Building Principles: Architectural Design for Camps

James Spinola, AIA, CSI
November 2014

Your regularly scheduled program (Rick Stryker) has been interrupted by his architect friend — me. Rick askedme to write an article for Camping Magazine from an architect's perspective. Two years of high school Latin sometimes comes in handy. "Firmitas, utilitas, venustas." Translated that means "firmness, commodity, delight," and is the cornerstone theory of first-century Roman architect Vitruvius. My personal interpretation: "Lasting, purposeful beauty" is a guiding principal in my design work.

What does this mean and what does it have to do with camp design? It has everything to do with good design, in general, which has:

  • Firmness — structural stability and lasting materials.
  • Commodity — an underlying purpose — a plan.
  • Delight — a universal beauty; attractiveness not only in form, but in materials.

Good design is often so intrinsic that no one even consciously notices it, but sometimes it evokes that "aha" moment, and you just get it. Why is any of this important? Because studies show you are affected by your environment. Just try moving your desk down to a damp basement or up to a stifling attic and perform your own experiment.

A recent lecture I attended couched architects as uninterested in the genre of camp architecture. I'm here to tell you that is not the case. Just as any profession has generalists and specialists, architecture is no different. To me, camp architecture is an exciting mix of residential and commercial design. You must address the functional needs of a small city while balancing the experience of each individual camper. It's an architect's job to create a welcoming experience in a cost-effective manner. How is this done? Through lasting, purposeful beauty.

Firmness: Lasting

Everything we construct needs longevity. To build for brevity is a waste of resources. Often an owner will only look at first costs. Yes, that vinyl flooring will be inexpensive, but what will the life-cycle cost be? Will long-term maintenance and replacement costs actually outweigh the upfront costs of, say, using ceramic tile? Will lightweight "builders" shingles last through two harsh winters, or would you rather they last two decades through the use of heavyweight "architectural" shingles?

When designing bunkhouses, drywall is not a recommended material. It really doesn't meet the context of camp, and it doesn't hold up to the hard use (a.k.a. abuse) of active campers. Oriented strand board (OSB), hardwood, and masonry are much better materials from a durability point of view. At Camp Chingachgook on Lake George in New York, OSB is the material of choice. Other facilities, such as Camp Ramah in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, use plywood panels. While not as refined as beaded board or knotty pine, both wall treatments are durable, low-maintenance materials — a magic phrase to camp staff.

While wood is appropriate for sleeping quarters, a different material is necessary for bathhouse facilities. Here, fiberglass reinforced panels (FRP) are the choice. Durable and easy to clean, FRPs are moisture and impact resistant, which is key in a moist bathhouse environment.

Look at life-cycle costs when selecting materials and save on maintenance and labor costs in the future.

Commodity: Purposeful

"We just got a nice endowment, so let's hurry up and spend it!" What is the purpose of your infrastructure projects? Are you trying to upgrade facilities or add facilities? Or are you just spending dollars? This is where a good master plan comes in handy. You first need to know where you've been and where you are now before you know where to go. A master plan inventories your infrastructure and prioritizes your future projects.

When designing a project in response to a client's needs, always interview the client and the end users, if possible. Some projects can be handled with surveys, but a camp project presents a unique opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the experience, so I try to arrange an overnight bunk. As an architect, I know the best way to design for the clients is to walk in their shoes.

When a camp wishes to expand its special needs programs, a bunkhouse designed to accommodate those functions is purposeful. At Camp Ramah, careful planning, rather than rash decisions, accomplished a needed program enhancement. Two cabins erected in the 1940s are making way for a new, 7,000-square-foot bunkhouse/education center.

The business purpose of a camp is to stay solvent. Yes, you want to expand and add more programs, but the process needs to be orderly and make economic sense. A facility master plan, in conjunction with a sound business plan, will guide you in making decisions about how to get to that next level. A master plan is your map to the future.

Delight: Beauty

Beauty can be defined in so many ways beyond simple looks. Is there balance, symmetry, and proportion? Is there ample open space around buildings? Will the floor plans and general form of a building follow its internal function? Will the rhythm of windows create a pleasing symmetry to the exterior facade? Do you even want to portray symmetry, or is your camp more free-form? Both are good depending on the experience you have in mind for your campers. Are your buildings proportional? Do they reflect a hierarchy of size and a subtle transition from large recreation buildings to smaller activity cabins to group bunkhouses?

Not every camp has the luxury of implementing a cohesive design theme, but camps that do stand out as true planned communities.

Beauty is also in the details. Together, little touches can make a cohesive design. Beauty can be seen in the consistency of materials and colors of a camp's buildings — right down to the laser-cut animal-motif switch plates on walls. As an architect, I try to develop a common language throughout a project. This commonality and familiarity can have a calming effect on campers. It's much easier for youngsters away from home for the first time to make the transition to camp when they see consistency.

Vitruvius postulated that there was a connection between man and his environment. That proportion and scale can create a mood. For instance, the twostory verticality of a building can seem intimidating to a young camper, but that same building with more human-scaled horizontal siding might seem more inviting. Conversely, if you want to project height in a building's facade you may want to use vertical siding.

We need to look at beauty in its context; we're talking about a youth summer camp. Some architects may overlook that context and design what they think a rustic bunkhouse should look like, but good architects design for their end user — the camper.

Beauty and good overall design will excite your campers, affect their mood, and help make them repeat customers.

Note: Look for Rick Stryker to return as the author of Building Principles in the March/ April 2015 issue of Camping Magazine.

Jim Spinola is a registered architect and former state director with AIA-Pennsylvania. He can be reached at hillcrest@aeclinks.com.

Originally published in the 2014 November/December Camping Magazine.