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For me, the most impressive part of visiting  the Tyson Research Center near Eureka is being surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of acres of trees.   About a dozen Franklin Countians joined a bunch of St. Louis folks for a talk and tour of the Living Learning Center on a gorgeously cool evening.   The oxygen-rich environment lifts the spirits and calms the soul.  

Coincidentally, that’s also part of what is being accomplished within the learning center building itself.  As explained by architect Dan Hellmuth,  to meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge (the next step beyond LEED platinum,)  the design should change a  visitor’s  mindset and create a sense of participating with nature and other living things.  Several of us noticed that feeling right away and wanted to break into camp songs.  What a gift Washington University has given us with this wonderful hideaway.

Background:  Wash U got the 2,000 acres just north of I-44 in the Antire Hill area in 1963 for a good price from the U.S. Dept of Defense.  There are still ammo storage bunkers scattered around the property, but Mother Nature hides them as she would her naughty children.

As explained by Kevin G. Smith, associate director of the center, the mission of the research center is larger than sustainable building practices.  Faculty and students from Wash U and other colleges study infectious diseases transmitted by insects and other critters.  They are experimenting with ecosystems to see how pollution affects them.  They study and remediate the problem of invasive species and are trying to figure out ways to save species that are becoming extinct.

Our tour was set up by Carl Walz of RePower Missouri and the Alliance for Climate Protection.  The Center is available by appointment to school groups and others interested in learning about any of the research topics.

Smith explained that our part of the U.S. has lost native prairie and glade ecosystems due to human destruction of forest and fields, so that is one of the projects the scientists at the center are working on.  They’ve built 12 experimental ponds that they can study and manipulate to see the effects of introducing different species to each other.  Glades used to be abundant on southwestern slopes of hills where the soil is dry.  They were like mini-deserts and can still be discovered under the new vegetation that has taken over.  The research goal is to see if they can be restored and survive.

Hellmuth began his portion of the program by asking the 40 or so attendees if they believe climate change is a serious issue.  Since we were all there at the invitation of RePower Missouri, the answer was simple.  But Hellmuth said that when he asks that question of most groups of visitors, the answer divides into thirds – yes, no and don’t know.  That’s shocking in and of itself but a testament to the power of the language being used by climate change deniers.  Hellmuth’s excellent suggestion: “Whether you think it’s a problem or not, you should be doing things to save energy and make your homes more efficient.”   I agree.

The goal of the Learning Center building which is just a few months old is to become carbon and energy neutral.  Gone are the yukky compost toilets of the 1970’s.   The new system is made up of some kind of natural processing  in a big tank under the building.    Also, rainwater is captured and recycled into potable water through a series of filters.  Hellmuth said Ameren was very cooperative and helpful in setting up the electrical system.  The Center uses power from Ameren’s grid when it can’t produce its own power from the solar panels.  On really sunny days, when the Center produces more power than it needs, it goes back to the Ameren grid.

One of the requirements of the Living Building Challenge is that construction materials not contain toxic substances and that materials not be transported more than a certain number of miles.  During the discussion period, several people brought up the need for new jobs in our area and how we could be building the materials right here for energy efficient homes.  Even the “sidewalks” around the building are eco-friendly in that water flows right through them rather than creating runoff.  The red cedar used for construction came from Eastern Red Cedars considered an invasive species and harvested right there on the property.   (Question:  How long does a tree have to be common to an area before it’s no longer considered “invasive”?  Is it kind of like a Yankee moving to Missouri?)

All in all, it was a very educational evening and I would recommend taking advantage of a tour when one comes your way.