Text description provided by the architects. This story begins around the fin-de-siecle, when Jim Murtha, an Irish immigrant, partnered up with Frank Monahan to start a sheep operation at what would become known as the Murtha Ranch. Business peaked during the Great War when the army needed blankets, but life in the windy Cottonwood Canyon changed after the depression, and the barn went empty. Years later, Oregon State Parks was donated the 8,000-acre private property nestled against the John Day River.
A mere dot on a map, twenty-five miles from any gas station, and fifty miles from the nearest town over 400, the site required placemaking. Formalizing the park, State Parks commissioned the Cottonwood Canyon Experience Center. The Center is more than a sustainable locale for research, celebrating and learning: It has to become a bridge across Central Oregon’s urban/rural divide.
In line with the leave-no-trace vision of Oregon State Parks, and working from a focus on adaptable, accessible research use, the architect’s design strategy worked with everything the surrounding nature had to offer, keeping an eye on both low-tech opportunities and current technology to minimize energy use and stand the test of time. The Experience Center’s opposing doors allow for cross ventilation and translucent roofing reduces daytime lighting demands. LED-lighting and a rooftop solar array minimize power needs.
The building has a low-emission stove that meets 2020 wood-burning emission criteria at 1.83 grams/hr. The siding is juniper, an insect and rot resistant species abundant in Oregon. The metal siding borrows from the corrugated barns in the valley, and will endure hot summers and cold winters. Concrete floors are durable underfoot, and clean easily. None of these materials need paint or upkeep, with their appearance getting better over time. The indoor spaces were configured to be as adaptable as possible: The footprint was kept small, with large doors allowing the building to double in size, fitting the needs of the wide range of research the center hosts. At every step of the way, the Experience Center was designed to fit the landscape it sits in: resilient, rugged, and self-sufficient.
The Center solves the need for destination and shelter the newly minted park cried for, but it does more than that: Offering classroom space, interpretive displays, activity and meeting areas, and a park-specific library, the Experience Center’s tactile, engaging and adaptable environment is fueling innovation from grade schoolers to the Oregon conservancy agencies and private research institutions.
In addition, the Center has become a beacon and refuge for recreational exploration of the high desert landscape. Receiving traffic from surrounding towns as well as from medium-sized cities in the region like The Dalles and Bend, and keeping daily rental pricing at a low $75 a day, the hyper-sustainable, site-specific structure shows an incredible geographical and socioeconomic range–creating fertile ground to experience and research nature where before, there was only space.