Nature center's bold plan raises bar on sustainability

By The Gazette Editorial Board


Iowa’s only private non-profit nature center wants to take its ongoing mission one big step further: become an “amazing space,” become one of the “greenest of the green.”

This is not just for show. The Amazing Space project is a three-year campaign to raise money toward building a new education and interpretive building and campus. When completed, it would be Iowa’s largest “net-zero” (fully self-sustaining) building. It also aims to become the only Iowa project to achieve the Living Building Challenge certification — something only five other buildings in the world have achieved to date.

We think Indian Creek Nature Center is well-positioned to do all of the above.


But why do this?

Because this project has the potential to become an exemplary model, a living lab of sorts, from which the community and beyond can learn more about sustainability — what works, what doesn’t, and how best to incorporate it into our homes and commercial spaces.

OK, but what is sustainability and why is it so important to our future quality of life?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as follows:

“Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations. Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have, the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.”

Sustainability is more than a contemporary buzzword. Understanding it and continually working toward that “productive harmony” is essential in our ever more-crowded, resource-hungry and complicated world. In Iowa, for example, we can’t afford to take for granted or abuse our rich topsoil, our many waterways and water supplies. Since settlement, Iowa has lost 99.9 percent of its prairie; 6 million acres of wetlands — nature’s water filter and flood-control expert — have been reduce by agriculture and urban development to a mere 70,000 acres. Half of our topsoil has been lost to erosion.


The Amazing Space project can show us possible pathways to higher levels of sustainability.

Its centerpiece is the new education and interpretive center, at 12,000 square feet double the size of the former dairy barn that was converted in 1973 when Indian Creek Nature Center was incorporated as a non-profit. The new center is expected to generate its own energy (wind, solar sources), collect its own water and treat its own waste. Even the construction process, with two local companies sharing the general contractor role, will eliminate or greatly reduce negative impacts on the environment.

The Living Building Challenge is a certification program that builds on the better-known and longer established LEED. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, under the auspices of the U.S. Green Building Council, rates building projects for energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, materials selection, sustainable site development and water savings. Think of the Living Challenge as “on steroids,” said John Myers, who last year succeeded longtime nature center director Rich Patterson, known for his innovation and promoting prudent use of resources.

Myers told us one of the project’s priorities is to “be a catalyst for who we (the community and Eastern Iowa) can be in the future.”

Learning opportunities will abound, even including the mechanical room — it will have glass walls so visitors can see the geothermal heating/cooling and radiant floor systems.

The old center has served well. Last year, more than 17,500 children participated in one or more of 440 programs — an average of 40 per event. More than 40,000 people overall attended programs or walked the center’s trails. But 2008 flood damage, the building’s age and other physical shortcomings, as well as more traffic, led staff and supporters to plan for a new one. They decided to dream large.

The new facility will be built a half-mile away, out of the flood zone, on the edge of forest that opens into prairie. The revised 200-acre campus proposes a new living amphitheater, a constructed wetland, relocation of a trail and new education shelters, among other features. The existing maple sugar house, host to an annual festival, will be moved as well. Access will be improved.

The old facility will still be used, possibly as a trail center where patrons can rent bicycles, snowshoes and kayaks.


The nearly $7 million Amazing Space project is well on its way to financial sustainability. Several large donations in the pre-campaign period have landed nearly $4.5 million, leaving about $2.4 million to raise in the public phase.

What particularly impresses us about this non-profit is its $2 million operations endowment and a $70,000 budget reserve. The new campaign aims to add $1 million more to the endowment. That adds up to long-term stability and ability to weather the storms of inflationary costs and unforeseen expenses.

The current operating budget of about a half-million dollars draws from multiple revenue sources, virtually all private. The center gets a small piece of the city’s hotel-motel tax.

The new facility’s green technology is expected to cut heating, cooling and lighting costs by $600,000 over the first 25 years and have life well beyond traditional systems.

With 800 members representing 2,500 individuals, its community support is solid. That said, we think Amazing Space offers an opportunity for many more residents and businesses to pitch in with cash or in-kind donations.

gift for the ages

The lessons this facility can demonstrate transcend doing what’s right for our environment. Getting kids outside to enjoy and explore nature is more essential today given that, nationwide, children spend an average of eight hours a day using entertainment and other media and only 6 percent of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own.

We may be at risk of losing an entire generation’s appreciation for how nature works and how people should manage our priceless natural resources. And, according to, recent research shows that curricula with an outdoor learning component significantly improve overall student performance, particularly in science and math. Getting outdoors is good for bodies and brains.

Support for this project is a gift to our children and their children and beyond. Let’s make this place even more amazing and useful for generations to come.


To learn more or donate:

The Living Building Challenge:

Indian Creek Nature Center 

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