Off-grid classroom blends into the last of Long Island’s prairie

Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center - SITES pilot project
© Margaret Badore. Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center. It will take a few growing seasons for the green roof grasses to be visible from the ground.

The prairie of Hempstead Plains once covered 40,000 acres of Long Island’s Nassau County, but today that landscape has largely given way to roads, buildings and lawns. Yet a 19-acre patch of those native grasslands can still be seen at the campus of Nassau Community College. The site is home to the endangered Sandplain geradia flower, as well as a number of other threatened plants, insects and birds.

The area was originally set aside for preservation by The Nature Conservancy, then in 2001 Friends of Hempstead Plains was created and took over management of the site. “If you don’t take care of the grasslands, it will evolve into forest,” said Betsy Gulotta, the Hempstead Plains Conservation Project Manager. In this case, the plains would be overrun by a forest of largely non-native and invasive trees and shrubs without management. Gulotta, who teaches biology at the college, retired from being a full-time professor and now dedicates her energy to preserving Hempstead Plains.

Gulotta said that she’s used the plains as an living example for her students for many years. Now, Hempstead Plains will have a physical classroom in the form of an off-grid interpretive center, which will also serve to educate visitors about the flora and fauna they will encounter at the plains. Construction of the center was recently completed, and was funded by environmental bonds issued by the county.

The new interpretive center has earned certification from the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), which is a sustainability rating for landscape projects similar to LEED. Like LEED, it uses a point-based system to assess the sustainability of various aspects of projects like parks, public gardens, and also institutional and commercial grounds. According to SITES, Hempstead Plains is the third project to earn the certification in New York State and was selected as a pilot project to test out the program’s new point system.

The interpretive center incorporates many sustainable components. The building is constructed from recycled shipping containers, is entirely powered by a solar system with battery storage, uses composting toilets, and is crowned with a green roof seeded with native grasses.

“We wanted to do as much as possible to have the building blend in and look as much like the original prairie as it did before we were involved,” said architect Tanya Barth, of RGR Landscape Architecture & Architecture. The rust color of the shipping container exterior and the grassy roof will help the building merge into the landscape.

Using native grasses on the roof not only helps the building aesthetically fit into the grassland, the green roof will also help with water management. None of the water from the site will end up entering the sewer system, thanks to a cistern. Some of the rainwater collected by the green roof will be used for the composting toilets, which Barth said are a somewhat uncommon design, because they didn’t want to disturb the site by digging a deep basement. Instead, the water-assisted composting toilets flush almost sideways, into composting bins. “There’s an aeration system that keeps it from having odor and lets all the enzymes do their work,” she said.

Earning SITES accreditation did mean additional paperwork and a few additional constraints, but both Barth and CeCe Haydock, who served as the SITES project manager, said that the original design for the interpretive center didn’t need major changes to earn the certification.

Barth said that participating in the SITES pilot project “makes you and helps you quantify” how a building project is sustainable. For example, she said that the certification process required determining exactly how much water would be displaced by the building when it rains, and calculating how that water would be managed.

Haydock said the Hempstead Plains project earned particularly high points for its use of native plants and for preserving an endangered species. “We scored very well in the plants section, for the use of native plants, and preservation of native plant communities,” she said. It also earned points for having good monitoring at the site, thanks to the considerable amount of research done at the site by both student and professional scientists.

Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center - SITES pilot project© Margaret Badore. Glass garage doors can be rolled open to merge the classroom space with the outdoors.

The building can serve as both a classroom and a gathering place for community volunteers, who do much of the work to root out invasive plants. The space features garage-style windowed doors, which can be rolled up to bring the outside in. Gulotta, who runs many of the educational and volunteer programs at Hempstead Plains, hopes the site can be used not only by the college’s science departments, but also by its art and history departments, as well as local grade schools.

Gulotta said Hempstead Plains have historical importance as well as ecological importance. Until the 1800s, the plains were held in common and farmers would let their sheep graze during the summer. The sheep would be tagged or branded on the ear to indicate who they belonged to, and in the fall, the farmers would hold a sheep parting event, to divide their flocks. Sheep parting became a kind of festival, with dancing and games. To commemorate this use, the Friends of Hempstead Plains will hold their own fall “Sheep parting” festival. The site promises to be host to many more such hands-on learning opportunities.

Off-grid classroom blends into the last of Long Island’s prairie
The new interpretive center has earned certification from the Sustainable Sites Initiative, and features a green roof planted with native prairie grasses.

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