The Tyner Nature Center

With environmental concern now a mainstream issue, community and park district leaders have become even more diligent, creative guardians of their natural resources, especially those in densely populated cities and suburbs. Many are building nature centers, primarily to help residents and visitors better appreciate and enjoy their natural surroundings. Some, however, are doing much more: designing these centers to demonstrate responsible environmental practices.

In 2000, officials from Glenview, Ill., began planning for such a center on 32 acres of native prairie given to the near-North Chicago suburb following the closing of Great Lakes Naval Air Station. Earlier this spring, they officially opened the Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretative Center, which was more than worth the wait. Stunningly elegant, this one-of-a-kind building is an exemplary model of environmental stewardship and sustainable design.

“This is ‘green’ design at its best—elegant, attractive, efficient and harmonious with the environment,” said Amy Ahner, the Assistant Director of Capital Projects for Glenview. “It has already earned enough points for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification during the first application review from the U.S. Green Building Council, and we expect it to become one of the few buildings in the country to achieve LEED Platinum status, the highest rating possible.”

“Inside-Out” Approach Integrates the Building into the Prairie

Several features make the new Tyner Center a special place. It attracts and engages visitors with its 4,000-square-foot green roof populated with native plants, its expansive deck overlooking the wetlands, its inviting “teaching gardens” and walking trails. It does not simply help people learn about the historical/ecological importance of the restored prairie, but shows that buildings can do their part to preserve natural resources. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, 84 nature centers have applied for LEED certification.

The Tyner Center, however, takes this concept to the next level by actually becoming an integral part of the prairie. It blends into the remnant prairie landscape of Air Station Prairie almost as if it were an organic element, reposing serenely above the ground like a beautiful Japanese-style pagoda.

“Instead of bringing nature into the building, the Tyner Center is integrated into nature,” said sustainable design expert Lois Vitt Sale, who helped initiate this project for Wight & Company, and now partners with the firm as an independent consultant. “This ‘inside-out’ approach was a key part of the design strategy.”

A Showcase for Best Practices in Energy Management

One of the center’s most impressive aspects is its creative use of energy. In fact, it incorporates virtually all Best Practices in energy management. (In Glenview’s application for LEED certification, the building earned 17 points related to energy. The building earned 16 of 17 possible credits in the “energy” category.) Following are examples of some of its noteworthy energy-efficient features.

Solar Power from the Green Roof

Solar slates on about one-sixth of the roof are placed to capture the maximum amount of sunlight available for energy conversion. Any excess power generated is sent to the grid to earn credits from the electric company.

A Geothermal System to Extract Renewable Energy from the Earth

Powered by pipes, which are sunk 10 feet into the ground and extend 200 feet in length (where it’s about 50 degrees all year), this system brings in warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer.

Practical Solutions to Minimize Energy Demand

The building was designed to be as small as possible (only 3,000 square feet) so that it would consume less power. (This shrinkage was accomplished in part by the “inside-out” strategy of embedding much of its educational information on outside wall panels rather than indoor exhibits.) It has heat-saving insulation provided by a polyurethane layer between its composite wood walls and its 6-inch thick green roof. In warm-weather months (about 25 percent of the year), the building can often be cooled simply by opening the windows. These huge windows also let in sunlight and, combined with light sensors that adjust for daylight and the presence of people, reduce the need for electrical lighting.

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