Strategy shift enables Merry Lea to break ground for ‘green’ facility in August

WOLF LAKE, Ind. – When it comes to fundraising for a building project, especially a “green” one, it is sometimes helpful to plant a seed in order to glimpse the overall potential for the facility. With a decision to build its new complex in two phases, construction will begin on Merry Lea Environmental Center’s long-awaited collegiate facility this summer. Crews will break ground this August and the environmentally-friendly facility could welcome its first students as early as May 2005.

Phase one will include the five cottages on the western side of the design plan, driveway and parking, constructed wetlands and site development needed for the project as a whole. Board members are calling this cluster of cottages “Rieth Village” after Merry Lea’s founding donors, Lee and Mary Jane Rieth.

Phase two will include the 20,000 square feet academic building and the two remaining cottages on its east side. Dividing the project into two phases will allow Merry Lea to use the funds available at this time to meet its most urgent programming needs.

As of April, it appeared that the project would be delayed for several more years. Original plans called for a groundbreaking this June, but the capital campaign was still several major donors short of the $9.9 million price tag required to fund construction on the entire facility, equipment and maintenance endowment. Since Goshen College stewardship policy requires that buildings be fully funded before groundbreaking, no action could be taken.

Several factors make it possible to build the project in phases. Because the collegiate environmental studies program needs student housing first, it makes sense to build the cottages in phase one. Constructing the facility in two phases will allow time for the program to grow into the larger space provided by the future academic building.

A date for beginning the second building phase is not set yet, but it will probably take place after 2006 so that raising additional funds can be part of Goshen College’s 2005-2010 strategic plan.

Furthermore, current plans already call for the five western cottages to use the same well for sinks and showers, the same cistern for flushing toilets and to treat their run-off water in the same cleansing biotope. The site plan can also be segmented in such a way that native landscaping, parking and gardening areas can be finished, and will not be disturbed by later construction to the east.

Even the ecological engine – the wastewater treatment plant that will purify all water on the site using plants and microorganisms – can be constructed in two phases. Although the indoor tanks in the academic building cannot be completed until phase two, the outdoor components – a septic tank, wetland cells, sand filter and infiltration field – will be adequate for the amount of wastewater produced by the five cottages.

“The expansion of programming this building project allows is very exciting,” said Goshen College President Shirley H. Showalter. “The buildings themselves will be laboratories for sustainability, and the environmental studies major on our campus will take a great leap forward. We are grateful for the vision of Lee and Mary Jane Rieth that made it possible to build an outstanding educational program in a one-of-a-kind learning center.”

All stakeholders involved with the collegiate facility voted unanimously in favor of proceeding in two phases. Marjorie Souers, who chairs Merry Lea’s Board of Directors, said she did not sense any dissension among the board either during the discussion of phasing or during the vote. “It is another step forward in Merry Lea’s ability to provide learning for this community,” she added.

Joy LeCount, a Merry Lea board member and editor of the New Albion Era, says she voted to move the project forward in phases because she believed Merry Lea would lose momentum if the whole project were postponed for two or three years due to funding limitations. “There is always the concern that something will derail the second phase, but we are all committed to making certain that doesn’t happen,” LeCount said. “I am very encouraged by the support shown by those on our board who are from Goshen College. It sounds as if this project is high on their list of priorities.”

On May 25, the project design team – including partners from Morrison Kattman Menze Inc. of Fort Wayne, Conservation Design Forum of Elmhurst, Ill., and Eta Engineers Inc., Champaign, Ill., – met for the first time since the new start date became official. Gascho said the enthusiasm was palpable. “Walking the building site together was a highlight of the meeting,” he says. “The whole hillside was cleared of invasive weeds. Stakes were in the ground marking the location of the five cottages. We could see, with the view across the wetlands, the care that’s been given to making this whole facility fit into its natural setting. We could see how pleasing the spatial arrangement of the community is.”

Now that construction of the collegiate facility is moving forward, plans to offer new courses for college students the summer of 2005 are also underway. Dave Miller, Merry Lea’s program director, is presently developing a course on wetland invertebrates, and Gascho is planning to have an agroecologist teaching pilot courses by that time as well. When the collegiate facility is fully functional, Merry Lea will be the site of two 10-week tracks of courses during the summer growing season: a natural history track focused on wetlands and a track in agroecology, which uses the study of ecology as the starting point for developing sustainable methods of growing food. The facility will also be home to graduate students pursuing fieldwork in environmental education. In addition, semester-long programs will be designed for interdisciplinary studies in this new learning community.

Another of Gascho’s priorities during the next year is to make Merry Lea’s building process accessible to those in the broader community who would like to learn more about sustainable choices and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. This is the yardstick Merry Lea’s design team uses as a guide as they seek to create an earth-friendly building.

For example, LEED standards require that excavators disturb the site as little as possible as they build. This affects decisions such as what kinds of construction equipment will be used, as the largest, heaviest machinery compacts the soil to such an extent that it cannot recover. LEED standards also require the construction crew to carefully manage its waste stream, diverting 75 percent of waste from landfills and recycling it in some way. Later in the process, builders will pay special attention to the chemical composition of materials such as paints, solvents and adhesives.

Friends of Merry Lea and others interested in sustainable building should watch for a series of public programs tracking the progress of the project. To receive notice of these events, e-mail

Merry Lea, 300 S. 500 W. in Noble County south of Wolf Lake, is a 1,150 acre natural sanctuary for northern Indiana’s plants and animals, provides environmental education for people of all ages and a setting to recreate opportunities that benefit the human body and spirit without exploiting the land. Merry Lea, created with the assistance of the Nature Conservancy and the generosity of Lee A. and Mary Jane Rieth, is owned and operated by Goshen College. For more information, go to or call (260) 799-5869.

Goshen College, established in 1894, is a four-year residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” Kaplan’s “Most Interesting Colleges” guide and U.S.News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit

– by Jennifer Schrock

Editors: For more information, contact News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or