'Nature is the best setting' for new facility at Naperville's Knoch Knolls

Posted8/22/2014 5:30 AM

Lovers of water -- and of detail -- will be at home in Naperville Park District's new Knoch Knolls Nature Center.

The theme "celebrating water" flows through the 5,000-square-foot building in carefully designed features that educate about the ecosystem and conserve energy.


"Since we are right here by the river, of course we focus on the water," said Angelique Harshman, manager of the new nature center, which will host a grand opening Oct. 2.

The building is in Knoch Knolls park in south Naperville, the largest and most ecologically diverse piece of Naperville Park District property, where the East and West branches of the DuPage River converge.

As the centerpiece of a $6 million project to improve the park, the center has been under construction since July 2013 and still needs a few finishing touches.

But Peggy Pelkonen, project manager, said everything about the building was designed with the environment in mind. A large, curved aquarium is stocked with fish from the DuPage River, which flows maybe 200 feet from the building.

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A classroom called the River Room with a full wall of windows faces the waterway, overlooking a pond lined with native plants and adorned with fountains.

Sand from the riverbank is used in the building's floor. Fossils of fish native to Naperville are mixed with rocks in other sections of flooring.

An indoor cistern with a rain gauge of sorts gathers rainwater and uses it to flush the toilets.

And outside the building, a sculpture of a sawmill will be installed, paying homage to one of the early industries the branches of the DuPage River supported and powered.

"We're in a unique position to explain the importance of water," Harshman said about the nature center's location at the confluence of the river. "I like to tell kids the water that we have here is the same water we had when the dinosaurs were here. We're not getting any more."


Harshman said nature center staff members love to educate adults, too, about the importance of water and the ways the building saves energy. She plans to host two public tours a month, showing off not only the aquatic aspects of the nature center, but also features that are helping seek the highest level of recognition from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

In between cubbies where preschool children will store their backpacks, a "living wall" of house plants recycles and cleans air so the building's heating and cooling system doesn't have to continually draw in new air from outside.

Solar panels provide 13 percent of the energy the center will need to operate.

Solatube brand lights use domes to refract sunlight and shine it into the nature center at a much brighter level.

"They bring in that bright light without the need for electricity," Pelkonen said.

And typical lights dim or brighten automatically based on how much natural light is filtering into the building.

Preschool students in the park district's Toadstools and Pollywogs nature-themed program will be some of the first users of the nature center when they begin class with orientation Sept. 8 and 9.

"Using nature is the best setting for children to be able to direct their own play," said Sara Cass, early childhood program manager.

The nature center will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday after the grand opening scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2.

Completion of a new, permeable paver parking lot will be delayed until late September because crews need more time to flatten and stabilize excessive top soil and construction debris found under the surface, said Eric Shutes, director of planning. The extra work also is among reasons the project's price tag came in at $6 million instead of the $5.5 million originally budgeted, he said.

Other work soon to be completed includes expansion of the disc golf course from 9 holes to 18, construction of new trails, addition of a nature playground and improvements to the canoe launch.

Completion of the project will mean cyclists using the DuPage River Trail will have a new place to fill a water bottle or use the bathroom and also to learn about the river from interpretive signs outside and inside the nature center.

"We always think of the outside space as classrooms, too," Pelkonen said.

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