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American Society of Landscape Architects


May 2007 Issue

Teaching Green in Georgia
The Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center shows kids—and grown-ups—the benefits of being green.

By Linda McIntyre

Teaching Green in Georgia Lee Anne White

The Atlanta metropolitan region conjures up visions of jammed freeways and unchecked sprawl. But in Gwinnett County, northeast of the city, a new environmental education center on 233 forested acres demonstrates—and not only to children—how to value the natural world and live more sustainably. With a design and construction process focused on minimizing the project’s impact on the land and attaining gold-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, the center is also leading by example, showing developers and design professionals how to build projects that are both beautiful and sustainable. Like the Audubon centers outside Boston and Los Angeles, or the recently renovated Nature Center at Shaker Lakes outside Cleveland, it’s the very model of a twenty-first-century phenomenon—the environmental education center that is itself green.

The Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center (GEHC) is just up the road from Buford’s ginormous Mall of Georgia, a crescent-shaped assembly of more than 225 shops floating in a sea of asphalt. The land on which the GEHC sits was bought at the same time that the construction of the mall was announced. But it’s light years away in its relationship to the character and history of this region and the site. At the GEHC, landscape architects from The Jaeger Company (TJC), along with their project team, worked carefully with the county government from the earliest stages of the project to ensure that this environmental heritage center didn’t just pay lip service to conservation and sustainability—it had to “walk the walk.”

The 681-acre site, nestled between a pair of freeways and near clusters of both commercial and residential development, was bought by Gwinnett County’s Department of Public Utilities in the mid-1990s for a wastewater treatment facility. The county’s existing treatment capacity was stretched to its limits by the region’s rapid growth.

F. Wayne Hill, an amateur pilot and then-chairman of the county board of commissioners, spotted the wooded tract while tooling around in his small plane. Hill, whom many Gwinnett County voters associated with untrammeled growth, was targeted by slow-growth groups and defeated in a 2004 primary. But whether his reasons for pursuing the nature center on the water treatment site were personal or political—or a bit of both—he made sure that the funding and other necessary ducks were in a row early on so the project, including both state-of-the-art wastewater treatment and the environmental education center, would go forward with or without him.

Shortly after the purchase of the land, the county developed a master plan for the treatment plant, exploring mixed-use options, including a nature center and greenway trails. This sort of development made sense given the abundant natural (wetlands, a creek, granite outcroppings, diverse plant communities) and historic (mill remnants, road traces, housing sites) features associated with this land. The site was also well positioned to link into an existing network of recreational trails. The nature center would benefit—and be able to tap into the resources of—both a large county school system and the nearby University of Georgia, with its landscape architecture, ecology, and horticulture programs.

To articulate their vision in more detail, county staff turned to the landscape architects at TJC, with whom they had an on-call master plan contract. The firm, which had developed master plans for many county parks, was in the right place at the right time, says TJC founder and principal Dale Jaeger, FASLA, but it also had the kind of expertise Gwinnett County needed to carry out such an ambitious project. “They knew we had a lot of experience in preservation and ecology,” she says. The firm has done many projects in the Southeast featuring native plants, habitat restoration, and green building techniques such as porous pavement.

Jaeger also notes that the county itself had a lot of professionals on staff who had long played a leadership role in park development and securing land for open space despite rapidly increasing development and prices. One of the mechanisms the county used to fund this and other park projects was a voter-approved “special-purpose local option sales tax,” which allocates the money raised toward designated projects such as roads and jails in addition to parks. “It’s been a good tool in Georgia at a time that federal funds are decreasing,” says Jaeger.

Finding the Right Site

Early on in the project, the landscape architects, working with architects at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer & Associates (another firm, based in Georgia, ultimately designed the GEHC building), undertook an extensive site analysis and inventory of existing conditions. During the inventory, the team examined five potential building sites for suitable topography; accessibility from the existing roadway; proximity to the wider site’s physical, cultural, and natural features; views; possible trail network connections; and their relationships to wetland areas and areas likely to see expansion of the water treatment facility.

One area had been proposed for the GEHC in the county’s original master plan, based on its proximity to features such as Ivy Creek, its potential to host a dramatic entry for visitors, and a large plot available for building. But building on this area’s steep topography would have been extremely disruptive to the landscape. Instead the landscape architects and their team chose a site with less-steep slopes and proximity to the existing Woodward Mill Road as part of an entry route for the GEHC. The affected trees in this area would be mostly pines, as opposed to the rarer mature oak–hickory forest on the other site. “It was obvious from old aerial photos that this area had been cleared at one point, probably for farming,” says TJC principal Chet Thomas, ASLA. Building here required additional land acquisition, but that had already been recommended earlier in the planning process and was done with relative ease. The GEHC and its landscape comprise 233 acres of the larger county-owned parcel; the building is 54,000 square feet.

As the design process went forward, the landscape architects and the county brought in stakeholders, including representatives from the county school system, the University of Georgia, and nonprofit education and conservation groups. “Essentially we were working with a group of likely users to determine how the design could best reflect the center’s mission,” says Jaeger. The stakeholder process also helped to ensure that the project would be a success with its intended audience. “The county had ‘buy in’ from the schools and the university even before the architects were brought on board and construction went forward,” she says.


Water, Water, Everywhere

One focus of the discussions was the water feature specified in the concept plan. “Water” was an obvious choice for the design theme since the treatment plant was such a prominent part of the site, the stream system was such a valued part of its environment, and the site had once been home to a mill. The concept plan had included an interactive design to convey, in a literal fashion, the cleanliness of the recycled water. But it was increasingly clear to everyone that using too much water would be contrary to the sustainability objectives of the project. At the same time, the landscape architects wanted a feature with a strong character and a dynamic relationship to the building, and they had to contend with the hilly nature of the site. Finding a solution was a real group effort among the project team, says Thomas, especially because the reuse water would also be used as part of the building’s heating and cooling system. “None of us had done this before—sending water through the building and bringing it back out onto the site.”

In the final design, the team specified different systems for handling reuse water from the treatment plant and stormwater collected on the site. Runoff—some of which would be mitigated by a green roof on the building and various types of porous pavement in the parking lot (see “Porous Pavement Man,” Landscape Architecture, March)—would be collected in bioswales in the parking lot and a rain garden with a visible inlet on the north side of the building.

From there, any water not infiltrated is piped underneath the water feature and daylighted into a swale at the south side of the building, where it feeds a constructed wetland that further filters stormwater. “Even though most of the parking lot water doesn’t end up in the wetland, the watershed [for the building area] is probably several acres,” says Thomas. “So there is a fair amount of surface runoff that eventually makes its way to the wetland.” The bioswales and wetlands were planted with a water-tolerant seed mix including grasses, rushes, shrubs such as buttonbush, and flowering plants such as showy tickseed, joe-pye weed, and ironweed.

The aesthetic feature for the reuse water begins with a circular pool at the top of a hill on the north side of the building, where it is piped after being used to heat and cool the building. Following the path of a dry ravine that runs under the center of the building, it then travels down a concrete channel, reminiscent of a mill raceway, for aeration and cooling. “The water serves as a heat sink to take heat out of the building,” says Thomas. “So it’s a continuous loop, and additional reuse water is only added to make up what is lost to evaporation. The aeration is intended to improve water quality.” Closer to the building, the water moves through a series of pools; after it travels to the lowest pool, it goes into an underground vault fitted with a pump that cycles it back into the building.

Reuse water from the treatment plant, running through a separate system, is used to flush toilets in the building and for irrigation (an irrigation system was put in to help new plants get established and to carry them through any future droughts). Steve Cannon, the GEHC’s executive director, says that using water from the treatment facility results in a reduction in clean water use of more than 65 percent. The water theme was also emphasized with benches and handrails made of pipe fittings.

Treading Lightly on the Landscape

Beyond the complex functioning of the water feature, the design flowed naturally from the site. Early on the project team agreed to build to a standard that would achieve LEED gold certification, but this decision had little impact on the landscape design. “Most or all of the LEED site-design items were things we wanted to do anyway and that we try to do as standard practice,” says Thomas. “The LEED goal did help us convey ideas to the county, though,” he says, “and helped them see the value of the ‘green’ design items.”

New plantings, from a list of 85 native trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, and grasses, were concentrated around the building, entry plaza, and parking areas. Some planting was also done around the group gathering centers, but no new plants were put into the existing woodland.

Sites for the trails—five miles of nature trails and a 1.25-mile greenway that follows historic road traces and links to existing county greenways—and gathering spaces such as council rings and pavilions were carefully selected. “We tried to distribute all of the trail amenities strategically—close to a view, or the stream, for educational opportunities,” says TJC senior associate Emmeline Morris. “But we also tried to minimize disturbance to the land. Tree preservation was key.”

Large stones dug up during construction were saved and used to enhance the water feature and gathering spaces, and the entire landscape architecture firm participated in a “plant rescue,” moving stands of trout lily and trillium from the path of a proposed trail. Most of the trails are laid with mulch made from trees that had to be removed during construction. In areas close to the building, trails were laid with SlateScape, an aggregate composed of thin, angular bits of slate, to provide a firmer, more stable surface allowing better access for visitors with disabilities.

While the GEHC building houses plenty of classroom and exhibit space, including a lecture hall, an orientation theater, and a corporate rental facility, the landscape also provides opportunities for group learning. Students and visitors can gather around the pool that commences the water feature or at the amphitheater, one of three outdoor plazas around the building, five council rings, or three pavilions. The landscape architects, working with teachers and professors in the stakeholders’ group, also developed 18 interpretive signs to provide information on the history and physical characteristics of the site, its wildlife, the native plants used in the landscape design, and the function of the water feature, the stormwater management system, and the green roof.

The green roof on the GEHC building wasn’t designed by the landscape architects, but the architects did seek their advice on the plants. “Originally we were responding with local plant communities such as those found on granite outcroppings,” says Morris. “We were trying to look to natural models. But ultimately [the architects] decided to go with sedums, based on availability.” It’s clear that the landscape architects disagree with this approach, but they did succeed in getting a test area, on a flat loading dock roof (the roof of the building has a relatively steep pitch), planted with native species.

Warm Welcome

Since it opened last October, the GEHC has had “a tremendous reception,” according to Executive Director Steve Cannon. “It has far exceeded our expectations,” he says. And much of this interest has been sparked by the landscape. “We didn’t build a ball field here,” he says. “It’s the natural landscape that’s drawing people out; it’s kind of surprising.” The center gets a lot of requests for additional information about the native plants used in the landscape design.

The GEHC gets an average of 300 students visiting every day, but most of the programming for adults at the center is designed around the landscape. A popular “Landscape 101” tour is held on most Saturdays. Master gardeners have meetings here and plant trees—more than 3,000 saplings were planted along the site’s trails by master gardeners and scout groups on the weekend before Landscape Architecture interviewed Cannon. He’s also developing new programming, based on popular demand, to teach visitors more about rain gardens, bioswales, porous pavements, and other ways to manage stormwater at home. “We get so many questions,” he says. “Our clay soil here is a real challenge to work with.”

In March, the Georgia ASLA chapter honored the project with a 2007 Award of Excellence. There’s also been a lot of interest from the business and development communities, says Cannon. He says area builders are thinking more about issues such as stormwater management. “We see some builders doing things like leaving the centers of driveways unpaved so they can be planted or putting in cisterns to collect rainwater,” he says. “It’s catching on a lot faster than I would have thought.”

Jaeger adds that, at a recent transportation planning conference, a developer sitting next to her, whom she had not previously met, brought up the center and how great a resource it was. He followed up after the conference to get more information about the sustainable design elements, she says, as have many other area design professionals.

Even those closest to it have learned from the project. “I came to this from the utility business,” says Cannon, “so this is a new approach for me. [The landscape architects] really challenged me to think differently about development. It’s been a learning curve, but one that I’ve enjoyed.”

PROJECT CREDITS: Owner: Gwinnett County Environmental & Heritage Center, Buford, Georgia (Steve Cannon, executive director). Landscape architecture: The Jaeger Company, Gainesville, Georgia (Dale Jaeger, FASLA, principal, master planning phases; Chet Thomas, ASLA, principal, design phases; Emmeline Morris, project manager). Consultants/allied professionals: Lose & Associates Inc., Lawrenceville, Georgia, civil engineering; AHA Consulting Engineers, Atlanta, lighting; Irrigation Design Group, Boca Raton, Florida, irrigation; Lord Aeck Sargent, Atlanta, architecture; Van Sickle & Rolleri Ltd., Medford, New Jersey, interior exhibit design. General contractor: Juneau Construction Company, Atlanta. Landscape/site subcontractors: ProLandscapes Inc., Doraville, Georgia; Sitescapes, Lawrenceville, Georgia. Program management: Moreland Altobelli Associates Inc., Norcross, Georgia. Agencies: Gwinnett County Department of Community Services, Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources, Gwinnett County Public Schools, and the University of Georgia.

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