The multi-use Wagner Education Center, designed by the crew at Olson Kundig, celebrates the craft of wood shipbuilding.

Wagner Education Center exterior

[Photo: Nic Lehoux]

PROJECT: Wagner Education Center at the Center for Wooden Boats
SIZE: 10,620 square feet
ARCHITECT: Olson Kundig

The most successful commercial and educational buildings not only facilitate the work being done inside, they reflect it, too. See the Center for Wooden Boats’ newest addition, the Wagner Education Center, located alongside Lake Union in Seattle. The design of the LEED Gold–targeting center—part “maritime museum,” part direct-access classroom dedicated to wood shipbuilding and restoration—takes inspiration not only from the region’s classic boat-building shops, but from the painstaking craft of shipwrights themselves.

Consider the large-scale, wood-clad exterior panels. They can be raised and lowered to open or close the space and control daylighting. Tom Kundig, principal architect and owner of Olson Kundig, which designed the space, compares the flexibility of design—and the simplicity of the counterweight pulley system that controls the screens—to a classic wooden ship. “Just like a boat is designed to respond to ever-changing conditions, the building’s facade can transform and respond to the elements.”

There’s also the aesthetics of the building. The pitched roofline and wood siding reflect the look of classic Pacific Northwest boat sheds, as does the easy-to-spot, hand-painted signage. “It really is a boathouse in the truest sense,” Kundig says of the design’s intentional unfussiness. “It’s about the boats, not about the house.”


Wagner Education Center boat

[Photo: Mikel Amias / Olson Kundig]

The shade system, which cuts down solar heat gain in the warmer months, feeds into another notable design feature: The center is passively cooled—no air conditioning. The center stands oriented along an east-west axis near the lake, minimizing the low sun in the summer and maximizing sunlight in the winter, “a scarce resource in Seattle,” says Vikram Sami, Olson Kundig’s director of building performance.

Also contributing to the passive design is the building’s 46.5-kW solar panel system, which is expected to provide more than 30% of the center’s EUI. HOBO sensors also help along the process by collecting and monitoring light and energy usage data. “We also periodically survey building users to assess their comfort … which allows us to experiment with different methods of operation,” Sami says. The new center also boasts a gallery/exhibition space, and its youth classroom converts to work and event space. That flexibility translates to a smaller footprint. “The first step in reduction is to decrease demand,” Sami says.

The education center is part of a broader, multimillion-dollar upgrade of the Center for Wooden Boats, a Seattle staple that has been nurturing the area’s love of elemental seafaring since the 1960s. “At their core, boats represent the harnessing of natural forces using only the power of human hand,” Kundig says. “The new building highlights this power, using architecture as a tool to teach visitors the tenets of sailing and the beautifully complex craft of wooden boats.”

Wagner Education Center window screens

[Photo: Mikel Amias / Olson Kundig]

Simple Details

Olson Kundig aimed to let the building’s materials retain as much untouched simplicity as possible. The structural concrete slab provides the flooring, covered sporadically at work stations by simple, easily replaceable unfinished plywood. The steel frame of the building was also left exposed. Here, the exterior screen panels are up, but the glass doors behind them remain closed, allowing a flood of natural light and easy temperature control at the same time.

Window Screens

Wagner’s biggest design showstopper is perhaps its large, raisable window screens. Olson Kundig wanted to allow for plenty of natural light, but too much direct, bright light can be counterproductive to the shipbuilding process. A simple lowering allows for easy shading. The modularity had a logistical boon, too. “We heard recently that the boatwrights will adjust the shades to help slow or speed dry time, depending on how conditions are affecting their construction and restoration projects,” Kundig says.

Wagner Education Center stairs

[Photo: Mikel Amias / Olson Kundig]


The design team left the exterior cedar wood untreated, allowing it to take on a weathered patina over time. “It’s also been detailed to breathe, allowing for expansion and contraction throughout the year,” Kundig says. He cites ease of construction, accessibility, and a low carbon footprint as selling points for wood. As for the interior wood, the only finishing is a water-based sealer. “Using simple, straightforward, economic wood materials allows for ease of maintenance,” he says.

Reclaimed Wood

Beyond its passive cooling system, the center incorporates plenty of sustainable fine details, ones that simultaneously boost design. Reclaimed wood is a major motif: Stair treads feature wood salvaged from the historic Wawona schooner, a lumber vessel that first set sail in 1897, and the stairs’ rail caps are made of wood reclaimed from the deck of a minesweeper recovered from Lake Union Drydock, according to Sami. (The stairs themselves are made of low-carbon steel.) Other rescued and repurposed “maritime materials” made their way into the building’s bollards.

Section view looking southeast

Section view looking southeast with exterior covered porch

[Drawings: Courtesy of Olson Kundig]