A notorious industrial site now nurtures wetlands, prairies, walking trails and 170 bird species
Jay Stenger has been admiring the scenery at Fernald.
Just a few years ago, that would have been an impossible statement. No one like Stenger, a birder and past president of the Cincinnati Bird Club, would have driven 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati to admire the wildlife in this part of Crosby Township. It was too marred by waste pits, a few hundred bleak-looking buildings and four decades of use during the Cold War as a plant that refined raw uranium for nuclear weapons.
Once the Department of Energy got behind a $4.4 billion cleanup to make the place environmentally friendly, Fernald became what it is today: Fernald Preserve, two linked words that are no longer a contradiction in terms.
The once-toxic plant is free of almost all of its industrial buildings, including storage silos that contained the largest source of radon gas in the world. What’s left is becoming a destination for nature-lovers.
That’s exactly what the designers of the Fernald Preserve intended. They wanted this place to stand as an example of how an industrial site could be restored to its natural landscape, complete with wetlands, prairies, walking trails – and more than 170 species of birds.
“If you give nature a chance, you’re going to have birds,” Stenger said of the 1,050-acre property, which now looks a little more like it might have 200 years ago. “That’s the wonderful thing about nature. It heals itself.”
What’s special about the new Fernald Preserve Visitors’ Center, converted from a pre-engineered steel warehouse, is that it stands as kind of the last little house on the prairie at the old foundry. Much of what was left of old buildings is buried in a giant mound nearby.
The Visitors’ Center, a $3 million building with a sleek and crisp glass-fronted lobby, opens to the public Aug. 20. It is a candidate for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. That’s the second-highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council in a ranking system that has become a nationally accepted benchmark for design, construction and operation of “green” buildings.
Creating an energy-efficient building out of the only remaining warehouse at Fernald was a challenge.
“Nearly everything we put in the building had some content of recycled material in it,” said Jim Kilpatrick, a project manager for Megen Construction Co.
Megen worked with Glaserworks architect Adam Luginbill and a team that included faculty and students from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. They transformed the warehouse into a bright and modern lobby aligned along a “solstice wall” meant to honor the Native Americans who once walked the land.
Exhibits will explain the story of Fernald’s people, from Native Americans to the farmers who gave up their land for the plant, the workers who filled it and those who cleaned it up. The warehouse itself is from the cleanup era, free of any contamination.
The rest of the building is a study in what it means to go green.
“There are light sensors that come on when you enter a room,” said Jeff Williams, another Megen project manager. From the low-emitting paints to high-efficiency plumbing, the building is an example of how homeowners could make their homes greener. “It’s a good model that shows LEED is achievable,” he said.
The team used concrete from the old warehouse floor for erosion prevention. The new concrete is reinforced with recycled steel. A geothermal heating and cooling system uses water from a pond to reduce energy consumption. The paint, plumbing, carpet and lights all got the “green” light.
“LEED gave us the framework for what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Luginbill, who made sure the project used plenty of regional materials and building material from recycled sources.
The result — a nature preserve in what was once an environmental disaster — shows that Fernald’s story has come full-circle, said Jane Powell, Fernald site manager for the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management.
She’s most proud of what when into keeping it safe.
“There’s beauty in so many ways,” she said. “It’s green. There’s water. There’s wildlife. It’s hard to believe there was ever anything here other than this.”
- Owner: U.S. Department of Energy
- General contractor: Megen Construction Co.
- Architect: Glaserworks
- Design and exhibits: University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning
- Environmental remediation: S.M. Stoller
- Geothermal: RPC Mechanical
- Waste recycling: Rumpke
- Cost: $3 million for the Visitors’ Center alone, and more than $5 million more for redevelopment of the land, trails, landscaping and educational materials
- Size: A 10,800-square-foot former warehouse