Arrival at the Center for the Environment

When I arrived at the center, I was pleasantly surprised to find it nestled into the Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve– a 189 acre parcel with a portion of that acreage held in a conservation easement. This 1998 collaboration with the LandTrust for Central North Carolina made Catawba the first college in N.C. to place land in a permanent easement (read the timeline here). The LandTrust also gave 300 acres to the college, which is also under conservation easement. This area which is located 7 miles out of town to the North is called the Catawba College South Yadkin Wildlife Refuge, as it is located where the South Yadkin river meets Second Creek (read about the preserve and wildlife refuge here).

Solar panels on roof of Center For The Environment, looking past sign for the preserve


The Center for the Environment itself was opened in 2001 and  looks like it was designed by the same dynamic team who designed my Merrell shoes (about the center). I think you are familiar with that special place where cool-looking design features sneakily fulfill their more subtle functions, whether they be ecological, structural, or political. I will describe a few examples.

The ecological example: The building is built into a slope which prompted the topographical accent of mountains-to-sea landscaping. This is accomplished with the upland area around the walkway entrance being planted with a few desired plants common to N.C.’s mountains –e.g. rhododendron, mountain laurel, flame azalea, doghobble, and hemlock– which then transitions down-gradient to piedmont and coastal plain plants, like azaleas and pitcher plants around the water features.

The political example: a stairwell is required by building code, but this requirement is transformed into an opportunity. The design firm made an outside stairwell that continued above the building to offer a platform to function as an observatory (env. partners, designing a sustainable future). Admittedly, some features are just eye candy– like this naval-looking light fixture.


But obviously no one told the LEED committee that green buildings should be made of mere unhewn sticks and stones. This building is not certified, by the way, as it developed contemporaneously with the U.S. Green Building Council and LEED certification (about LEED timeline here).


Behind the initial appearances of the center, however, there is a strong community of leaders in the field who have made a long-term commitment to the work of sustainability in and through the center. These leaders are important because the key part of the center’s mission is relationships, being focused on “education and outreach” (read here). As a Stanback Intern, it is hard to miss the impact that Fred Stanback Jr. has had in laying the foundations of the center and maintaining its work. Dr. John Wear also cannot easily be overlooked. He is the founder and director of the center. He has been instrumental in each step of the center’s development and for all intensive purposes now seems embedded into its work (read staff bio’s here). There are only six other staff members, including a former Nicholas School student who was also a Stanback Intern at the center. I will mention more supporters for the center’s work who have made the center a reality as the summer moves on.

The center is located within a small, liberal arts school which has engaged students and the community in conservation and sustainability. In terms of these aspects, my arrival felt somewhat similar to returning to my alma mater, Warren Wilson College. While quite different from Duke University, in terms of its size and architecture among other things, the Center for the Environment at Catawba College is a breath of fresh air amidst what is known to be an area with poor air quality. This blog will have plenty more to come about the center’s Campaign for Clean Air which is aimed at improving what we all depend upon for each breath: the air. My position, and this blog, will be about connecting with faith communities to promote sustainability and, in doing so, contribute to clean-air initiatives.

About the location:
The Center for the Environment is a non-profit organization on the campus of Catawba College. It is located about 100 miles southwest of Durham on the western end of North Carolina’s Piedmont in Rowan County in the city of Salisbury (pop. ~33,500 (

Historical factoids:

Salisbury was inhabited by Saponi and Catawba Native Americans in precontact times, it became the site of a large prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War, and around this time gold was being mined in the area with copper to follow in the 20th century (NC history project here).