Monday, July 5, 2010

Beam-Raising at Columbia Science and Natural Resources Center

We recently celebrated the raising of the last beam for the new Science Center at Columbia College in Tuolomne County, California.  This building will be LEED Gold, which is fitting for a building placed atop a former gold mine in the foothills of the Sierras.  The main features of the building are the geothermal wells to heat and cool the building, large solar panels, plus the centralized preparation room for the science labs.  Outside in the landscape, we selected plants native to the foothills and county of Tuolomne to restore surrounding habitat and shade the hardscapes.  My contribution to the project was awarded the highest possible number of LEED points for landscape water efficiency and site development. 
I see this place as a nurse site to reintroduce plants that were missing from the surrounding landscape due to the degradation suffered during the gold mining days.  Not only did we chose plants that were missing from this community, but we also chose plants that would provide food and shelter for animals of the foothills.  What added to the complexity was finding plants that fit these requirements and were also available in the nursery trades in the quantities we need for this project. 
When we undertook this project, we intended to preserve all the trees between the building and roadway, and as part of this the key trees had been given special names so as to give them more significance in the planning process. This helped keep us all on the same page when later in the process, other professionals assigned the trees their own numbering systems, which ordinarily could have made things really confusing. Here we are three years after the initial planning process began, and unfortunately bark beetles have hit the region hard as a result of climate change, in ways we have yet to imagine.  Our Sentinel Pine became infected very recently, and there is no cure for the diseases the insects bring with them.  The Sentinel was a loss we all mourned, as the building footprint had been determined originally by our desire to keep this, the site's largest pine, standing tall and providing shade for the hard surfaces below it. 
Designers are rarely asked to consider the future of a project or product after their ideas have manifested themselves in the physical, let alone years into the future.  On my projects I try to incorporate the history of a place- in this case, the gold mine and even the time before this- as well as possible outcomes for the future to create a long view that guides my decision process.  In this case climate change threw me for a loop, and I imagine many other people have been experiencing unanticipated outcomes as a result of human factors they hadn't considered. What happens, for example, if predictions come true and we in California lose so many of our key species?  Will we no longer even have redwoods, or oak forests?  And if not, what will there be, if anything? 
These are questions that continue to vex me, but I counter these uncertainties by incorporating into my plans ecological principles such as redundancy, genetic variation, and adaptation.  In the end, if I have done my job well, no one will even know I was there at all.

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