Platinum Prairie

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A storm rolls in over the 32 acre prairie.

 

The name “cutthroat” probably should have been my give-away, but it took four hours of arm scraping before I truly believed in the plant’s ruthlessness. As I struggled to uproot the invasive species, I questioned my decision to liven up my slow Saturdays with volunteer work at a local prairie preserve. My experience at the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie as a sophomore in high school, though, set the foundation for my path towards a career in sustainability. So it seems only fair I explore this area as a Space of Sustainability.

 

 

Grasshoppers jump out at passerby (the little flying specs visible in the video are the insects)

When I first rode up on my bike to the 32 acre prairie preserve, which is found on the site of a former air base, I was not immediately impressed. But when informed this area makes up nearly 2% of what remains of Illinois prairie - in Illinois, just one hundredth of one percent of the once dominant landscape remains - I imagined the grass extending endlessly into the distance and considered the fact that this plot of land had been here, largely untouched, for thousands of years. Indeed the site's former life as a shooting range for the naval air station is largely to thank for the area's current preserved state; the navy maintained the native prairie for its value for shooting practice and as a reminder to this past one can still find broken clay pigeons along the prairie's paths. These paths also bear witness to grasshoppers who in late fall make walking the paths a very musical and amusing experience, as green insects jump out of the grass like popcorn kernels from the pot. So although the prairie failed at producing an immediate sense of awe in my teenage heart, time succeeded in elevating the area to one of great significance for me. But it is the building encountered in the middle of this prairie preserve that truly distinguishes the area as a sustainable space: the Tyner Center, a nature center (constructed by Wight & Company) that opened on the prairie in 2007.

The entry path to the Tyner Center. The curved roof features solar panels on the left and a green roof on the right. 

What makes the interpretive center so inspiring? One of only a handful of LEED Platinum certified buildings in the state of Illinois, the building earned 16 out of 17 possible credits for energy characteristics. A 4,000 square foot green roof insulates the building. Installed along with the green roof are 495 solar panels, which in addition to the low-speed wind turbine in front of the building, reduce the building’s energy needs 97.1% over the LEED minimum standards. This is further aided by the window design. The sloping roof means windows receive more sunlight in the cold months of winter and only limited light in warmer summer months. Also key to the building’s energy portfolio: geothermal heating and cooling. Pipes running deep underground, where temperatures are around 50 degrees year round, provide cool air in the summer and warmer air in the winter (learn more here!).

The building’s construction materials are highly sustainable, as well. The inside walls are insulated with recycled denim (yep, that’s right, the stuff your jeans are made out of) and the outer walls with a soy-based spray foam. Paneling was made from cork-board and the carpeting was laid in squares rather than one large block, allowing for less wasteful replacement of damaged areas. Finally, motion-activated faucets and lights make laziness no obstacle to sustainability (more here).

 

Left: Panels on the outside of the building demonstrate the inside-out approach     Right: Teaching gardens

Images from Wight & Company

 

Most importantly, perhaps, the building employs an “inside-out” approach that integrates the building with the prairie and wetland. This was in part accomplished by raising the building above ground level; the prairie and wetland literally, yes literally, flow under the building, which is raised off of the ground by steel supports. Not only does this ensure the integrity of the wetland and its water flow, it also creates a feeling of oneness with the prairie. This inside-out approach also led the architects to place much of the center’s informative panels on the outside of the building, accessible by the patio that extends around it and out over the prairie (see above image). As you read the panels on the outside walls, you feel as if you are walking in the middle of the wetland on one side and through the prairie on the other side. I encountered countless bird-watchers, nature photographers, and curious children on the center's deck and often found myself gazing out over the landscape, lost in wonder.

The most crucial aspect of a sustainable space, though, is its ability to encourage sustainability in others. This space certainly managed this task in my own case. More generally, the building succeeds in motivating sustainable action in several ways. Teaching gardens and a miniature green roof make it easy to learn about techniques to try at home. Moreover, the informative panels both inside and outside the center elucidate much about prairies. They also showcase the building’s own sustainable characteristics, further offering community value by serving as a model for sustainable building techniques. Finally, the center’s programs for children encourage a love for prairies and an interest in the small ways sustainability can be achieved. Browsing the teaching gardens, reading the informative panels, engaging young students and adults alike in discussions about sustainability, and participating in the upkeep in one of the state’s last prairie respites, I discovered a passion for sustainability as endless as the prairies that once stretched far out into the horizon.

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