Once an ecological sanctuary dominated by wetlands, the Calumet Region was altered by more than a century of industrialization. With little to no environmental regulations until the 1970s, Big Marsh Park is one of many natural landscapes within the region damaged by slag from nearby steel mills. Now the largest reclamation project undertaken by the Chicago Parks District, its revival aims to surpass clean up efforts, and strive for long term advocacy and positive change through the Ford Calumet Environmental Center. This building is a hub for education and cultural activity, leading by example with sustainable building practices to set a new standard for development in the Southeast side of Chicago.
Built on a brownfield site, the park had to ensure the safety of visitors and staff with thorough environmental remediation. The center is consequently built on 60ft piles and sealed with a 2ft clay cap, allowing the building to rest gently on the landscape, while keeping people safe from the contaminated soil. Additionally, a unique vapor barrier captures gasses from underneath the building to release them safely into the wind without harm.
Education is a central component to the mission of the Ford Calumet Environmental Center and it’s facilitated through both the exhibit and the architecture. The exhibit tells the story of the site and region - educating visitors about its history, ecological features, reclamation initiatives and concepts behind eco-recreation.
Architecture also supports this agenda—with materials like weathering steel cladding that recall the site's industrial past contrasted by the Nail-Laminated Timber structure that demonstrates a sustainable future. The constructed waste-water wetland system is featured beside the building’s entrance, demonstrating with a display panel how it uses similar systems from the marsh to process black water and release it back into the site via leach field.