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Delays Plague Nature House Project

Construction for the Reston nature education center may not begin before 2006.

When Reston Association officials set out to build a Nature House at a 72-acre nature preserve just off Glade Road, they estimated it would cost roughly $750,000 and be ready for construction by summer 2004.

Today, more than three years later, the cost of the Nature House project has soared to a projected $1.3 million and RA officials believe it probably will not be ready for construction before early 2006.

"We're still finalizing the fundraising," said Joe Ritchey, president of Friends of Reston, RA's fund-raising arm. "We're hoping this building will become a reality in the next 18 months."

The Nature House project is being funded solely through private and corporate donations raised by Friends of Reston. When completed, it will house classroom space, offices for RA's nature education staff and exhibit space to showcase Reston's wildlife and natural environment.

Earlier this year, Friends of Reston surpassed its original fundraising target of $750,000, but skyrocketing construction costs have caused a frustrating string of delays.

"There's just been this perfect storm of forces that has caused the rise of construction costs," said Katie Shaw, RA's environmental education manager. "We're going to need a lot of extra help."

OVER THE PAST few months, an increasing number of events benefiting the Nature House project have been held throughout Reston.

Two weeks ago, the Plaza America restaurant Baja Fresh donated a portion of its proceeds to the fund. And at the Reston Holiday Parade last Friday, all proceeds from photos with Santa were put toward the project.

"More and more, there's been little fund-raisers here and there," said Karen Monaghan, RA's spokeswoman. "And the Friends of Reston board is always seeking major donations. We're not done, but we'll get there."

Faced with such an uphill battle to finish raising the money for the project, RA officials have started reviewing their plans and looking where they can cut costs.

Among the major cost-cutting measures being considered are expensive "green building" attributes that would have made the facility eligible for certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, a move RA officials felt would make the project more notable and regionally recognized.

The project is still likely to incorporate several "green building" elements, Shaw said, such as high-tech insulation, regionally harvested Cypress siding, carpeting from recycled products and extensive landscaping.

"We just know it's going to cost a whole lot more," she said. "We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Folks are really anxious to get this going."

WHEN RESTON was founded 40 years ago, part of Robert E. Simon's vision was for the community to include a nature education facility.

"It's been a part of Reston's plan since day one," Monaghan said. "That's the one thing we're missing."

In 1967, the Audubon Society helped develop plans for such a center, advising that Reston would need adequate land, a nature education program and a building.

Over the years, RA has cobbled together the 72-acre nature preserve and has established a nature education program, which runs tours of Reston's natural areas and teaches children from Reston and elsewhere.

The Nature House would complete the Audubon Society plan and give Reston a centralized education facility at no cost to RA members, Shaw said.

"We're trying to get that last link," Shaw said.

CONSTRUCTION COSTS have risen steadily in recent months, with the price of steel, drywall, lumber and services climbing particularly high.

Demand for construction materials has spiked both domestically and abroad. Oil prices are also especially high, driving up the cost of production.

But despite the grim outlook, Shaw said she is optimistic RA will reach its fund-raising goals and be ready to build the Nature House as soon as possible.

"The community is so ready for this," she said. "They're really proud of where we're at. We just have to keep the ball rolling."