing “fun and meaningful experiences in nature.” But as the nature center reached its 50-year anniversary, the facilities were due for upgrades.

Inspired by that milestone, as well as the 2005 publication, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” by Richard Louv and the No Child Left Inside movement, which the book inspired, the KNC leadership undertook a $6.6-million “No Child Left Inside” capital campaign to fund infrastructure and program improvements. These included upgrades to the camp, plus nature-based early-childhood education, a hands-on working farm, a healthy-foods program, a brownfield-reclamation project to restore nature space for inner-city youth, and implementation of a community-wide action plan to get kids outdoors. A total of $1.5 million was allocated for the project.

Programming And Master Plan

The design team, led by architecture and planning firm Lord Aeck Sargent (LAS), was selected, and the camp programming effort began at the end of 2012. The team sought to understand the current programs and facilities, the limitations posed by those facilities, the KNC’s short-range and long-range program and facility goals for the new camp, and the budgetary and schedule constraints necessary for its success. Some of the KNC goals included:

  • Grow the camp by 33 percent to support 1,000 campers (100 campers per week for 10 weeks)

  • Add adventure programs to draw older children (grades 6-12), and compete with newer camp options in the region

  • Utilize green, ecologically responsible materials and technologies

  • Enhance camper access to nature

  • Provide facilities to support camp activities in inclement weather.

The desired camp programmatic elements were identified and organized into three categories:

  1. Arrival and parking, including camp signage, entry drive, parking and drop-off areas, and site infrastructure and utilities

  1. Program structures, including art and ecology classrooms, a multi-purpose indoor gathering space, an outdoor amphitheater, group-activity shelters, a natural play area, a catering kitchen, administrative and support spaces, and associated trails and infrastructure

  1. Adventure features, including an archery range, zip-line canopy tour, ropes courses, a campfire circle, overnight campsites, a water slide and mud pit, a bird-feeding station and observation blind, and an adventure loop-trail network.

Design Approach

Since the 1960s, the camp had been housed in a renovated residence at the edge of the property and adjacent to a noisy road. During a design charrette, the team proposed relocating the camp to the heart of the center as a key opportunity to more fully immerse campers in nature. A small clearing with an existing timber-framed barn was identified as a potential site that would align with the intended program and also allow re-purposing of existing infrastructure to reduce costs as well as the development impacts of the new camp.

The re-purposing existing facilities offered many benefits. An unpaved service-road network already accessed the proposed location, requiring no additional clearing of trees and providing a unique entry experience for campers that differed from the previous access from the main-entry drive. The large, timber-framed barn at the edge of the clearing had an open main level sufficient to serve as the new multi-purpose gathering space, and the lower level—housing stables for farm animals scheduled to be relocated to the new working farm—could accommodate the new art and ecology classrooms. The existing clearing, framed by mature trees, was ideally sized to form an organizing lawn for the new camp village.

The existing service drives were augmented to support a one-way circuit to and from the new camp, with bus drop-off and gravel parking areas. Camp-activity shelters and gathering areas were arrayed around the clearing to create the new camp village. A salvaged windmill was relocated to create a gathering point at the center of the clearing.

Re-Purposed, Heavy-Timber Barn

Flanking the camp village, a new front addition on the upper level of the barn includes a new porch pavilion and a camper welcome center, which span the length of the old barn. The pavilion entry is an exposed, environmentally friendly, glue-laminated structure to extend the aesthetic of the timber-frame barn in a contemporary way. The new addition is clad in composite siding made from a recycled wood and cement matrix, and the base of the supporting columns marking the front entry is local river rock, reinforcing its connection to the local surroundings. The 727-square-foot upper-level front addition houses the camp’s welcome center and includes the camp director’s office, a catering kitchen, a barrier-free restroom, and a shower.

The main upper level of the existing barn is now resurfaced with a topping concrete to provide weather protection for the level below, and a new surface for the large open area to conduct nature-based arts-and-crafts and rainy-day gatherings for the entire camp. Since the upper level is not mechanically conditioned space, LAS designed large, operable wood-frame windows to replace the small ones located on the sides of the old barn, facilitating natural cross-ventilation so the space is comfortably habitable in spring, summer, and fall. Clerestory windows added at the gabled ends enable the upper level to be completely day-lit during most times. On the back of the upper level, LAS added large windows and doors to the old barn, providing access to a new, covered wood deck of nearly 700 square feet, giving campers an outdoor space where they can continue their programs during inclement weather.

The timber-frame barn’s lower level, used primarily as an art studio/ecology lab, is conditioned for year-round use with high-performance, spray-foam insulation and a new energy-efficient, radiant, slab heating system. The heated flooring enhances thermal comfort for year-round use by school and adult programs after the typical camp season. Laboratory casework, salvaged from a nearby high school, now serves as arts-and-crafts equipment storage. Other lower-level spaces in the existing section of the barn include a meeting room for staff members and two storage rooms for art and lab supplies. The lower-level addition, located directly beneath the wood deck, contains two ADA-compliant bathrooms with dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets to conserve water. Both are also day-lit with high clerestory windows.

The now-7,000-square-foot barn rehabilitation and additions form a new heart of the camp, with a range of new structures to support the camp’s mission and program. These include a 150-seat outdoor amphitheater and stage, group-activity pavilions, a natural playground for free play, a wooden water-tower play feature, composting garden, a 250-foot-long water slide, changing areas, windmill, low-ropes course, archery range, and trail network.

The group-activity pavilions include three rustic picnic shelters and a fire ring, conceptualized by LAS and constructed by local artisans using natural materials. The open-air amphitheater, also constructed of wood, is used daily for gatherings. The shelters, pavilions, and wood fencing were constructed using wood taken from on-site. The playground, called Nature’s Playground, was developed by The Johnson Hill Land Ethics Studio, which collaborated with the camp master-planning effort, and served as the project’s landscape architect. The wooden, water-tower play feature was designed by Byce & Associates, which served as the architect of record and consulting engineer for the project.


Construction was completed in time for the 2013 season, with the camp fully sold out for the first season in its new location. Other outdoor and adventure elements—the multi-stage zip line, tree house, and green roof to be located on the barn additions—will be added to the camp in the coming years.  Funding availability will be a determining factor in project priorities, according to Bill Rose, KNC president and CEO.

As for the new camp, Rose says, “We now have a space that inspires fun, creativity, and is welcoming to all who arrive. Campers have their own secluded group spaces where they launch from to explore the entire KNC property.  In the event of inclement weather, campers and staff have a large open space in the barn and a beautiful covered deck where they can continue their program without risk, and the addition of water play and specifically Nature’s Playground allow kids of all ages to explore, dig, get wet, and, most importantly, have fun in nature!”

“Furthermore,” Rose says, “through all the improvements, we’ve enhanced our ability to give campers more opportunities for outdoor exploration and play. Today’s children are increasingly attached to electronic media, so they are more obese, more prone to attention disorders, and less likely to be able to effectively communicate with their peers. At KNC summer camp, we use the outdoors to connect campers with each other, the natural world, and their communities. We provide them with a safe and fun background to develop their mental and physical growth, improve motor skills, and strengthen social skills, all around the context of nature.”

Jim Nicolow is a principal of architecture and planning firm Lord Aeck Sargent, and leads its Ann Arbor, Mich., office. Reach him at jnicolow@lordaecksargent.com .


Kalamazoo Nature Center Project Team

Designers: Lord Aeck Sargent in association with Byce and Associates Architects and Engineers, and the Johnson Hill Land Ethics Studio

Construction Manager: Miller-Davis Co.


Additional resources for online version:

Kalamazoo Nature Center Camp Grand Opening interview with KNC President and CEO Bill Rose: http://video-embed.mlive.com/services/player/bcpid1949055966001?bctid=2575430585001&bckey=AQ~~,AAAAPmbRJXk~,z77SjzCGAfKiPfEHqVzVWmPocEMi32gf

“No Child Left Inside” interview with KNC President and CEO Bill Rose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OPvLmKacx6I

KalamazooNatureCenter 50 th Anniversary Video: http://naturecenter.org/Home/KNC50thAnniversaryVideo.aspx