In 2009, while looking for an expert in the field of green building design, Lori and I made the acquaintance of Martin Despang, a professional architect in Germany who was then teaching at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Martin’s work in designing eco-friendly, net-zero buildings had already won him the respect of the international architectural community and we were pleased when he changed the focus of his upcoming Fall semester from prison design to exploring rural design issues.
In late August of that year, Martin and his 5th & 6th year students began working with the Albion community. Their assignment was to get to know the community and then design buildings and building improvements from the standpoint of a resident.
This involved getting to know both the residents of Albion and also Albion’s history. But the history of the area extends far back into Native American times, so the students not only visited Albion, they also visited the Native American mounds located on our property, as picture here (Martin is wearing the black shirt in the foreground).
The students efforts ended up being on Albion’s downtown, but the visit to our mound stayed in Martin’s mind. When the opportunity later arose to design a child care center for Gottingen University in Germany, Martin used our mound for his inspiration, calling the project his ‘Prairie Dog Kindergarten.’
Martin designed his structure to fit into the earth, as can be seen in this photograph taken from the north — if one didn’t know better, one could easily think this to be a picture of a site on the Great Plains. But it isn’t — it’s one of the most eco-friendly child care structures in the world, using the earth for insulation and the sun (and the kids body heat) for warmth.
As can be seen in this photo taken from the south, Martin’s Prairie Dog Kindergarten is open to the south so that winter sunlight can pass through multiple layers of insulative glass to heat the interior. This heating is captured in the concrete structure of the interior to then be given off at night. In the summer, the glass exterior is shaded and this same concrete “thermal mass” keeps the structure cool.
Martin’s Prairie Dog Kindergarten is a testament to the wisdom of building in harmony with the environment, something the Native Americans knew very well. And while the builders of the mounds on our property could never have imagineed that their work would one day inspire an innovative structure on another continent, it is a powerful testament to their ageless understanding of how the work of man and the work of Nature can — and should — harmonize, as well as an important reminder of the importance of preserving the past.
The Prairie Dog Kindergarten’s floor plan