Celebrating Ferncliff’s Eco-Center Dedication!

Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center recently hosted the national conference of Presbyterians for Earth Care (October 2013) and for years has been making numerous environmental changes. We celebrate the recent completion and upcoming dedication of its Eco-Center. I saw it in person last October and was duly impressed. I’m very thankful for this witness at a Presbyterian camp, and for all the hard work of so many who were involved.


 Fencliff Eco-Center dedication invitation


See the press release below, and/or learn about Ferncliff at http://www.ferncliff.org/.



March 21, 2014


The largest straw bale building in the United States will host an Open House and be dedicated at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center (7 miles west of Little Rock at Ferndale) on Saturday, March 29th.  The Open House will be from 1pm to 4pm and the brief Dedication Program will be at 2pm.  All are welcome.  There will be refreshments and tours.   The address is 27701 Kanis Road, Paron, AR 72122.


Ferncliff is a summer camp and year round conference center connected to the Presbyterian church but open to any and all.  Over the past decade Ferncliff has made a concerted effort to become one of the “greenest” camps in the country and practice sustainability. In April of last year they hosted a national straw bale building workshop in cooperation with strawbale.com and leading expert Andrew Morrison.  Forty participants from around the U.S. plus Mexico and England spent a week working on the building.


Called the Eco Center, the building is 5,300 sq. ft. with six bedrooms for 24 guests and meeting space for 100.  Its walls are made of 1200 straw bales (wheat straw) purchased from a farm in neighboring Perry County.  The walls are plastered inside and out with three coats of Natural Hydraulic Lime.  NHL is more environmentally friendly than cement in the way it is produced, allows the building to “breathe,” requires no expansion joints, and grows stronger over time.  Color was premixed in the third coat.  The Eco Center took 600 batches of lime mortar applied by hand over four months.  The R-value of these walls would be around R-33 whereas the R-value of a typical new home today is R-13 to 15. 

Without any other influences it will generally be 15 degrees warmer inside during the winter and 15 degrees cooler than outside temperatures in the summer.  The frame of the building is a steel building manufactured by Pinnacle Structures and the straw bales fill in the walls between the beams.  The bales themselves do not bear the weight of the building.


The building is heated with a radiant floor heating system in the slab.  About 3,300 feet of PEX tubing snakes through the floor in serpentine lines about 14 inches apart and divided into four zones.  Water with a glycol mixture is heated by a wood fired furnace/boiler outside the building and circulated through the slab which heats the building.  It takes only 7% of the energy from the buildings solar panels to run the circulation pumps.


The Eco Center’s electricity is a net-metering system with 12 solar panels each producing up to 250 watts for a total of 3 kilowatts.  Excess energy is feed back into the grid for credit.  The building as a “solar chimney” consisting of two 18” diameter tubes inserted through thThe tubes are painted black so that as they absorb heat from the sun, they will naturally pull air up and through the building by convection thereby ventilating the space.  The roof is white to reflect heat then has two layers of insulation underneath.  The first is a double backed aluminum foil that deflects 90% of the heat and the second layer 1” Styrofoam that you can see. 


Since cement extracts a high cost on the environment the staff decided to not extend the slab into the four largest bedrooms but to come up with alternative floors made from locally available, discarded materials. 


One floor (room 41) is made from salvaging used conveyor belts that came from Arkansas Kraft paper mill and Granite Mountain Quarry.  The belts were cut into smaller tiles, glued to donated shade material and laid over compacted gravel.  It is dubbed “the Rubber Room.” 


A second floor (room 42) is made from paper mache.  AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers made a large paper mache maker for this project.  Newspaper, glue and wheat paste make paper mache and color is added.  The “stones” can be made into any shape and you can see their creativity in the floor.  The grout is also paper mache and then it was sealed with a water-based polyurethane.  This room is called “the S’more Floor” since the colors resemble graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate.


The third large bedroom (room 45) is made using several thousand beer bottles and named the “Beer Bottle Bottom” room.  These are whole, empty bottles inserted in 4 inches of sand which is then tamped and 3-4 inches of mortar added.  We would like to thank all our volunteers who enthusiastically responded to our plea and emptied a six pack or two for us.  Actually Pizza Café and the Howl & Thirst Bar and Grill were kind to give us their empty bottles along with a couple trips we made to Waste Management’s Recycling Center. 


The fourth floor (room 46) is made from thick rocks that maintained the terrace around Ferncliff’s pool that is being replaced.  Rather than let the rocks get buried as rubble they were given new life for this floor and mortared in place.  Just for fun a stepping stone in the form of a clock was added so it is called the “Rock Around the Clock” room.  The smaller stepping stones were made by students from Jonesboro’s Westside Middles School when they came to Ferncliff for several years of healing camps after their school shooting in 1998. 


Other “green” features include dual flush toilets, a waste water system that uses one half the land normally needed for a leach field,  creative reuse of materials (notice the door stoppers from scrap lumber and conveyor belt pieces), LED lighting, water saving fixtures, fair trade coffee from Westrock coffee, etc.  The cedar posts along the entrance walk came off Ferncliff’s 1200 acres.  The bed frames were made by volunteers and the mattresses are Tempur-pedic mattresses purchased as a truckload sale through Good360.com for $50 each. 


The Eco Center is home for Solar School twice each year.  Solar School is the training program of Solar Under the Sun (SUTS) a Presbyterian outreach program that trains volunteers to design and install solar power systems with communities that lack reliable electrical power.   Since 2010 SUTS has trained 200 people and helped install over 50 solar powered systems in Haiti.  The Eco Center is also available to rent for groups wanting a low impact retreat/workshop setting.  Ferncliff uses it for some summer camps and to host mission teams from other states. 


The finished cost of the building will be about $65 per square foot.  Andrew Morrison of Strawbale.com knows of no straw bale building that is larger. Our internet search has not found any therefore we believe Ferncliff’s Eco Center to be the largest straw bale walled building in the country.


Pictures on Ferncliff’s Facebook page in Eco Center Construction album

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