Outdoor Learning, Trails & Exhibits

The Hitchcock Center for the Environment has enhanced its Building for the Future capital campaign goal by an additional $900,000 to support important outdoor classroom teaching spaces, accessible trails and new exhibits that will strengthen engaging, interactive, and experiential learning opportunities for thousands of visitors and program participants each year. With this enhancement, we are creating a powerful new learning center that will promote imagination, observation, and creative learning opportunities for people thirsting for more knowledge, greater connection to nature, and pathways to a more restorative relationship with nature. Highlights include:

Visitor Center

Visitors entering the Visitor Center are greeted by a Welcome Wall and introduced to key ecological principles that are interpreted throughout the building and site. Interactive scavenger hunts and other experiential learning opportunities encourage visitors to look, see, learn.

Welcome Wall 5-24-16_small

Live Exhibits
Three exhibits are featured in the Visitor Center. Critter rails accompany each live exhibit for changing content and information.

Sample critter rail and content:

critter rail

This is a Corn Snake – Pantherophis guttatus
Corn snakes live in forests and fields where they feed on mice, chipmunks, smaller snakes, and amphibians. Do you know how they find their prey — by smelling with their tongues! Corn snakes, like many reptiles, spend a lot of time basking in a sunny spot to warm their cold-blooded bodies. They rely on their spot pattern to keep them concealed from predators.

How is our building like a snake?

We are absorbing heat from the sun, passive solar heat gain, through our south-facing, sunny windows. Be like a reptile and feel the sun’s warmth on our basking boulder.

This is an Eastern Box Turtle – Terrapene carolina carolina
Box turtles live in a variety of habitats, including forests, fields, marsh edges, and bogs. They eat worms, slugs, mushrooms, berries and leaves. They’re not good swimmers but love to dig in the dirt. Look at their claws! They can pull their legs and head all the way inside their shell and close up like a box. Box turtles can live as long as humans!

How is our building like a turtle?

We are built to last, too, and have a hard protective outer covering, our roof, walls and foundation that function as our shell, to keep us safe inside.

This is a Freshwater Aquatic Habitat – in development

The Teaching Garden

The Teaching Garden will use regenerative principles that are in keeping with the Living Building Challenge™. For example, local, low-impact and naturally occurring materials like black locust and stone will be integral to the design. Additionally, this garden will be designed to create the widest range of physical accessibility possible while also creating a space that is beautiful and aesthetically inspiring. This garden will feel like an oasis – being inviting while also providing a sense of sanctuary and abundance.

The Teaching Garden will incorporate ideas and practices from many garden traditions, allowing for a wide range of educational experiences. This unique garden weaves together practices and theories including traditional farming techniques, permaculture, landscape architecture, urban agriculture and ecological restoration. For example, permaculture principles will be applied in the design, including the use of porous surfaces, perennial food crops, medicinal plants, and the retention and use of rainwater.

The Hitchcock Center has teamed up with a Pioneer Valley based non-profit, Local Harmony to oversee the design and implementation of this garden. Local Harmony builds gardens by bringing together landscape design, volunteers and educational workshops while also making materials available at wholesale cost. Using this equation, The Teaching Garden will be installed by volunteers in workshops that double as work days. Each workshop will offer volunteers valuable experience, knowledge and perspective and in turn, volunteers make installation fast and significantly more affordable. Using this integrated approach, The Teaching Garden will not only be a garden for the local community – it will also be built by it!

Teaching Garden Concept_small image only

Accessible Trails

An accessible looping nature trail with interpretive displays will access a series of natural habitats – meadows, wetlands, vernal pools, woodlands, and forest.

Proposed Trail Plan_small

The Digital Dashboard

The building serves as a living laboratory through its digital dashboard. The digital dashboard is an interactive exhibit that provides real-time as well as stored, historical performance metrics to allow building occupants and visitors to monitor and understand the building’s water, energy, and waste production and use.

Exterior Interpretive Signs

Our Rain Garden – This garden absorbs rain from our parking lots keeping the water on site where in can be filtered by the ground and plants replenishing our local groundwater. Can you see something that helps make this work? Where would to water go if this wasn’t here?

Our Bird & Pollinator Garden – This is a garden designed to provide food and cover for birds, and pollen and nectar for pollinators. These plants and creatures have co-evolved perfectly. Who’s busy here today?

Our Green Screen – This vegetative screen provides shade and cooling in the summer and then dies back to allow the winter sun to enter the windows and heat the building. Where else have you experienced nature’s heating and cooling?  

Our Constructed Wetland – This wetland is cleaning our water! This is our grey water treatment system. The plants growing here are filtering the water nutrients from our sinks helping to purify the water. Plants are amazing filters! Where does the water in your sink go?

Our Compost – In nature there is no such thing as waste. What’s leftover from one process feeds the next process. Here we are composting our food and garden scraps to decompose and provide nutrients all over again for our food gardens. Nature is made up of cycles like this; what other cycles can you think of?

Rainwater Capture System Exhibit

The building’s rainwater capture system is comprised of a butterfly roof system that serves as a watershed and channels water through a series of first flush tanks visible within the building. After the first flush, rainwater is stored in an underground reservoir which is certified as a public water supply. 100% of the building’s drinking water will be provided by this system (coming in 2017).


Yellow – Water from the roof is collected and piped into the building.

Red (vertical) – The WISY filter is the first step in the filtration process. Debris and dirt in the water are filtered out and diverted to the bioswale on site. Clean water continues on to the first flush tanks.

Green – Water from the WISY filter is fed to the first flush tanks. Once the first tank is full, the water bypasses the tank and fills the second tank. Once the second tank is full, water bypasses both tanks and continues to the reservoir below the nest courtyard. Each tank holds 8.9 cubic feet of water. The four tanks combine to hold 260 gallons of water, which represents the first 1/16″ of rainfall on the roof. The tanks allow any sediment or contamination that has accumulated on the roofs between rainfalls to be diverted from the system.

Red (horizontal) – At the end of the rain event, the tanks are drained to the bioswale on site through a drip valve that gradually releases the water over the course of a 24-hour period. A manual bypass valve allows the water to be emptied immediately by an operator.

Blue – Once the first flush tanks are filled, the remaining water is piped to the reservoir below the nest courtyard. This water is then pumped through a series of ultra-fine filters and UV light before being delivered to the building for use.

Building Systems Wall Graphics

A series of wall graphics and displays will help illustrate and interpret an number of living building systems. For example, at the drinking fountain and water bottle refill station there will be an educational display promoting inquiry about water use and reuse.  Other displays will address decomposition and the nutrient cycle, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and biomimicry.

water Reuse

Exhibit Content

You are Drinking Rain Water! Our roof is like a watershed capturing, the rain and sending it through those big tubes in ecotone to be cleaned in the basement. This is a very special system and makes this building net zero water. All water is from the site and returned to the site.

The water that goes down the drains is greywater. In most buildings greywater, though perfectly usable, is wasted and sent through energy intensive sewer treatment. Here it stays on site, gets filtered by plants and minerals in our constructed wetland and soaks back into the earth. Check out all these systems around the building.

In Nature there is no such thing as waste! There is no “away”, nature recycles everything. One species’ waste becomes another species’ food. Like the forest floor, leaves fall, trees and insects die and decay. This makes a rich life for decomposers like pill bugs, worms and fungi, which break down the nutrients to be used again by the trees in a constant cycle of regeneration. The vast network of life and mycelium (fungi strands) in the soil is one of the most amazing symbiotic relationships in nature. Can you think of other things in nature that work this well together?

Composting Restrooms Educational Displays

Even visitors using our composting restrooms will educated! Signage and displays will be included to impart the following information:

In this building we have waterless toilets! We are composting our waste just like nature does returning the nutrients to the earth without the excessive energy and water used by a typical toilet and sewer system. The outhouses of the past were a much more sustainable system. Here is the 21st Century version!

These toilets are composting toilets manufactured by Clivus Multrum. Composting takes place in all soils which support plant and animal life. The compost toilet employs the same process in the controlled environment of the compost chamber. Waste is broken down by microbes in specially made bins in the basement. A few drops of water are mixed with drops of an environmentally safe soap to “ flush” the toilets. You would have to flush these toilets approximately 127 times to use the same amount of water that a regular low-flush toilet uses for a single flush.

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Hitchcock Center for the Environment