UW News

January 14, 2005

From the ashes, Center for Urban Horticulture dedicates Merrill Hall Jan. 19

News and Information

Merrill Hall at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture — rebuilt nearly four years after an arson attack ruined the building and set back research, teaching and outreach — is being dedicated during events open to the public Jan. 19 and 22.

The center, known for horticultural research and public education, preserving Washington’s endangered plants and restoring degraded urban landscapes, now has the greenest building on the Seattle campus, and is one of a handful in Seattle built following what is considered the nation’s gold standard for sustainable buildings, according to John Wott, acting director of the center and director of Washington Park Arboretum.

Merrill Hall’s new features include a system to recycle stormwater, energy-saving natural ventilation and solar panels, and recycled and renewable products, such certified wood products and furniture hand crafted from salvaged urban trees.

The $7.2 million project paid for by the UW, the state and private donors will be dedicated Jan. 19 in a ceremony at 1:30 p.m. Throughout the rest of the afternoon visitors are welcome to walk through the facility. Guides at various locations will explain new features, a woodwind quartet will perform a piece especially written for the opening, regional botanical artists will be featured in a juried show and a catered reception is planned.

An open house Saturday, Jan. 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. will give visitors another chance to walk through the facility, hear at 10 a.m. from the lead architect Craig Curtis of Miller/Hull Partnership of Seattle about the project, see botanical illustrators at work and meet some of the producers of furniture and materials used in the construction.

For information, http://www.urbanhort.org, or call (206) 685-8033.

Built by CDK Construction Services of Duvall, Merrill Hall is slightly larger now at 20,000 square feet compared to its previous 17,000 square feet of space. It houses the Miller Library, the Washington State University-King County Cooperative Extension Service’s Master Gardener program and foundation, the Hyde Herbarium and faculty offices and laboratories.

It’s the first project on the UW’s Seattle campus to seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The new Merrill Hall earned points toward certification for everything from rooftop plantings that reflect heat to low-flush toilets to an irrigation system linked to the campus weather station so sprinklers only turn on when needed. The final rating will be announced later this year.

“The designers and contractors really came through incorporating the needed features,” says Sue Nicol, the center’s outreach coordinator who was the lead contact for the center working with firms during the construction. From UW Capital Projects, Norm Menter was project manager and Steve Folk was construction manager.

“The green design of the new Merrill Hall dovetails very nicely with the College of Forest Resource’s focus on the sustainability of our natural resources and environmental services,” according to Bruce Bare, dean of the college of which the Center for Urban Horticulture is part. “It is our desire that the center continue to play a significant role by working to sustain our urban ecosystems so that future generations may enjoy the same benefits we now enjoy. The new building provides the necessary infrastructure for this to occur.”

It also takes advantage of the site, Wott says. “The new position of the building allows an open vista from the courtyard to Union Bay. The openness of many of the offices and the front atrium with its stunning photographs sets a stage for the rest of the building, the overall design of which fits so well with the concept of the center.”

It’s been nearly four years since May 21, 2001 when domestic terrorists firebombed the center under the mistaken belief that one of the researchers was genetically engineering trees. He wasn’t. Now a member of the biology department, his office is no longer at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

The fire rendered most of Merrill Hall beyond repair and caused 50 faculty members, staff and graduate students to lose papers, books, workspace and suffer set backs, the effects of which are still felt today.

“I figure that I lost a full year in productivity, between having to get what I could out, assess it, deal with the new building issues — which were considerable for me since I was on the building committee as well as a faculty member — and move back in,” says Sarah Reichard, assistant professor who studies ways to preserve rare native plants and stem the tide of invasive species. She lost clones of rare plants that were growing in her lab as well as books, slides and papers — what she calls “the currency of academia.” And she had to send her students to work in labs on the main campus, which cut into her interaction with them.

Kern Ewing, a professor who studies plant ecology and restoration of wetlands and native landscapes, said the condition of his lab equipment is a lingering problem.

“Since nothing but the most basic kinds of research has been possible for four years, most equipment has not been updated, replaced or maintained very well. My lab sat in the open in the greenhouse for that entire time, and there was no control over who used the equipment or how they used it. Though I think most people were quite responsible in their use of what was essentially common equipment, it is now mostly beaten up and out of date. I have been fortunate in being able to borrow new instruments and equipment from my colleagues at UW Bothell and other places on an as-need basis.”

Professor Tom Hinckley, center director at the time of the blaze, who recently stepped down from that position, said there was an incredible investment of time in fund raising, overcoming institutional barriers to fully funding the building, going after green design and going after the certification for those sustainable features. “One can argue that the time and energy would have been allocated to many other and different functions,” he says.

Still, in bittersweet reflection, Hinckley says, “I really would not go back to May 21, 2001, and somehow alter the outcome. I think the UW has a great new building that represents and illustrates many future opportunities. This building will be a great interface with the public and this building is a living laboratory about sustainable design.

“I think our efforts provided the UW with further energy, emphasis and pressure to move toward more sustainable practices — the fact the UW embraces this direction is in a small part due to what happened at Merrill and the pressure applied by students, firstly, and staff, faculty, friends and the external community. I think our net impact on the UW and on the region is now much greater than it would have been had May 21, 2001 been bypassed.”

More than $1 million of the $7.2 million for the project came from donations that went toward making the new building bigger and adding enhancements not possible within the basic budget. For example, donations from the Bullitt Foundation, Peach Foundation and Patsy Collins increased the number of sustainable features in the building. A donation from the Pendleton and Elisabeth Carey Miller Charitable Foundation made it possible to expand the space of the reading room and library program room in the Miller Library. And the Northwest Horticultural Society donated all the money for the library furnishings.

“The new Miller Library is a significant improvement over our previous facility, both in expanded space and capacity for collections, and in the flexibility, efficiency and beauty of the design,” says librarian Brian Thompson. The staff faces the challenge now of integrating collection materials that have been in four different places, three of those storage facilities, since the fire.

Thompson is a musician and will perform at the dedication as part of the Phoni Ventorum, of which UW’s Arthur Kruckeberg, Laila Storch and Kathy Carr also are members. Thompson’s friend Will Ayton, a music professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island , who has composed pieces for choral groups, viols, mandolin and many types of chamber ensembles across the nation, wrote a special piece to commemorate the recovery efforts. It’s titled “A Healing.”

“I am touched by the sense of community and the dedication shown by Brian and those that I had a chance to meet during a visit to the center,” Ayton says. “Music has long been known to aid in the healing of the emotional trauma associated with times of stress. It is my hope that ‘A Healing’ will contribute something to that recovery.”


For more information: Wott, (206) 543-8602, jwott@u.washington.edu