Educational facility will be first net-zero public structure in Lake County built from scratch

The future of environmental education at the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods was unveiled Friday amid remnants of the past still to be dismantled and carted away.

"It brings so many of our goals together," said veteran Lake County Forest Preserve District Commissioner Ann Maine.

"The building not only will be net-zero, but an educational tool in itself."

Maine and other forest preserve officials and partners in the $5.18 million project met at the wooded site Friday for a ceremonial groundbreaking, with construction to begin Monday.

Net-zero means the facility will produce enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements. It is said to be the first public building of its kind in Lake County to be built from scratch.

The building is designed to replace and expand education programming that had been offered in two 1940s-era cabins for decades near the entrance to the 550-acre Ryerson site.

Ryerson has been a center for environmental education and programming for all ages since it was acquired by the district in 1972.

The cabins had reached the end of their useful lives and did not comply with current accessibility codes. The district contracted with Lake Flato Architects of San Antonio, Texas, to design a replacement about 18 months ago.

Officials on Monday will consider a recommendation to hire the company to oversee construction, which will feature various components and building materials to gain net-zero certification.

Among those features are rooftop solar panels, highly efficient heating and air conditioning systems, and high performance triple-pane windows to regulate temperature. The windows will include a pattern embedded in the glass to reduce bird strikes.

"We want to raise the bar and set the example when it comes to green buildings and environmental sustainability," said Ty Kovach, the forest district's executive director. "Our goal is that this new building will become a viable model of long-lasting, energy-efficient design."

The first phase of construction includes a 3,400-square-foot building with two classrooms, virtual teaching space, a net-zero interpretive exhibit area and a 1,000-square-foot screened porch for additional teaching space.

Project costs for the first phase have nearly doubled from initial estimates due to inflation, supply chain issues and other factors, district officials say.

The project also involves realigning the entry road, installing accessible walkways and a looped educational trail, and extending water, sewer and other utilities.

"We're spending a lot of money on infrastructure but we're upgrading the entire site to be accessible," said Becky Mathis, a landscape architect for the district.

The district has secured about $3 million in funding from outside sources, for the project, including $2.4 million from a private donor and $513,000 from Chicago-based Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

Gabriela Martin, program director for energy at the private foundation, said the Ryerson project is one of 13 funded from among 70 requests.

"It really stood out," she said of the Ryerson plan. "We thought it would really have the kind of impact we want these buildings to have."

The event unfolded in front of the old cabins, which were sold for a nominal cost with the requirement they be dismantled, moved off-site and reassembled elsewhere.

One of the cabins is gone except for the foundation. Work to dismantle the second cabin is expected to be finished this weekend.

The new center is expected to open in summer 2023.

  Construction is set to begin Monday on a net-zero educational facility at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. Remnants of two old cabins used for decades are in the background. Mick Zawislak/
  Nan Buckardt, director of education for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, described a new net-zero educational facility to be built at Ryerson Woods Conservation Area in Riverwoods. Mick Zawislak/
  An old cabin that had been used for decades for educational classes at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods is being dismantled and will be removed to make way for a new net-zero educational facility. Mick Zawislak/
This is a site map of improvements associated with the construction of a net-zero environmental education center facility at Ryerson Woods Conservation Area in Riverwoods.
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