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Ideas / Client Stories / 11.8.2023

Stono Preserve: A Living Laboratory

Land-side view of Stono Barn at College of Charleston

On the banks of the Stono River in the South Carolina Lowcountry sits the historic Stono Preserve property, an 881-acre ecological treasure of diverse landscapes varying from grassy salt marshes and wooded wetlands to upland meadows and formal tree plantings. In 1940, naturalist and painter John Henry Dick constructed his home and art studio along the riverside. Bequeathing the preserve to the College of Charleston Foundation before his death in 1995, Dick opened the land to educational use and protected it from future development.

The College commissioned Ayers Saint Gross to prepare a strategic master plan that would guide the restoration of the natural setting and honor the diverse ecology of the site. Multiple studios, including planning, graphic design, architecture, and  landscape architecture collaborated to design a master plan, a network of natural trails and interpretative signage, a meeting barn, and the renovation of Dick’s studio.

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The team worked with a light hand to enhance the site’s natural beauty while leaving a minimal footprint and building with the least disturbance towards the environment. The result: a conservationist’s classroom with a living laboratory for students of multiple disciplines from marine biology to forest management. The project has been honored with numerous awards including a SCUP Excellence in Planning for District or Campus Component Honor Award, an AIA Maryland Excellence in Design award, and an AIA Baltimore Excellence in Design award.

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The first phase of the plan is a 4.3-mile network of wildlife trails extending through the site’s various ecosystems, designed by Ayers Saint Gross landscape architects. The trails use existing roads, a live oak allée, and a meandering connecting path to meet accessibility guidelines without compromising the existing terrain and important fresh-water and estuarine habitats.

Interpretative signage with imagery inspired by Dick’s artwork is located at key vistas to teach students and visitors about natural and historic features, including an early colonial archaeological site, 200-year old oak trees, and native Lowcountry habitats for migratory birds and reptiles. Additional plan phases proposed that the classroom and gathering spaces should continue with the light hand approach, using simple building forms derived from the vernacular architectural character of the region.

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The team designed a meeting barn, Stono Barn, as an integral component of the waterfront campus. Beautiful but intentionally simple, the barn serves as a multipurpose venue for lectures, conferences, and events that educate on the importance of environmental sustainability. It adheres to the Lowcountry aesthetic with western red cedar, slat rails that reflect construction details of nearby farm buildings, mahogany windows and doors, and operable cedar shudders practical for hurricane season.

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A two-story screened porch connected by a porch stair provides views of the ancient live oaks, river, and marshes, emphasizing the site’s natural setting. Inside, the vaulted cypress great room is decorated by a copper standing-seam roofing, exposed wood roof trusses, and reclaimed pine flooring.

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The barn exemplifies the thoughtful minimalism that guided the project, capturing the spirit of place with its understated impact. The team’s delicate design spotlights the environment’s natural beauty and provides a space for the most important goal of both Dick and the College: celebrating the environment.

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