Rockford’s energy-efficient Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens

In two and a half years, the Rockford Park District will open a new state-of-the-art conservatory and energy-efficient attached buildings in Sinnissippi Park. The conservatory will replace the old greenhouse, which stood there since 1924. A lobby, offices, meeting rooms, work areas and a terrace will be included. This is the first of several Park District projects planned for the centennial year 2009.

The project, which will demonstrate reducing the use of fossil fuels and increasing the use of renewable energy, will be partially paid for by a gift from the Nicholas family in honor of their parents. Additional funds to complete the entire building project will come from another private foundation. No tax money will be used for building.

Inefficiency will be replaced by efficiency. Renewable energy installations will include photovoltaic electricity and geothermal heating. If water flow is adequate, geothermal will provide close to 100 percent of the buildings’ heating needs. A wind demonstration unit may also be installed.

The Park District already employs energy-saving programs. New vehicles are flex-fuel, using a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Recycling is practiced at all major park facilities; next year, they hope to add four additional sites to the recyclers. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity funded the recycling program.

Conservatory installations are designed to meet LEED silver status standards. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a national program that sets standards for energy efficiency in buildings.

The purpose of the entire project will be to provide enjoyment and education for the community. Installations will not only save energy and its costs, they will also be used to educate the public. Equipment may be viewed through glass windows; signs will explain technologies and their functioning; four kiosks in the lobby will explain both renewable energy and the history of the Rock River region. Installations will alert visitors to the fact that these technologies are available and functional today.

Inside the conservatory and on the grounds, the public will enjoy and learn about a variety of plants. In a greenhouse, plants are grown and often started before being set outdoors. A conservatory showcases plants. Since tropical plants need several months to acclimate to new growing conditions, they will be permanently housed in the conservatory. Native plants will be included in outdoor gardens to demonstrate how native plants (which are also energy efficient, needing less water than typical garden plants) can be used in home landscaping.

In addition to casual visitors enjoying the buildings and grounds, organized groups and activities will help partially support the effort. Weddings, receptions and special events are expected to take place in the lobby, which will accommodate 150 people, and the terrace over the river. Meeting rooms can be rented. Work areas can be used for schools, garden clubs such as Master Gardeners and others.

Eventually, the old lagoon will be replaced by one with a waterfall that is functionally tied to the Conservatory.

The Rockford Park District’s hope is that people who visit the conservatory will leave with some understanding and appreciation of the environment and recognition of the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels, that adults recognize they are stewards of the Earth for their children and that youth will be inspired to become stewards of the future. Their goal is to create a sense of hope. According to Jim Reid, deputy director, Capital Planning and Asset Management, “It’s up to us.”

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the issue March 14-20, 2007, issue

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