Gilsland Farm Environmental Center
The New Maine Farmhouse
At first glance, Maine Audubon's environmental center in Falmouth, a slightly blocky, cedar-shingled building just north of Portland on the Presumpscot River estuary, doesn't look revolutionary. But the appearance is deceptive. This five-year-old building at the Gilsland Farm Sanctuary marries the rustic style befitting its New England home with the latest advances in eco-friendly building technology.
One crisp morning, the director of property management for Maine Audubon, Bob Savage, stands where the Audubon center meets its surrounding wetlands, woods, and meadows, and points out the ways in which nature and design have been melded into environmental efficiency. A two-story bank of windows invites visitors in the building to explore the picturesque grounds outside and at the same time contributes natural light and passive solar heat via double panes insulated with argon gas. The building's long side faces south for maximum solar gain and winter warmth, while sunshades prevent overheating in the summer. A grove of stout conifers protects the building (and chickadees) from cold north winds.
"This building turned out radically different than I envisioned," says Savage. And by conventional terms, radical it is. It used far less wood than expected, and more glass, steel, and sheetrock--all of which can be recycled. The open look of post-and-beam construction was satisfied by substituting recycled structural steel. Where the architects did opt to use wood--in the interior trim, exterior framing, and shingles--the cedar, spruce, fir, and birch were all logged from Maine woodlands certified as "well managed."
It seems that no corner escaped careful consideration: Petrochemical-free linoleum and carpet cover the floors; ceilings are constructed with cast-off lumber; insulating roof panels once existed as newsprint and plastic bottles; and energy-efficient fluorescent lights turn off automatically in most unoccupied rooms. Even the heat seeping upward from the ground beneath visitors' feet--where it's most needed--has been retrieved from groundwater through a geothermal pump and is retained by the snug building, insulated with formaldehyde-free foam, which is twice as efficient as regular fiberglass.
"We've been preaching recycling and lower-impact technology for a long time," says Bill Hancock, Maine Audubon's director of environmental centers. "At some point, as an environmental group, you've got to walk the talk." Green building practices not only reduce the environmental costs of construction and create demand for sustainably produced materials, but as part of Audubon's 2020 vision of 1,000 nature centers nationwide, there is vast potential for spreading this ethic to the public. Each year, tens of thousands of people come to Gilsland Farm for programs ranging from natural-history day camps and nature-book discussions to birding festivals and environmental-education workshops for teachers. Besides enjoying the benefits of a state-of-the-art facility, visitors are learning by its example.
As in the Maine center, a permanent exhibit and signs scattered throughout the newly renovated education center at Aullwood in southern Ohio alert its 80,000 annual visitors to the reasons behind the green changes afoot. The Aullwood Audubon Center boasts floors made from renewable cork and recycled tires, tabletops built from wheat straw, and an entry desk that's crafted from trees that had to be cut for the building's expansion; the desk perches on a boulder unearthed when the basement was dug. People have already requested more information on products they've seen used in the center, says Charity Krueger, Aullwood's director.
In Wisconsin, Joel Krueger (no relation to Charity) of Kubala Washatko Architects works closely with Schlitz Audubon Center staff in designing their new facility outside of Milwaukee. A planned wetlands sewage-treatment system, which will use native prairie plants to break down waste, and photovoltaic panels that will add energy to the grid, will be connected to a computer system, to be used as a teaching tool for the 37,000 students the center serves each year. A good green building, Krueger says, is "simply designed, simple to operate, efficient, sustainable, and easy to live in." And, of course, it doesn't hurt if, like the Gilsland Farm Center in Maine, it blends softly into its surroundings, leads to miles of gentle trails, and offers year-round programs with which to cultivate an appreciation for nature.
For information on the Gilsland Farm Sanctuary, call 207-781-2330 or visit www.maineaudubon.org.
Vanguard of the Volunteers
Birding With the Whiz Kids
Sloshing through the icy slurry, Nick Shallow pounces into each puddle he sees, his sister, Molly, close on his footsteps. Nick, 7, chirps chicka-dee-dee-dee. Molly, three years his junior, echoes the bird call--one of many in their repertoire. On this December morning, the temperature hovers above freezing, rain is pouring down, and a gray mist shrouds everything. But the weather hasn't deterred this duo--bundled up in hats, snow pants, and rain slickers--from spending the next two hours in a park south of Burlington, Vermont.
The brother-and-sister team is participating in today's Christmas Bird Count. Now in its 101st year, the nationwide count is more than just an annual outing of birdwatchers. Ornithologists and conservationists alike consider it one of the best tools available for assessing long-term trends in early-winter bird populations in North America. And, as these siblings prove, this example of citizen science has no boundaries.
But other than the patter of rain and the snow crunching beneath our feet, nothing is stirring. "Wherever the birds are, they're hiding," Nick notes. But they find something almost as good. Nick squats next to a set of footprints in the snow. "There's a lot of tracks here!" Molly shouts. A plastic card hangs from her neck with illustrations of animal tracks, and with the help of her mother, Molly compares them to what she's found. Her conclusion: squirrel tracks. She dashes ahead, the card flapping around her neck. About 20 feet farther on, Molly stops at a tree--a paper birch, Nick points out--where the trail seems to end. She looks up, a smile glued to her face: "A squirrel!"
Their parents attribute part of this precocious knowledge of all things wildlife to the preschool and summer-camp programs run by the local Audubon nature center. (Coincidentally, the kids' father, Jim Shallow, is the executive director of Audubon Vermont.) Both of these whiz kids can identify most of the birds in their yard.
Suddenly there's a sighting: "Crow!" Everyone turns. With binoculars as big as his head, Nick takes a closer look. Another crow caws from somewhere within the trees. The crow count grows to five. Other birds: zero. "It doesn't look like I'm going to see anything but crows," Nick mumbles. But after a few minutes of stomping in slush, he sees the situation in a more optimistic light. "A crow is not so colory as a cardinal, but it's still cool."
So will they be out again this year? "Probably," Nick replies, "if it's not so slushy." After a brief pause, he adds: "But I will do it even if it rains." Then he turns to his mother. "Can I have some new socks?" he asks. "It feels like I've got a bunch of squish in my shoes."
--Gretel H. Schueller
© 2001 NASI
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