Alabama is among the five states whose natural heritage, culture and economy have been shaped in large part by bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Encompassing over five million acres, the Gulf’s rich habitats help make it one of the most ecologically and economically productive bodies of water in the world.
In 2018, the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism & Sustainability was founded in Gulf Shores to promote sustainable tourism, environmental awareness and stewardship of the Gulf Coast’s natural resources. Its activities and programs will be enhanced with the new Gulf Coast Eco Center. This ecotourism and experiential learning facility is set to be constructed on city-owned property using funds from the RESTORE act, penalties resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill allocated for restoring and protecting the Gulf Coast. Construction is estimated to start summer 2022 and a grand opening projected for March 2024.
A range of camps, classes, workshops, and environmental leadership programs for student groups, families, hospitality industry partners, residents, and tourists will be available at the new Center, explains Travis Langen, executive director of the nonprofit Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism & Sustainability. Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment programs will also be part of the new Center. These programs include educational camps, retreats, family camps and excursions.
The city of Gulf Shores partnered with Birmingham-based ArchitectureWorks and Fairhope-based WATERSHED to design a sustainable facility that reflects the mission to protect the natural resources of the Gulf Coast. Gulf Coast Eco Center will include a great hall and dining area, classrooms and outdoor learning The infrastructure, ropes courses and team-building areas, accessible trails and pathways and administrative spaces, organic gardens and greenhouses, learning laboratories, housing for instructors, interactive sustainability offices.
“Our design approach to the Center focused on preserving the site and integrating the buildings into the forest. Sustainability design focused on orientation of the buildings as well as local resources for building materials,” explains Jay Pigford of ArchitectureWorks.
“Water collection not only serves the buildings and farming, but also becomes an overt educational tool for programs. Open air circulation in the buildings and screen porches keep the visitor engaged with the environment while fans and deep overhangs provide cooling in these spaces. Expansive glass connects the interior spaces to the surrounding forest and floods the buildings with natural light. The buildings are scaled to nestle into the site using natural wood finishes and colors to blend with the environment.”
WATERSHED is the local architect on the job and is working with ArchitectureWorks, the architect of record for the project. “They bring a lot of experience with experimental education to the project and we are bringing our knowledge of sustainable design for the gulf coast, but both firms bring more than that of course, and in the end it just all goes into the mix with the client’s vision and needs,” notes WATERSHED Principal and co-founder Rebecca Dunn Bryant
WATERSHED initially developed a conceptual design for the camp with the city of Gulf Shores and helped them to secure Restore Act funding for the project, which will be going out to bid this spring.
“This facility will be an important part of the growing ecotourism market for the Gulf Coast, and will provide incredible experiences in nature for school children from Gulf Shores, Baldwin County and around the region,” Bryant adds. “We always try to seek out projects that have the potential to create positive change for a community. The Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability has the potential not just to create positive environmental impacts with the sustainable design and regenerative landscape, but to impact every person who visits.”