IslandWood, an environmental learning center on Bainbridge Island, opens on September 22, 2002.

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 12/22/2021
  • Essay 21364

On September 22, 2002, IslandWood, a nonprofit environmental learning center on Bainbridge Island in Kitsap County, just across Puget Sound from Seattle, opens to the public. Initially called the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center, the center is championed by Debbi Brainerd and her husband, Aldus software developer Paul Brainerd (b. 1947). The couple purchased 255 acres of a former tree farm in 1997 and spent the next five years and millions of dollars creating an environmental learning center that would serve students, teachers, and naturalists. The project's lead architect is David W. Goldberg, president of Mithun Architects. Site planning and landscape design are provided by Tom Berger (1945-2014), founder of the Berger Partnership in Seattle. IslandWood will receive the state's first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification for its sustainable design.

For the Love of Outdoors

The idea for an outdoor learning center came about thanks to Debbi and Paul Brainerd, a Bainbridge Island couple whose passion for science, technology, and the environment have had tremendous impact on the Pacific Northwest. Paul Brainerd founded the pioneering software company Aldus Corporation in 1984 and sold it to Adobe Systems in 1994 for $525 million, enabling him to fund numerous social-service, environmental, and arts organizations over the years. Debbi Brainerd earned a degree in clothing and textiles from Washington State University. After spending 12 years as a special-events manager at Nordstrom, she went back to school for a degree in molecular and cell biology. Some of her favorite childhood memories were of camping and spending weekends at her family's Whidbey Island cabin.

In 1997, the couple heard that the Port Blakely Tree Farm was going to be subdivided into 20-acre parcels and sold. That got Debbi Brainerd thinking:

"At least a portion of the land could be preserved and turned over to children, so they could capture the same kinds of magical experiences Brainerd found in the woods when she was a child. She started thinking about children growing up in urban communities, often with no connection to the natural world" (Sudermann).

The couple bought 255 acres of the property for about $5 million in 1997 and set about to preserve and transform the forest land into one of the nation's premier environmental learning centers. Debbi Brainerd chose Mithun Architects and the Berger Partnership to accomplish the transformation after seeing their work on REI's new flagship store, which opened in Seattle in 1996.

Landscaping IslandWood

The two design teams jumped into the project with enthusiasm and verve:

"Design team members from Mithun and the Berger Partnership camped on site with the client at the outset of the project, hacking through invasive blackberry brambles on the former tree farm and making a map of opportunity and imagination. The dream was to link constructed and natural systems in new and interdependent ways, building in the means of regeneration and renewal" (Enlow).

IslandWood was an ideal project for Tom Berger, whose artistic approach to landscape design over the previous two decades had transformed the profession. Born in 1945 in Northern California, Berger was the son of a logger. His father moved the family north and bought a garden center in Bremerton in Kitsap County, and Berger spent many hours after school and on the weekends helping out. He earned a landscape-architecture degree from Washington State University in 1968, and started the Berger Partnership in 1971. Before IslandWood, some of his other landscape-design projects were at Two Union Square in downtown Seattle, the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood, and REI's new Seattle headquarters, along with parks, wineries, golf courses, and private homes around the region, including the Medina waterfront property of Bill Gates (b. 1955).

Berger was clear about his goals for the IslandWood project: He wanted "to make the least impact on the land -- and yet make the most profound statement about the land ... At IslandWood, Berger was able to translate a long-held passion for restoration and regeneration of natural systems into a teaching and learning environment" (Enlow).

An Award-Winning Design

The built environment at IslandWood took up about 6 percent of the property. There were sleeping cabins for overnight stays, a great hall, dining hall, classrooms, and studios. The buildings creatively used sustainable materials, including solar-heated water and recycled glass. Restrooms had composting toilets; bathroom countertops were made from recycled yogurt containers. Floors were cork, rubber, or bamboo. Site-harvested lumber was used for siding and interior trim.

The extensive use of sustainable materials on three of the site's buildings (main center, dining hall, and learning studios) in 2003 earned IslandWood the state's first LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Gold certification, a standard set by the U.S. Green Building Council. At the time of the award, only four other buildings in the country had earned a gold rating; two others held platinum, the highest level.

On September 22, 2002, IslandWood's opening day, the general public was invited to tour the grounds, made easier by free shuttles that transported visitors to the site. Initially schools paid $25 per student, mostly fourth to sixth graders, to attend a four-day program at IslandWood. By year three, there was a waiting list. Within six years, the center was welcoming some 3,000 students annually, most of them from inner-city schools or schools with a high percentage of low-income students. Schools that were strapped economically were offered scholarships. Corporate donations helped purchase materials and supplies for the kids. Learning about science and the environment was seamlessly integrated into each day children spent at the center.

"They take their food wraps out to the compost bin, where they learn vermiculture in the organic garden.
"While much of the curriculum is in the woods, education also takes place in the laboratory, in the kitchen and in the studio ... Special field structures, including a suspension bridge, forest canopy tower, floating classroom, bird blind, mill worker's cabin, and tree houses, enrich the learning environment" (Enlow).

As word spread, IslandWood began hosting business meetings, yoga retreats, family programs, conferences, and outdoor weddings. Its education programs were recreated at the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant in Woodinville and in Seattle schools and neighborhoods.

As IslandWood wrapped up its first decade, a planning process was held to determine what the center's next 10 years might look like. Scores of elementary-school children, community members, donors, educators, and staff took part. With their input, a $50-million fundraising campaign was launched in 2015 to extend the facility's reach and impact.

After nearly 20 years of existence, IslandWood staffers estimated they had reached more than 132,000 kids, who spent some 1.8 million hours in nature. Before his death from Parkinson's disease in 2014, Berger called the center "a magical place where children and visitors can develop greater understanding of the Puget Sound native ecology -- and reduce their own ecological footprint" (Enlow).


Clair Enlow, "Learning from an Island," Landscape Architecture Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 10, October 2003, pp. 84-93, copy available at Envirotech Soil Solutions, Inc. website accessed November 17, 2021 (; Aimee Chou, "Brainerds Marry Love of Land and Technology," Puget Sound Business Journal, November 17, 2005 (; "Bainbridge Island Campus," IslandWood website accessed November 17, 2021 (;.Catherin Tarpley, "At IslandWood, Green is Gold When it Comes to Recycling," The Seattle Times, October 27, 2002, p. E-4; Nancy Bartley, "Outdoor Learning," Ibid., March 17, 2008, p. B-1; "Bainbridge Center," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 21, 2002, p. B-1; Hannelore Sudermann, "A School in the Woods," Washington State University Magazine, April 1, 2009 (; Lisa Stiffler, "How Paul Brainerd's Extraordinary Career Went from Revolutionizing Publishing to Empowering Enviros," GeekWire, July 29, 2018 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Paul Brainerd (b. 1947)" (by David Wilma) and "Berger, Thomas Lee (1945-2014)" (by Rita Cipalla), (accessed December 22, 2021).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You