A new Minnesota Landscape Arboretum facility brings added buzz to an important area of ecological learning

By Linda Mack

On a winter’s day, the new Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is as quiet as the beehives outside. But just as spring will wake up the hives, visitors and school groups will enliven the simple building housing an exhibit gallery, learning lab, and honey house.

Situated on a rolling site that was farmsteaded in 1855 by Swiss immigrants, the Bee Center is the first building in a planned “farm to table” campus at the U’s beloved arboretum southwest of the Twin Cities. Arboretum director Peter Moe says the university recently completed a state-of-the-art bee research facility on its St. Paul campus, but famed bee researcher Marla Spivak and U officials agreed that an outreach program about pollinators belonged at the arboretum.

MSR Design was chosen to design the 7,530-square-foot Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center and also master-plan the campus, whose Red Barn ties it to the site’s agricultural past. Although more organic designs were considered for the Bee Center, the arboretum board preferred a vernacular aesthetic that MSR executed with award-winning aplomb. “It’s a both/and building,” says MSR principal Thomas Meyer, FAIA. “The best architecture is of its time and draws on history.”

The long, narrow building faces south to soak up the sun. Its gabled and shed roofs recall agricultural buildings without being slavish to the concept. A mix of stained and charred wood softens the exterior and gives it a settled look. An entry pavilion breaks down the massing of the two gabled wings.

The straightforward design continues inside, where honey-colored birch panels, wood trusses, honeycomb-like acoustic panels, and lots of natural light warm the spaces. Visitors first enter the apiary. The exhibit space to the left utilizes the full height of the structure and frames the stunning view toward the main arboretum grounds. The learning lab to the right features a perforated-wood acoustical ceiling and sliding glass doors to the pollinator gardens outside. Used for meetings, it is also equipped for distance learning. In the honey house—a smaller space—local beekeepers can use the equipment and visitors can enjoy watching the honey-making process.

“The Bee Center is a place to hold classes, but it’s also a place that’s open to anyone,” says Moe. “With the interactive exhibits, you don’t really need a guide.”

As such a building should be, the Bee Center is highly sustainable. A geothermal field provides heating and cooling—and eliminates the need for unsightly equipment outside. The use of SIPs (structural insulated panels) ensures a thermally efficient building. Almost 80 percent of the space is daylit. These and other measures help the facility exceed energy code by more than half, says Meyer. If solar panels are added, the building will achieve net-zero energy, says project architect Eric Amel, AIA.

Equally important to the educational program are the wildflower meadow and the bee and pollinator gardens surrounding the building. Designed by Damon Farber Associates, they already attracted monarchs and bees this past fall and will only expand their draw as they mature. They also offer arboretum visitors examples of pollinator-friendly plants for home gardens.

While working on the project, Amel read the letters of Theodore and Sophie Bost, the Swiss immigrants who lived on the original farm for 50 years, and learned that Theodore was a beekeeper. “He not only kept bees but promulgated beekeeping,” says Amel. “How serendipitous is that?”

Both Moe and MSR Design look forward to the development of the farm-to-table campus. The master plan envisions a “preservation hall” where canning, pickling, and freezing are taught, and indoor and outdoor kitchens surrounded by demonstration fields. The next building on the docket is the headquarters for the university’s popular master gardener program. Built just east of the Bee Center, close to where the Bost farmhouse once stood, it will help grow the campus as a learning destination for the local food movement.

Location: Chaska, Minnesota
Client: University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Architect: MSR Design
Principal-in-charge: Thomas Meyer, FAIA
Project architect: Eric Amel, AIA
Project designer: Chris Wingate
Landscape architect: Damon Farber Associates
Construction manager: Loeffler Construction & Consulting
Size: 7,530 square feet
Construction cost: $4.6 million
Completion: August 2016
Photographer: Richard Brine

“The way the section modulates light and varies the interior space is very strong. It would be fantastic if the building could actually house bees in the poche space of that section.”

“I like the way that it changes character as one moves through it, and the interior surface relationship to the exterior surface. It takes a typical sort of shed and turns it into a beautiful and engaging public space.”

“I think it’s done with a really nice hand. It’s very light and delicate.”