The Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center, dedicated on September 10, 2004, lives in a symbiotic relationship with its home — the 90-acre Ecosystem Preserve at Calvin College. The preserve plays host to the center, and the center welcomes the preserve’s visitors. And as the preserve has made room for the Interpretive Center, the 5,270-square-foot center has moved in graciously, drawing much of its energy from the sun and recycling its building materials, water and waste.
Most importantly, the preserve and the center are always telling the same story: the everyday growth and change of a natural habitat.
“For me, it’s the narthex to the church. The narthex to a church sets you up to enter the sanctuary. It gives you sharper vision to go out and see things you might otherwise have missed.” — Randy Van Dragt, preserve director
“This building is a tool to help people better understand the environment and concepts of sustainability,” said Calvin College architect Frank Gorman about the Interpretive Center, which he designed. “It is our goal to be exemplary students of the environment.”
The story begins with the land, not the building. Calvin’s Ecosystem Preserve was pieced together over a 35-year period, beginning in 1964 when the college acquired 25 acres — part of a larger parcel of wetlands, mixed-hardwood forests, horse farm and agricultural fields — east of the East Beltline. In 1978, a study committee from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship advised that, as a fitting expression of environmental stewardship, those acres should be set aside as a nature preserve.
“We originally proposed that this could be an outreach area to serve environmental interests,” said biology professor Randy Van Dragt, who now serves as the preserve’s director.
That vision took actual shape in 1985, when money from the college’s shares in the William Angell Foundation allowed Van Dragt and engineering professor Marv Vander Wal (employing 12 engineering and biology students) to create a trail system on the original property. “I did all the trail layouts. Marv did all the decks and bridges,” Van Dragt recalled about that early collaboration. “He came up with some nice designs.”
Over the years, Calvin widened the preserve holdings, purchasing seven acres to the north in 1984 and 48 acres to the east in 1986.
In 1995 the college acquired a home on Lake Drive that abutted the preserve’s northern border, through the generosity of the woman who lived next door to it: Helen Bunker. That house, at 3770 Lake Drive, and its eight acres became the preserve’s original headquarters. And in 1999 Bunker, who had lived at 3830 Lake Drive for 40 years, added her home and its two acres to the Ecosystem Preserve.
Altogether, this generous acreage is home to 135 species of birds, 30 species of mammals, 235 plants and a variety of fish, reptiles and amphibians. Except for the 30 public acres where the trail system wanders, the remainder of the land is a sanctuary where deer, fox, mink and other creatures live undisturbed except by research — tree mapping, insect studies, weather studies and the like.
School groups, ecologists, nature lovers and other wanderers have made themselves at home in the Ecosystem Preserve. In 1995 local children began attending the preserve’s K-3 environmental education program, and since 2000, kids have studied everything from trees and wildflowers to insect life at the preserve’s Wetland and Woodland Camp. In 1998 Cheryl Hoogewind ’93 signed on as preserve manager to administer these camps and other programs. And every year, Van Dragt hires students as preserve stewards to do trail maintenance and ongoing research.
As busy as the preserve was, by the mid-1990s, it still lacked a true home base for its educational programs, and there were those who wanted to establish one. Calvin president Gaylen Byker was one of the most motivated, Van Dragt said.
“I’ve always really appreciated the preserve and thought we had a great asset that had broader appeal for the community,” said Byker, himself an avid outdoorsman who worked to acquire the 3770 Lake Drive headquarters in 1995. “The idea for a center came up, and I became enthusiastic to get enough funds to build a building that could be of use.” The original center plans were modest, said Byker, but they grew. “I think Randy’s and my enthusiasm fed off each other,” he admitted.
From its conception, the center was intended by its planners to fit gently into the preserve environment, while providing space for educational programs and displays, offices and a biology classroom. Working closely with Van Dragt, Gorman designed a building that met that ideal, while meeting enough environmentally friendly criteria to qualify for a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. (LEED specifications award points for every aspect of a building’s sustainability: design, site, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and indoor environmental quality design.)
“Once we found the appropriate donors,” Byker said, “we had such a well thought-out project with so many environmental benefits that it was easy to sell the idea.”
The first donor to catch the vision was Helen Bunker, with a gift of $750,000. The nature-loving Bunker, who financed the center for its educational outreach to children, has joked: “If the name falls off, that’s OK.” Thelma Venema — a 1961 Calvin alumna, Indiana businesswoman and amateur geology buff whose quiet gifts have enriched Calvin’s science division — added $500,000 to the project.
Those substantial gifts were augmented by $100,000 from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, $82,500 from the Frey Foundation, $50,000 from the DTE Energy Foundation and $91,000 from the Energy Office of Michigan for the photovoltaic system.
Wolverine Construction Management, which had previous experience on Calvin projects, won the job of building the Interpretive Center. “I would say that the biggest challenge was, in fact, integrating all the systems together in such a way that everybody approved of it … not only mechanically and chemically but aesthetically,” said Curt Mulder ’00, a Wolverine project manager who oversaw construction. Robert Kobet — a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University and “a straight-up green building guru,” said Mulder — consulted with the design team at Calvin. Construction materials were shipped to the site as needed, and the crew recycled leftovers as they built.
The completed Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center is a largely self-sustaining entity, independent of the city’s sewer system and taking more than 60 percent of its operating power from a photovoltaic array. Much of the center — including paneling, insulation and interior trim — is built of recycled materials. On days that the weather permits it, the windows open automatically to heat and cool the building. Gray water (from sinks) is processed through a “living machine,” a complex of soil and plants in a small attached greenhouse that captures nutrients and releases water to the air through evaporation. Waste is processed through composting toilets. The soil from those toilets, processed by worms, will eventually enrich the center’s landscaping — all indigenous plants grown in the preserve.
“Helen Bunker said, ‘It looks like Hansel and Gretel’s house,’” Gorman said of the center’s homelike design. The entrance opens into a roomy hall that leads through the building and out into the preserve. On the center’s north end, there is a large meeting room, whose spacious picture window looks out over the preserve’s south pond and whose large fieldstone fireplace anchors the building. On the opposite side of the hall is a laboratory classroom, which will host a live beehive. The building also contains a small conference room and two offices.
The Interpretive Center is educational down to its detail work. The hall, featuring displays and an aquarium, is lined with pine columns marked by insect boring. The fireplace is built out of various formations of rock that serve as teaching models. Thirty animal and insect species are featured on a fireplace carving, executed by Darrell De Ruiter ’71. The stained concrete of the central hall is decorated with the tracks of deer, rabbit and raccoon as well as insects and salamanders, painted by Calvin senior Jennette Timmer. A microphone in the meeting room will allow visitors to hear birdcalls outside.
“It’s amazing that a building this small has such sophistication and nuance,” Byker commented.
Hoogewind is enthusiastic about how the center, in all its complexity, enables the preserve to expand its programs: “The biggest difference will be that we can do year-round programming. Hopefully, we can develop winter programs — look at what the preserve is like in the winter.”
Van Dragt hopes that the center will provide a refuge for any number of nature-attuned groups — the Michigan Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Ruffed Grouse Society — and also a meeting space for college workshops and retreats.
Mulder, who refers to the center as “my first green building,” hopes to see the trend toward environmentally friendly construction (in which West Michigan is a leader) continue to prosper — and to get that LEED gold rating. Ultimately, he admitted, “It’s good to do something good.”
Gorman agreed: “We’re more concerned with the spirit of what we’re doing here.”
And Van Dragt gave his favorite analogy: “For me, it’s the narthex to the church. The narthex to a church sets you up to enter the sanctuary. It gives you sharper vision to go out and see things you might otherwise have missed.”
— Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s staff writer.
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