In 2020, the McFadden Nature Center hosted an architectural competition to challenge architectural students and professionals to design a new Nature Center on an existing site in Donalsonville, Georgia. The site contains low, gently rolling hills, surrounded by 1,260 acres of woods and wetlands along two miles of river frontage along the Chattahoochee River. The Nature Center is named for the late Pat McFadden, an avid outdoorsman who wanted to preserve the land and also build a center that would have a positive influence on both local and regional visitors.
The prompt included a new 10,000 SF education center with a Great room with both educational exhibits and a space for McFadden’s African mounts; a 10,000 SF lodging area with 5-8 guestrooms; an outdoor covered meeting area for up to 100 people; a barbecue area; wayfinding signage; and the incorporation of native plants into the landscape. Straughn Trout Architects was awarded first place for its entry.
The McFadden Nature Center property is located in Donalsonville, Georgia, at the heart of Seminole County, named for the Seminole Indians whose influences can still be found throughout the region. Founded in 1987, the town was named after John Earnest Donalson, who built the first lumber mill in the area. In its early days, spiritual life dominated the community. Early homes drew architectural influences from log churches, which served as both places to worship and to socialize. Agriculture played a critical role in establishing the town. Early settlers prospered by ways of farming and livestock. Later, turpentine stills added to the economy, followed by lumber mills. The lumber industry catalyzed growth in the area thanks to the abundance of local pines. Rafts made from local timber eased shipping and travel woes and ushered trade along the Chattahoochee River to Apalachicola. Donalsonville later became a leader in the production of cotton and peanuts. Thanks to its well-kept, lush green pastures, Donalsonville lures many people from Georgia and throughout the United States to study its prosperous soils and livestock populations.
The design distinctly reflects Pat McFadden’s lifelong, ferocious curiosity, passions, and bountiful interests. In a juxtaposition of locally-native elements with fundamental aspects of the African wilderness, the Nature Center synthesizes personality with character and function. The structure blends construction-types in the vernacular of local Native American tribes with modern compositions. The design pays homage to local antiquity, including the design of early bridges crossing the Chattahoochee, which greatly improved travel and local commerce.
Sustainability and endurance primarily influenced material selections and other details found in both the structure and façade. These aspects of the design leverage combinations of natural elements, such as limestone and wood paired with glass and steel. The design is also based upon efficiency. In nature, the hexagon is found to be the most efficient structural shape. Its geometry uses the least amount of material to support the most weight.
The umbrella thorn acacia tree (vachellia tortilis) provides the prevailing form for the structure. One of the most recognizable trees on the African savanna, it grows in a spectacular canopy-like configuration. Its thorns are disguised within its flower clusters, a natural defense mechanism that prevents savanna animals from eating their leaves, flowers, and seedpods. Its shape provides shade and a place for gathering; a refuge from the sun during harsh summer months. Our team architecturalized the forms of this iconic African tree to capture the ethos of McFadden’s love for the continent as well as the enduring, tolerant, and sanctuary characteristics of the umbrella thorn acacia.
The design was developed spatially separating the public/private spaces and focusing on the intersections of those spatial volume, unfolding a continual exploratory experience. This begins the moment you access the site and continues as you navigate the rolling hills and woodlands, the structure is merely a framework allowing the visitor to become immersed into the natural settling on the gentle hills, woodlands, and river setting.
In addition to utilizing local lumber, limestone, and materials inherent to preserving the native landscape, the proposed design also includes a rainwater harvesting system. As a civil engineering “best management practice,” this technology collects and stores rainwater for human use. The winged shape of the roof provides an aesthetic form and also function, as it guides runoff water to the rain gardens. The rain gardens incorporated in the design are part of the overall harvesting system, utilizing natural fauna and rock elements in a natural aesthetic to treat the water. The cistern is also to be utilized for perimeter irrigation, further reducing the facility’s environmental impact.