Perspectives in Architecture: Sustaining connections to nature

The entry to the Beech Building at Blue Heron Nature Preserve today.

Sustainable design has become a widely accepted strategy to develop architectural projects. City of Atlanta requires all major renovations and new construction of city-owned facilities exceeding 5,000 square feet to comply with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines for criteria, such as water conservation, energy savings, and use of environmentally-friendly materials. Decades ago, architectural firm Thompson Hancock Witte (now THW Design) received national and international recognition in 1978 for their pioneering environmental design of the Simmons Company Corporate Headquarters in Johns Creek, Georgia.

Rendered site plan for the Beech Building.

With this success, Thompson Hancock Witte founding principal Bill Witte applied principles of sustainable design for their new firm headquarters in Atlanta saying, “We didn’t’ want to have to tell prospective clients about what we could do. We wanted to show them what we could do.” Firm leaders found the perfect location to showcase their passion for sustainability at 4055 Roswell Road, a property enlivened with a lake, flora, and wildlife including ducks, beavers, frogs, and Great Blue Heron birds.

Witte christened their new headquarters completed in 1980 as the Beech Building reflecting the abundance of beech trees onsite and synergy of the building to the landscape.  The architect positioned the building with a north-south orientation to capture sunlight and spectacular lake views. Stonework along the entry exterior wall flowed seamlessly into the airy lobby. Second-floor ceiling trusses permitted natural light from clerestory windows into expansive working spaces. Underground water and heating reinforced the commitment to self-sufficiency and energy conservation.

An early photo of the Beech Building in the 1980s.

Designed as a “polite neighbor” to the community through the contextual use of wood siding, stone, and cedar roofing on the building exterior, the Beech Building drew a flurry of attention from clients, government officials, and media for physically and visually connecting people to nature. Site restraints eventually limited building expansion opportunities for the growing firm. Though Thompson Hancock Witte moved to another location ten years ago and continued their sustainable approach to projects ranging from health care to senior living residences, longtime employees still speak glowingly of the Beech Building and its surrounding, wildlife-filled land.

These days, the building and site are managed by Blue Heron Nature Preserve, housing this nonprofit organization and partners Georgia Audubon and The Amphibian Foundation. The property has evolved as the lake has transitioned slowly to become a marsh. Blue Heron Nature Preserve has expanded the original seven-acre parcel into a thirty-acre nature preserve hosting environmental education, conservation initiatives, and arts programs. Forty years after its construction, this extraordinary building and site inspire a new generation of building users and visitors to connect with nature.

The THW Design team in the early days at the Beech Building.
The THW Design team at the Beech Building in 2010.

Melody L. Harclerode, FAIA enjoys connecting the public to wondrous places as an award-winning architect, author, and Executive Director of Blue Heron Nature Preserve in Atlanta.