Westwood Hills Nature Center

Architecture Firm: HGA Architects and Engineers

Owner: City of St. Louis Park

Location: St. Louis Park, Minn.

Project site: Previously developed land

Building program type(s): Education – General, Public Assembly – Recreation

A new interpretive and accessible gateway to nature for the city of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, the Westwood Hills Nature Center immerses visitors in the surrounding forest full of birdsong and gentle breezes. Its design draws inspiration from the site with an exterior skin that evokes tree bark and a combination of fiber cement panels and window assemblies that subdivide and branch, much like the surrounding trees. The result of a vital partnership that included the design team, civic leaders, exhibit design specialists, and educators, the center is a true teaching tool and a vibrant amenity shaped by the city’s forward-thinking climate action plan that strives to achieve net zero by 2040.  


The project aims to immerse the community in a natural preserve. The building acts as a lens into the forest while also serving as inspiration for how mindful awareness can help sustain this natural ecosystem. The building and systems design is an exemplar of holistic design and environmental conservation and used as a teaching tool for visitors.

The center’s exhibits and programming provide an interpretive gateway to the surrounding landscape, and the design takes its cues from the natural features of the site. The slender building allows views through it and ample opportunities to feel immersed in the forest when looking out from within. The experience of moving through the woods and marsh forms a conceptual framework for the design. The exterior skin of the building expresses bark-like layers of textures and colors. Fiber cement panels and wood window assemblies subdivide and branch, inspired by the geometry of the trunks, limbs, and leaf veins of trees and plants. The repeating but changing geometries of the façade allow for variation, responding to interior and exterior forces as the building stretches and bends east to west to optimize its orientation.

The exposed wood structure embodies the microscopic structure of bundled parallel cellulose fibers of wood at a larger scale. Glue-laminated members are built using smaller pieces, and columns are bundled in pairs along the exterior overhangs, forming entries and seating areas. The roof angles to the north and south, forming a central spine of building systems and better accommodating daylight and views from primary occupied spaces. It also captures rainwater for an interpretive water feature that showcases regional hydrology and evapotranspiration. While the building itself exhibits abstracted elements of the landscape, the primary experience for visitors is one of direct connection to nature. Occupants are immersed in views into the surrounding landscape, open windows let in the sounds of birdsong and wind through the trees, and the sun warms the corridor feature wall and bench for a comfortable place to sit.

The team that brought this project to life included architects, engineers, exhibit design fabricators, naturalists, educators, a city advisory committee, program/facilities/administration staff, a city planner and sustainability specialist, and the contractor. This entire team shared the goal of making the nature center a well-used community asset with the potential to change mindsets and the way projects are conceived and delivered for the city. This project was designed with a loose fit to allow day-to-day flexibility and long-term adaptability. A recently conducted post-occupancy evaluation underscored how much the teachers and staff who spend the most time on-site love this project.

The placement of the building is now far more convenient, the flexibility assures increased and diverse programming serves all members of the community, and the unexpected demand for evening rentals provides additional revenue for the city. Beloved buildings are the most sustainable, and we suspect this building will far outlast its predecessor.

Additional information

Project attributes

Year of design completion: 2018

Year of substantial project completion: 2020

Gross conditioned floor area: 13,565 sq. ft.

Number of stories the building has: one

Project site: previously developed land

Project site context/setting: suburban

Annual hours of operation: 2,700

Site area: 167,088 sq. ft.

Cost of construction, excluding furnishing: $10,300,000

Total annual users: 35,989

Project team

Architect: HGA

Construction Manager: RJM Construction

Exhibit Design: Split Rock Studios

Site/Environmental Water Feature Consultant: Barr Engineering

Engineer - Civil: HGA

Engineer - Structural:  HGA

Engineer - MEP: HGA

Interior Design:  HGA

Landscape Architect: HGA

Lighting Design: HGA

Sustainability Consultant: Integral Group


Katie Ackerly, AIA, Chair, David Baker, Oakland, Calif.

Julian Owens, Assoc. AIA, Jacobs, Arlington, Va.

Seonhee Kim, AIA, Design Collective, Baltimore

Avinash Rajagopal, Metropolis, New York

Image credits

The main lobby and exhibit space opens to a sheltered north terrace, expanding use for events, interpretation, and the public.

Peter J. Sieger

The main public exhibit space opens up with views to the north woods and south prairie, connecting interpretive content with the surrounding landscape.

Peter J. Sieger

The building, sited near the marshy wetland of Westwood Lake, captures roof rainwater to minimize impact on the watershed.

Peter J. Sieger

Custom formed concrete thermal feature walls create coat alcoves at multipurpose room entries and provide thermal comfort throughout the year by absorbing and radiating heat from the sun.

Corey Gaffer

The building, sited near the marshy wetland of Westwood Lake, captures roof rainwater to minimize impact on the watershed.

Andrea Rugg