A grass roof and environmentally friendly building materials are cornerstones of the proposed design for a conference center at Clemson Sandhill and Education Center.

Greenville-based Neal Prince + Partners and Washington D.C.-based SmithGroup unveiled their proposal this week for the education center, envisioned as a resource for state agencies, businesses, community groups and others interested in environmental issues.

"We are excited about the long-laid plans coming to fruition," said Mac Horton, director of Sandhill Research and Education Center. "We started the first planning meeting in 2001. It's taken four years of meetings and input sessions and community meetings and the like."

The proposed design has the center built on a gently sloping hill, not far from the property's lake. In addition to two grass roofs to aid insulation and water runoff, other features include carpets made from natural fibers and building materials from recycled glass and plastic bottles.

The building's barnlike exterior uses energy-efficient glass and walls made of recyclable Corten steel. The main entry is designed in a soaring pinnacle.

Plans for the $8.5 million, 20,000-square-foot center, which also will house the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development, come after months of meetings that included Northeast Richland residents, politicians and business leaders, as well as Clemson officials and others.

Initial reaction to the design was positive.

"I'm pleased that they listened to what the residents wanted," said Northeast resident Barbara Wyatt, who attended many of the planning sessions. Wyatt said residents wanted the structure's design to reflect some of the Northeast's agricultural history.

One early idea focused on a contemporary facility with a lot of glass. "My first thoughts (of the earlier renderings) were, I didn't like it."

"By being a barn, it is keeping the history of the property."

The use of recyclable and environmentally friendly materials is part of the center's mission to minimize waste and expense, Horton said. All materials, labor and other needs would be available within a 150-mile radius of the Sandhill site.

"We wanted to maximize everything that had to do with sustainability," Horton said.

The next step will be finalizing design plans by early next year, Horton said, adding that might include an input session with Northeast residents. Officials hope to have the center complete by 2007.

Funding will come from the $13.5 million sale of 300 acres for the Village at Sandhill, a mixed-use development under construction.

"I've been excited from the beginning," said John Monroe, a longtime Northeast resident who has been involved with the Sandhill site for many years. "You'd like to see stuff coming out of the ground, but with the input of the community, it takes time to get those things accomplished.

"The project will be an example for other people � commercial builders will have to adapt some of these building techniques in the future, as an example of what they can do," Monroe said.