Marine Education Center at the University of Southern Mississippi
When presented with this project, the design team heeded the words of Chris Snyder, the former director of the Marine Education Center at University of Southern Mississippi, who said, “all buildings eventually end up in the ocean.” Those words rang especially true for this project: A former iteration of the facility was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and two other storms impacted the site of this new facility during schematic design and construction. It was clear to the team that the new facility, which offers education and outreach programming in the city of Ocean Springs, would need to be resilient, sustainable, and durable.
The center supports a career-based working environment that relies on a blend of formal, informal, and free-choice thinking and higher education strategies that focus on the north-central Gulf of Mexico’s coastal ecosystems. Promoting careers in marine sciences and fostering community involvement, the center’s campus is a place to study and research environmental education and coastal resilience. The center’s Citizens Science Library is open to the public, and it also serves as a venue for community organizations with parallel missions.
The destruction of the former facility provided an opportunity to recast the experience the center’s team hoped participants would have. A new focus was placed on offering an all-encompassing experience steeped in the center’s unique coastal setting. Maintaining the ecological integrity of the site was also a high priority for the project.
Biologists and site ecologists worked closely with the team to assess flora and fauna across three predetermined zones to select a building zone with the least sensitive ecosystem, access to open water, and a suitable elevation. The center’s buildings were sited within the existing tree canopy, allowing it to serve as a natural wind buffer. Considering the region’s history of storms and natural disasters, the overall design focuses on using and maintaining the land as a first-line defense.
The center’s architecture highlights sustainable coastal building techniques that harmonize with the surrounding marine environment. It includes outdoor classrooms, laboratories, offices, and assembly and exhibition spaces throughout. A pedestrian suspension bridge provides researchers with an unparalleled opportunity to explore and learn more about Mississippi’s ecologically critical bayous and tidal wetlands.
Low-impact materials were selected to maintain the health of the center’s occupants and to avoid ocean contamination in the event of a natural disaster. White oak comprises the interior’s millwork and accent paneling, while yellow pine was selected for the primary structures. Because the center is an important commodity for Mississippi. These material selections ensure that any needed repairs can be made quickly and easily.