Environmental and Heritage Center celebrates 5 years

Special Photo. Since opening, the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center has hosted several weddings, community events and other functions. The facility celebrates its five-year anniversary this year.

Special Photo. Since opening, the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center has hosted several weddings, community events and other functions. The facility celebrates its five-year anniversary this year.

BUFORD -- In the past five years, Gwinnett's Environmental and Heritage Center has brought a new green focus to the county.

It was the first of several county green buildings, including the lauded Hamilton Mill library branch, and its sustainable message has been an inspiration to thousands of school children.

But as its wood anniversary nears, the center is preparing to transform itself. The classrooms, which have been pushed outdoors in recent years, will take an even bigger turn as a canopy project takes shape in the trees.

And the county's cultural history is becoming more of a centerpiece.

"I think we have been so blessed," said Steve Cannon, the center's director. "We're not a zoo. We're not an aquarium. We're not an amusement park, but we do have elements of that in our programs. ... We're starting to look outward and what further things we can do on the campus."

A lesson in architecture

Nestled in the 700 acres bounded by the split of Interstates 985 and 85, the lessons imparted by the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center began with its construction.

With a pervious parking lot that allows rain to be soaked into the ground, a water feature that actually cools the building during the summer and a roof lined with green vegetation, the environment is part of every facet of design -- not to mention the huge windows that provide light, the special plumbing features and the energy efficient architecture.

The videos in the auditorium even play on a screen made of running water.

"So much of this building was built to be interpreted so it could be a part of the educator's story," said Hank Houser, one of the building's original architects who now serves as chairman of the foundation that raises money for new exhibits and other ventures. "When we conceived of the center, we thought of this building that is stitched into the landscape."

Among the exposed wood beams are flags of dozens of countries, from which officials have traveled to explore the center's unique design and model.

And it isn't just an educational facility. The center has been rented out for weddings, dozens of corporate events and even kids birthday parties.

Jason West, the museum's director of development, had his son's seventh birthday party there.

"They walk away with cake and a little knowledge," he said with a laugh.

Outdoor classroom

Since the opening, officials continued work on the Ivy Creek Greenway, which now connects the center with the Mall of Georgia area and allowed even more opportunities.

"As much as we want (visitors) to be in the building, we want them to be out of the building," Cannon said of the museum's recent efforts to create outdoor learning experiences such as a bog area.

Teachers often set up lessons along the trails, and once a month, the center hosts a night hike.

"The woods are very different at night. The woods become alive," Cannon said.

In the near future, the campus will get two new additions.

Officials announced earlier this month a new canopy adventure exhibit is in the works, under construction by Treetop Quest.

The exhibit, which will have kids and adults walking in the treetops, is expected to open later this year.

Officials are also working to move the historic Chesser-Williams house to the site, part of a push to add to the cultural and historical aspects of the museum (along with the first of what is planned to be semi-annual bus tours of local historic sites. The first is scheduled for Saturday.)

"The foundation and the center is committed to making the building very relevant," Houser said of the new offerings. "It's turning five this year, so it's still young and people are learning about it. Opportunities like the Treetop Quest, it'll draw people who haven't been there before."

Nature's curriculum

Houser is a frequent museum visitor, but only recently did he participate in a classroom at the campus.

He arranged for his 11-year-old son Frank's class to visit the center to learn about water pollution.

"They were playing in the stream, taking water samples. It was a hands-on fun experience that they couldn't have gotten anywhere else," Houser said, adding that the class then toured the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center, the sewage treatment plant that was the first tenant of the campus. "It really is an incredible opportunity for kids to learn about a community's water."

Cannon said the lessons are catered to the curriculum, and recently the offerings were expanded to allow home-schooled children the use of laboratories and classes that school children have visited on field trips.

On top of that, the opportunities for adults has grown, including a Green Living Series and more opportunities for volunteerism, such as planting and clearing outdoor classrooms.

"It's still evolving and changing," Cannon said of exhibits and offerings. "As learning and curriculum needs change, so shall we."

With two young children, Houser said the building doesn't just mean a lot to him. It's special for his entire family.

"I think there are certainly a number of opportunities to have fun and learn at the same time," he said. "The more opportunities we have like that the better."