In 2005, the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center (MEC) and Aquarium (administered by the Univ. of Southern Miss.) was a thriving aquatic educational center for the Ocean Springs, MS, community. Home to a 42,000-gallon aquarium full of aquatic life, shell collections, rotating art exhibits, static and hands-on exhibits, gift shop, and auditorium, the Center had been a resource for children and visitors alike for over 20 years. Disaster struck in August of that year, as Hurricane Katrina destroyed the entire complex, forcing the Center, educators, and administrators to move to a temporary facility on the Gulf Coast Research Lab (GCRL) campus on the Gulf of Mexico in Ocean Springs.
The University and GCRL applied for FEMA funds to rebuild the facility and further develop its programming, outreach programs, educational mission, and impact within the region and across the United States. Lake Flato Architects and Studio Outside, along with other specialists in local architecture, marine biology, water quality, and exhibit design, were brought together to create a unique campus experience within a pristine forested bayou environment.
The design team has created a carefully sited complex of small buildings, such as exhibit space, administrative offices, kitchen facilities, conference rooms, multi-purpose classrooms, and laboratories, all nestled on the highest elevation of a preserved woodland. Parking for 30 visitors and overflow parking for large events is accommodated within the fabric of the natural environment. Upon arrival, guests are exposed to sweeping views through the trees of the surrounding bayou, and existing wetland bayhead drains, outdoor classrooms, pedestrian access to existing boat docks, and nature trails through undeveloped portions of the preserve are all part of the visitor experience.
Studio Outside worked closely with the architecture and client teams to ensure that the natural environment was protected during the design process. Working with a tree survey and existing topography, the landscape architects designed the parking lots, drive approach, courtyards, and boardwalks to ensure thoughtful, sustainable design that can survive the impact of Mother Nature and create a truly special destination for students, visitors, faculty, and scientists for decades to come.