Accokeek environmental center set to come ‘alive’ -- Gazette.Net



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By showing students the benefits of capturing sunlight and rainwater, an Accokeek-based environmental center will soon create new life — literally — with the construction of two “Living Buildings.”

The one-story and three-story building set will feature composting toilets, rainwater collection systems, solar arrays and geothermal wells to produce enough self-sustaining energy to operate both while serving as a model for conservation and become a new space for visiting children to stay and learn about lessening their impact on the environment, according to project leaders.

Officials at the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental education foundation for area students and teachers that operates the Accokeek-based Hard Bargain Farm, said the project has been in the works since 2006 as a way to replace the existing 1970s student education lodge.

“I’m wildly excited. Somewhere in the middle of the seven-year process you start wondering if it’s ever going to happen. With great leadership and making other people believe in it, it’s happening,” said Karen Jensen Lyles, AFF’s land use and facilities director.

The foundation held a ground-breaking in late-April to announce the approval of building permits and highlight donors who committed funding to the $15.7 million project. Completion is set for 2015.

Funding came from Prince George’s County’s $3 million donation, the state of Maryland’s $5.1 million donation and other private and public investors, according to project officials.

AFF executive director Lori Arguelles said she expects future donors to help fund the remaining 25 percent needed.

She said the project calls for two buildings — one that houses solar panels and one that collects rainwater — that will share resources. In addition, both buildings will run off the same 20 geothermal wells installed underneath a rain garden to run heating and cooling systems. Students will be able to stay in the buildings overnight and learn about energy usage and how to benefit from natural elements.

According to project coordinators, the buildings will each have informational dashboards in them that will monitor energy levels to serve as a challenge to students as they inhabit the buildings, said Brenda Wright, AFF’s education program director.

“We have been doing this with a trash-free program. When kids visit they have to see who can produce the lowest amount of trash,” Wright said. “Now, it’s the same with solar energy. It’s going to be a whole new extra curriculum.”

Wright said the buildings are another hands-on way to help children understand energy sources.

“So many kids today are not connected with the outdoors,” she said. “We’re trying to teach families that it’s fun to be outdoors and that by seeing and touching, it’s so much more valuable.”

Arguelles said they focus on giving students the most hands-on, interactive and education experience that can be offered in the area.

“These buildings aren’t just buildings, they’re teaching tools,” she said.

djgross@gazette.net