Gulf State Park: Gulf State Park Master Plan and Enhancement Project

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Gulf State Park Interpretive Center

Gulf State Park Interpretive Center

The Gulf State Park Master Plan and Enhancement Project was conceived by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) to improve public access to Alabama’s natural resources. Gulf State Park stands out from other Gulf Coast destinations because of its size at 6,150 acres and diversity of preserved ecosystems. The project builds on the location’s unique character to transform the park into an international benchmark of economic and environmental sustainability demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations. 

The park completed phase one of the Master Plan by enhancing the visitor experience, building a learning campus, creating an interpretive center, rebuilding a lodge at Gulf State Park, and restoring the dunes. Identifying sustainable sources of revenue was an important component of the park’s plan. In addition to maintaining affordability to park visitors, the economic plan creates opportunities for the local community by providing construction jobs, creating long-term employment opportunities, and generating tax revenue. The buildings and other facilities contribute to the master plan’s goal of economic sustainability while achieving LEED, SITES, and Living Building certifications. 

The Lodge Gulf State Park is the first hospitality project in a coastal environment in the world designed to meet LEED Gold and SITES Platinum certifications. It will serve as a model for design firms globally to see how to create a high-quality, sustainable design in a coastal environment. Sustainability is integrated throughout the facility, including natural ventilation and passive cooling techniques to reduce energy usage. Exterior lighting is filtered to minimize light pollution and impact on local fauna including birds and sea turtles.

Built on the site of the original lodge (damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004) but within a smaller footprint, the new Lodge houses 350 guest rooms on 21 acres, as compared to the original 144 guest rooms on 30 acres. The remaining 9 acres were restored to natural dune habitat. The lodge was designed with the dunes in mind, moving the buildings back 225-250 feet from the Coastal Construction Line to provide space for natural dune movement and function, and protection against storm surges. 

The Interpretive Center is one of only 21 buildings in the world to be certified as a Living Building and the first in the Southeast. 

“This designation involves meeting the world’s most rigorous sustainability standards for water and energy conservation, and healthy materials, as well as components related to visitor experience,” said Chandra Wright, director of environmental and educational initiatives at The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

The Interpretive Center generates about five percent more power and water than what is needed to operate. The building design and orientation utilize coastal breezes for passive cooling and ventilation of occupied spaces, while the elevated deck protects the building from storm surges and allow the dunes to naturally migrate underneath the structure. The facility is also certified LEED Platinum. 

Both The Lodge and The Interpretive Center at Gulf State Park are the first buildings in the world to receive designations as FORTIFIED Commercial structures. The facilities received Hurricane Bronze Level certification for roof enhancements enabling the buildings to better withstand strong winds during hurricanes and tropical storms. The Learning Campus and Woodside Restaurant buildings are also pursuing FORTIFIED Commercial certification.

While the park’s facilities have received many accolades, the outdoor experience is the driving force behind the Master Plan. Gulf State Park’s design gives priority to walkers, bikers, and people outside of their vehicles through a trail network of 28 miles. With the addition of two pedestrian overpasses and over 10 miles of new pedestrian trails and walkways throughout the park, access to the park’s facilities and natural amenities has been greatly enhanced. 

The mantra “learning everywhere and all the time” emphasizes the Master Plan’s goal to enhance the whole park as an outdoor classroom where learning and discovery are part of every visit. A three-tiered education network includes more than 40 new interpretive signs distributed along trails and construction of Exploration Stations that will serve as the launching points for environmental programs, guided walks, and other activities. The Learning Campus extends environmental education to the Gulf Shores community by serving K-12 students as

well as visiting researchers.

“The Learning Campus serves as the educational basecamp to allow local residents and visitors a place to learn about nature while being surrounded by it,” said Wright. “Two bunkhouses provided yet another type of lodging accommodation while screened and outdoor classrooms provide students an immersive learning experience.” 

Along with The Nature Center and Interpretive Center, the Learning Campus serves as one of the park’s primary learning destinations, providing exhibits, programming, and formal research and classroom space.  

A number of organizations came together in creating this lasting legacy for Alabama and the world. Project execution was overseen by the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on behalf of the Office of the Governor of the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. PEP members were integral parts of the project team. 

Thompson Engineering served as the Civil Engineer of Record for the project performing survey, drilling, geotechnical engineering, civil engineering, coastal engineering and construction materials testing. Thompson’s work supported the Lodge Gulf State Park becoming the first hospitality project in the world to seek SITES Platinum in addition to LEED Gold certifications. Additionally, their work supported the Interpretive Center and Education Campus projects in seeking LEED, Living Building Challenge, and FORTIFIED Commercial certifications.  

Volkert, Inc. provided construction management, dune restoration, environmental compliance services, and commissioning, including the rebuilding of the lodge, conference center, and the construction of a coastal education and interpretive center to sustainability certification standards.

M2Solutions provided expertise in developing a cost-effective, eco-friendly solution to protect rebar from corrosion, extending the service life of concrete to over 40 years before repairs. The material was used in every building in the project – the hotel, convention center, learning center, and additional concrete spaces like walking bridges.

The innovation and collaboration of a dynamic team has brought a world-class sustainable tourism destination to Alabama, building local pride and economic resilience, while preserving and enhancing Gulf State Park’s unique resources and biodiversity.

PEP extends special recognition to Member Companies M2 Solutions, Thompson Engineering, and Volkert, Inc. for their expertise and leadership throughout this project. PEP also extends special recognition to the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development for their Project Team Leadership.