VCU Rice Center

building frontFor my first field trip as part of the Virginia Native Plant Society’s annual meeting, we visited the Virginia Commonwealth University Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences in Charles City County. The botanizing was what it was, but the education and lab facility was a stunner.

the JamesVCU acquired the property, on a bluff with a majestic view of the James River, via a gift from Walter Rice’s widow, Inger. She then went on to specify (and fund!) a state-of-the-art sustainably-built edifice. Panelled in American White-cedar, the building has achieved LEED platinum certification. Early plans called for solar panels on the roof, but they would have been shadowed by the huge oak that provides the shade in this image. So the panels were relocated to the research pier at the bottom of the bluff.

Vertical geothermal tubes provide some of the heating and cooling. I was surprised to learn that the permeable paving system for the entrance drive and parking area (a plastic grid over layers of sand and gravel) was one of the more expensive elements, blowing out the original $2M budget for the entire package.

the windows openThe south-facing conference hall is naturally lit and ventilated. Knee-height casement windows are supplemented with industrial-strength ceiling fans, keeping temps in the room very comfortable (albeit on a breezy early fall day).

As we talked outside, our presenters were upstaged by a pair of chippering Bald Eagles, their arrival announced by an unhappy Blue Jay.

Along with research into Eastern Box Turtles and Prothonotary Warblers, the Center is in the midst of a wetland restoration project—one that was prompted by Nature herself. Kimages Creek, just to the east of the educattion building, was dammed in the 1920s by a real estate developer who sought to establish a hunting club. Although he busted almost immediately, the dam remained for the time being, impounding a body of water called Charles Lake (it’s still labelled as such on Yahoo!’s maps). The earthen dam, never well-maintained, was eventually breached by storms in the 2000s. Efforts are now underway to re-establish the tidal freshwater creek.

Land use in the area is exceptionally well-documented and mapped, owing to the place’s strategic importance during the American Civil War. Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was encamped on the eastern side of Kimages Creek for a short period of time in 1862.