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Primland Conservation a Priority (Virginia)

Credits: ©2013 Robin Rogers / Solaripedia

Where Luxury Meets Ecology: Over the past couple centuries in the secluded, forested and rugged hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Virginia, moonshiners set up remote stills (distilleries) to brew illegal alcoholic beverages – away from the prying eyes of tax collectors or the sheriff.

Today, the same woodlands offer similar seclusion and clear fishing waters to visitors of Primland, a luxury wilderness and golf resort that sits on 12,000 acres of pristine forest in former moonshining territory. Nestled high in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia in Patrick County, a twisting two-lane road wends its way from the Primland gates, past six miles of tangled undergrowth that harbors quail, pheasant, wild turkeys and deer -- instead of the iconic copper pots and glass Mason jars of a bygone era.

At the end of the road sits the polished gem of the property: the eco-friendly Lodge at Primland in the tiny municipality of Meadows of Dan. To help conserve the surrounding natural environment, the lodge features energy efficiency, creative local materials sourcing, land conservation, artful salvage, an innovative water reclamation system, composting on a grand scale, green-built accommodations for overnight guests, and a nearby tree house with a bird’s eye view. (Scroll down for more information)


Primland The Lodge

Primland is a luxury wilderness and golf resort that features conservation, sustainability and a green-built lodge that sits on 12,000 acres of pristine forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia in Patrick County. A four-story attached "silo" mimics the vernacular farm architecture in the region, and contains an observatory on its top floor. ©2013 Primland

Long before Primland’s lodge was unveiled as a certified green building, the resort was a hunting and fishing destination with remnants of stills peppered among the trees. Its top-rated golf course was designed with the aim of preserving and enhancing wildlife habitat –and later endorsed as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Its owner, French businessman Didier Primat, strove to conserve the property’s surrounding forest canopy of mostly deciduous oak, hickory, maple, poplar, locust, pine, beech and black gum with understory thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel.

“There are few places left like Primland, where large tracts of private land are managed in a natural state,” said Scott Klopfer, executive director of the Conservation Management Institute (CMI) at Virginia Tech, in a statement for the university’s newsmagazine.

As Primland’s advisor for best management practices for sustainability and long-term planning for the land, Klopfer helped develop a plan for the resort to sustain its natural resources for future generations – including a lodge that set out an ambitious agenda for building performance.

The Lodge
Billionaire landowner Didier Primat purchased the original, undeveloped property in 1977 – a time when the US had created its first cabinet-level Department of Energy less than a month after New York City suffered a massive 24-hour blackout, a new home cost about $53,000, and annual average wage income was around $10,000. This lover of the outdoors and conservation was an heir to the Fortune 500 Schlumberger oil fortune - an industry hardly synonymous with environmental sensitivity - who also bought and restored other bucolic properties in Europe.

A naturalist, Primat was also initially committed to using the Virginia land for industry – with selective timber cutting that he sold as bundled firewood. Even then he carefully removed trees and reseeded cut areas, according to Primland vice president Steve Helms, but eventually he abandoned the idea and committed the property to conservation and sporting activities, as well as to building a lodge.

Enter architect Jim Culpepper of CMMI Architecture in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, a former drummer in a rock-and-roll band. He brought a playful, artistic, almost whimsical sensibility to a serious, indulgent, thoughtful, handsome, sustainable lodge building. After Primat’s death in 2008, the Primat family carried on his wishes, completing the lodge the following year.

Walking through the plush lodge, every employee mentions the lodge's green building credentials with great pride of affiliation. Helms, who’s been with Primland since 1980, when he was a college student, said Primat envisioned true conservation here. “We’ve even located lodge parking underground to keep the impervious surface footprint lower. It’s better for stormwater runoff and preserves the magnificent views” that are celebrated through disappearing glass walls that open to stone terraces for year-round enjoyment.

As we walk around the lodge, Helms points out that virtually all of the wood was salvaged from old tobacco-curing barns in Virginia and North Carolina. Walls, floors, ceilings, beams, columns and furniture throughout the lodge have been repurposed from a variety of old buildings to reveal wormy oak and chestnut, walnut, oak, pine and maple. A board-and-batten exterior is faced with rough-sawn lumber and cedar wood shingles. Some of the wood was cut and milled right on the property.

The roof is sheathed in shingles that look like natural slate but are made from shredded recycled tires. Laid dry stone walls throughout are from stone quarried nearby and brick walkways are made from salvaged, local brick. In fact, almost all materials in the lodge come from within about 200 miles of the place.

Radiant floor heating contributes to the energy efficiency of the lodge that is expected to achieve almost 18% better performance than similar conventional buildings. Lighting fixtures mostly use LEDs or other energy-efficient bulbs. Indoor air quality was also a priority for the owners who installed low-VOC (volatile organic compound)-emitting paints, adhesives, sealants and carpet throughout. All of the 26 guest rooms have panoramic views of rollicking mountainscapes. Only green cleaning products are used in maintenance.

Immediately surrounding the lodge, site development was focused on mitigating heat islands by reducing asphalt pavement, protecting and restoring habitat, preserving open space and treating stormwater naturally.

The many green features of the building and site contributed to its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building certification in 2012.

Not far down the road are Primland’s service buildings where the resort’s laundry center uses a solar water heating system. Scott Martin, Primland’s director of astronomy and the observatory shows me the system, reporting that it saves 40% on hot water expenses. The resort also maintains two hybrid airport shuttles that serve guests flying into or out of the Roanoke Regional Airport 90 minutes away. Electric golf carts reduce the consumption of gasoline.

Food and Drink
Since the 1800s, the thickets of Patrick County and adjacent Franklin County – in the far western part of Virginia that narrows to a point joining Tennessee and Kentucky – have harbored ideal clandestine havens for the once-popular-yet-illegal industry of moonshining. Tucked into the woods where the revenuers couldn’t find them, “stills,” fueled by local hardwoods, cooked up corn whiskey and apple brandy to sell in the cities. After metal rationing during World War II, Blue Ridge moonshiners in Patrick County reportedly replaced their five-gallon cans with half-gallon glass jars, thereby creating an icon of the moonshine trade.

A few old, non-operational still sites are scattered around Primland. No longer supporting a local distilling industry (that anyone knows, that is), the nearby woods continue to harbor secret spots -but are now populated with deer stands or turkey blinds so limited numbers of hunters can stay hidden while hunting on Primland property. Primland even offers complete processing services for game. And for those not wanting to harm any creatures, there’s a sporting clays course where the birds are made of, well, clay.

For other foods, the resort maintains a large organic garden that supplies vegetables to Primland’s three restaurants, and apiaries that provide honey. An orchard is being established for apples, plums, nectarines, peaches and pears, with some fruit trees coming from old nearby home sites that offered heirloom varieties. For foods that Primland does not supply, the chef is dedicated to using local and farmers’ market ingredients.

No-waste policies dictate that food and hunting scraps and grass clippings are composted in an on-site system. Used cooking oil from the restaurants is converted into biodiesel. Helms estimates that the process creates about 100 gallons of fuel every couple of weeks to power a tractor, a small bus and several off-road vehicles. An on-site wastewater treatment system is also located in the service area.

Wastewater Treatment
Even in an area with fairly abundant rainwater (Patrick County, Virginia, receives about 53 inches of rain per year), Primland has adopted one of the most innovative wastewater treatment systems for water conservation available. Primland’s wastewater treatment plant, designed by ACS Design of Roanoke, Virginia, provides necessary treatment for the resort’s lodge and ancillary residential facilities, as well as ensuring high quality effluent that can be recycled and reused. Because of the high quality of its effluent, the system meets Virginia’s Class I Effluent requirements that allow the water to be immediately reused for secondary purposes such as irrigation of the golf course without compromising human health and safety. This ensures fresh, clean water that contributes to the ongoing sustainability of this hunting and fishing resort that, after all, depends on abundant wildlife.

The wastewater treatment system uses an advanced bioreactor that is energy-efficient and can remove nitrates from the wastewater stream. The Primland system is also equipped with advanced effluent filters using polymeric membranes so that high quality effluent can be easily disinfected and pumped to an on-site storage tank for reuse. These membranes provide filtration down to a 0.08 micron pore size – the diameter of a human hair is about 150 microns – meaning that these membranes can stop tiny particles such as most bacteria and viruses.

An energy-efficient, rotating biological contactor employs high density, polyethylene rotating assemblies that consume approximately one-third the electricity consumed by a comparable conventional blower-driven wastewater treatment plant. The system also includes a redundant ultra-violet light disinfection process that further contributes to energy efficient operation.

After filtration, the treated water is stored in an effluent pump station to be pumped to the golf course, or is allowed to gravity-feed to an on-site receiving stream. The system can operate at both low and high flows so that irrigation can be provided to the golf course, or, if irrigation is not needed, the water can be discharged to the local environment without detrimental effect. Lawn equipment is washed on a special pad that filters the water several times for reuse.

The whole system is supported by a redundant, 24-hour emergency generator, plus a programmable logic controller so that Primland can remotely monitor and operator the entire system. Water runoff from the buildings is tested every day to further ensure its ongoing quality.

The Swimming Pool
The Lodge also features a chlorine-free, granite swimming pool that employs bromine – whose advantages are outlined on the LiveStrong cancer information website.

Bromine has what is viewed as an imperceptible smell, both while in the water as well as on skin and clothes after emerging from the water. Bromine is reportedly easier on the skin, eyes and swimsuits, too, although it costs more than chlorine.

Responsible Golf
For its golf course, Primland followed the guidelines provided by Audubon International in a site-specific report to develop an environmental plan that works specifically for its golf course to achieve designation as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. The Highland Course at Primland is a cooperative effort between the United States Golf Association (USGA) and Audubon International to create a wildlife sanctuary that promotes ecologically sound land management and the conservation of natural resources. The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf is an education and certification program that helps golf courses protect the environment while preserving the natural heritage of the game of golf. By implementing and documenting environmental best-management practices, Primland helps enhance its natural areas and wildlife habitats and minimizes the potentially harmful impacts of golf course operations, promoting the following features: Wildlife and Habitat Management, Chemical Use Reduction and Safety, Water Conservation, Water Quality Management, and Outreach and Education.

This spectacular course, constructed in 2006, proves that environmental considerations and great golfing can come together: the Highland Course ranks in the top 100 courses in the United States by Golf Digest (out of 15,000 public courses) and is rated the highest in Virginia. It was designed by renowned golf course architect Donald Steel who is known for building courses that work with the environment and blend easily with the landscape. In an interview with James Dobson for Forbes, Steel is quoted as saying, "My search was for a course so uniquely connected to the land that it would give the player a powerful sense of being far away and deeply in nature. We considered beautiful land forms in the valley and looked at literally dozens of sites on the mountain before we came to the very top and found, you might say, something extraordinary."

The course features unusual mountaintop fairways at elevations of 3,000 feet, with views of the Dan River Gorge from the beginning and ending holes. Even with its greens, this course feels like more of a “natural landscape” than a manicured course because it is designed in the old-fashioned Scottish links style with open spaces and no water features. Stretching along fingers of ridges, the course rides atop cleared land that was once a peach orchard.

Bordered by catch basins and fescues, these semi-natural areas act as wildlife habitat and bio-filters to trap potential impurities and treat them before they are released into streams. Stephen Schoenholtz, professor and director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech, has been sampling streams around the golf course at Primland since about May 2010, looking for any signs of pesticide or fertilizer. He was quoted in The Roanoke Times as saying, "They (Primland) are meticulous about their applications of nitrogen and phosphorous at appropriate times in appropriate amounts in appropriate places. The water quality research at Primland has led to similar testing at other Virginia golf courses, which may prepare them for stiffer management requirements in the future.”

Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf
Donald Steel Golf Course Designer

The Golden Eagle Tree House
A small walkway diverges from the golf cart pathway and leads to what could be a giant eagle nest. The tree house is a one-bedroom, 384-square-foot structure that contains a living room, kitchen, bathroom and deck with a chestnut oak tree growing through it. The tree house, made of cedar, was designed and prefabricated in France by La Cabane Perchee, then shipped to the U.S. It took just more than a month to assemble and furnish. The deck overlooks the Dan River Gorge and is situated about 3,000 feet above sea level. The Blue Ridge Parkway and at times, Pilot Mountain about 30 miles away, can be seen from the deck.

The Natural World at Primland
There are 12 miles of trails for hiking, biking or horseback riding among the 12,000 acres of forest and fields. Primland Trail Master Jason Turman mentions that there are two geo-caching courses that allow guests to find hidden containers that hold fun facts about the history and natural wonders of the Primland property. He and Aaron Teets designed the courses to be “like real-world outdoor treasure hunts using a smart phone or GPS receiver,” says Turman.

To facilitate navigating the property, Turman and Primland collaborated with Virginia Tech to create the Field Guide to the Nature of Primland and the Blue Ridge Mountains, with maps and hand-painted illustrations of flora and fauna by Michael St. Germain of Virginia Tech so that visitors can understand their natural surroundings, especially if they’re from far afield. Driving along the main road through Primland, I saw deer and quail, but the abundance of wildlife includes hawks, buzzards, ring-necked pheasant, quail, partridge and wild turkey that are fattened on sorghum, clover and winter wheat that Primland staff plant each year. Black bear, coyote, bobcat and whitetail deer are also common sights. Streams are filled with trout and bass, with one-hundred-foot buffers at all streams on the property to protect aquatic wildlife and flora.

Golden eagles have also been found at Primland - the farthest south they have been located in Virginia. David Kramar, a project associate at the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, has been trapping the birds to measure mercury and lead contamination and to share data with the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group. Before releasing the birds, he fits them with a telemetry device to track their migration. Scientists estimate that there are less than 2,000 golden eagles east of the Mississippi. In honor of the discovery that Primland is a wintering habitat for Golden Eagles, the Primat family named its tree house the Golden Eagle Tree House after the raptor.

Michael St. Germain Field Guide to Primland
Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech

The endangered American chestnut tree is another focus of preservation efforts at Primland. The American chestnut tree is threatened with extinction from blight because very few trees are producing nuts. Very few of the small sprouts will live long enough to flower, and when trees do flower, they tend to die fairly quickly. It is unclear how long it will take for most of the small sprouts to die out. In 1978 measurements, larger trees ranged in age up to 39 years old. Many probably are correspondingly older today. Best guesses by experts is that it will take several hundred to a thousand years for American chestnut to become completely extinct.

The chestnut blight fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, is an ascomycete, or a sac fungi. Imported on plant material in the late 19th century and first discovered in 1904 in New York City, the blight--an Asiatic fungus to which our native chestnuts had very little resistance--spread like wildfire, leaving dead and dying stems in its path.

By 1950, except for the shrubby root sprouts the species continually produces (and which also quickly become infected), the keystone species that had covered 188 million acres – 25% of the hardwood canopy - of eastern forests had disappeared. American chestnut was among the fastest growing hardwoods of the eastern US. The total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was estimated at over three billion, and 25% of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American chestnut.

The chestnut was one of the best trees for timber. It grew straight and often branch-free for 50 feet. Loggers have told stories of loading entire railroad cars with boards cut from just one tree. Straight-grained, lighter in weight than oak, and more easily worked, chestnut was as rot resistant as redwood. It was used for virtually everything - telegraph poles, railroad ties, shingles, paneling, fine furniture, musical instruments, pulp and plywood. During long-ago winters, attics were often stacked to the rafters with flour sacks full of glossy, dark brown chestnuts, and native wildlife from birds to bears, squirrels to deer also feasted on the delicious fruits.

If Primland can contribute to the resurrection of this mighty giant, there will be a lot of rejoicing around the US.
American Chestnut Society

Viewing the nighttime heavens is a big part of the experience at Primland, too. A four-story observatory flanks one end of the Lodge to provide star-gazing through a 14-inch telescope that can reach 27 million light years into deep space. Mimicking a silo that harkens to the vernacular rural architecture, the domed top opens to reveal a sky studded with stars. Primland’s director of astronomy, Scott Martin, points out that in this sparsely populated region, “nighttime light pollution is at a minimum, so conditions for viewing are excellent at the only US observatory catering to the public (all others are used for research).” He adds that Primland’s landscape lighting is also designed to preserve dark skies.

Other Activities
Other outdoor activities include fly-fishing in any of several ponds, streams or the Dan River, riding ATVs, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, tennis, kayaking, and tree climbing with ropes. In the lodge there’s a game room, a movie theater, the observatory, a library, a conference room, spa, fitness room and swimming pool, game room, restaurants and a bar with a two-story wine cellar.

Pathways to Primland
In Patrick County, Virginia, the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway is noted for its scenic beauty. It runs for 469 miles (755 km), mostly along the famous Blue Ridge Mountains, a major chain that is part of the Appalachian Mountains. Originally called the Appalachian Scenic Highway, the road is a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road, and is the most visited unit in the United States National Park System. Not far from Primland is Mabry Mill, the most photographed feature along the Parkway. About ten minutes away in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, sits the inspiration for the popular “Mayberry” TV show featuring Andy Griffith

The Crooked Road is Virginia’s heritage music trail that follows 300 miles of twisty turns, swinging right past Primland on its way through Southwest Virginia. This area was the birthplace of the famed Carter family (think June Carter Cash), Ralph Stanley and other giants of country and bluegrass music. The Crooked Road maintains a calendar of up-to-date grinnin’ and pickin’ events and venues along its path.

A six-mile section of the original historic Appalachian Trail that was built in the 1920s has been restored on Primland in Patrick County, according to Turman. The existing Appalachian Trail traverses 2,184 miles (3,515 km) up the spine of the Appalachians, from Georgia to Maine; Virginia has 550 miles (890 km) of the trail.

Marketing Primland
Printed maps help visitors in way-finding on the extensive property. The pocket map for The Highland Course is a durable, foldable, smooth printing paper made of stone and zero water and zero trees. Called FiberStone, it seems counterintuitive because it is derived from 80% calcium carbonate with 20% non-toxic resin (HDPE- High Density Polyethylene). The calcium carbonate is limestone that is a byproduct collected as waste material from existing quarries for the building and construction industry. It is ground to a fine powder-like chalk and the HDPE acts as a binder for the calcium carbonate. Together these materials create a tough, durable paper that is both water and tear resistant. Other brochures are printed on certified paper, using soy inks and printed with certified wind power.

Private Conservation and National Parks
This is not the first time that a wealthy landowner has established conservation as a major goal for private property. The valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, remained in private ownership until the 1930s with conservation as a primary goal; led by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., conservationists purchased land in Jackson Hole to be added to the existing national park. In Maine, George B. Dorr devoted 43 years of his life to preserving the Acadian landscape on Mount Desert Island. In 1901, disturbed by the growing development of the Bar Harbor area and the deforestation he foresaw in the teeth of the newly invented gasoline-powered portable sawmill, he and others acquired 6,000 acres that ultimately became part of the 47,000-acre Acadia National Park. Even today, the owner of Burt’s Bee’s set aside 120,000 acres of land to establish the proposed Maine Woods National Park that could become the largest national park east of the Mississippi River with 3.2 million acres if approved. While there is no talk of turning Primland into a park, the conservation goals are very clearly laid out to preserve this large tract of land in perpetuity.

Native Americans and the Spa
This large tract that is Primland came about in the 1700s when friends of the governor were awarded land grants of up to 70,000 acres in Virginia, ostensibly to civilize the Commonwealth by clearing land for agriculture, making way for homes and creating productive, economically viable properties for settlers. Primland’s origins date back more than 250 years to a land grant, too, but even before Europeans settled here, there were native peoples who trod these woodlands and waters.

According to Thomas Perry’s Free State of Patrick (Free State of Patrick), the Saura Indians lived in villages along the Dan River and its tributaries from around A.D. 1450 to 1710. They were preceded in the area by the Dan River Culture, A.D. 1000 to 1450 where the people survived by hunting, fishing and farming the typical Native American “three sisters” diet of corn, beans and squash. They lived in villages, trading local soapstone for copper and pottery. Other food crops grown or gathered by local Native Americans included acorns, gourds, sunflowers, persimmons, grapes, berries, goosefoot (chenopodium) and tobacco.

Signs of the Saura are still visible; Highway 220 between Roanoke, Virginia, and Greensboro, North Carolina, was the Tutelo-Saura Path and later the Great Wagon or Carolina Road. The Tutelo-Saura Path was part of a longer, major trail that connected Pennsylvania to Georgia, establishing an important artery in the Native American trade network. This trail was later used by northern Indians to raid and make war on the Indians of Virginia and the Carolinas, and was renamed by Europeans as the Warrior’s Path or the Iroquois War Trail. Indian hunting and war parties were still using this footpath in 1728, as did thousands of European settlers in the 1700’s.

Taking inspiration from Native American culture, the spa at Primland focuses on restoring body, soul and spirit using only local organic produce and natural essential oils to embody the influences of the Cherokee and other tribes. The spa is set among beautifully designed wood, marble and other stones, including turquoise that was believed by Natives to be a piece of sky fallen to earth. It was designed by Primat’s daughter, Garance Primat, who met with Native American descendants and local historians for inspiration. Chromotherapy lighting throughout the spa is believed to balance physical, emotional and spiritual energy. Naturopathic, organic and holistic therapies include a scrub treatment made from blue corn and honey, and mineral-based cosmetics that contain no oil, talc, perfume, alcohol, additives or artificial dyes. The spa therapies are designed to help relax, restore and regenerate visitors using a combination of modern techniques and Old World methods and materials….

…. not unlike the Lodge building itself that brings old-style architecture and materials to contemporary, high-performance systems. With a little luck, several hundred years from now, Primland will still be full of flora and fauna and clean water thanks to some wise decisions made in 1977. This land might have suffered the fate of many other large tracts of forested property: clear-cut for timber that could have resulted in soil erosion and landslides on the steep slopes, sedimentation and increased temperatures of watercourses, loss of wildlife habitats, increased pest populations due to ecological imbalances, increased carbon dioxide in the air, and reduction of species of vegetation and animals.

If not for Didier Primat’s vision and appreciation of this natural paradise, this land could have presented an ugly scar on the face of the mountainside. Instead, Primland’s green credentials are an open book – unlike the hidden secret distilleries of the past - and wild turkeys scuttle beneath towering oaks as we head towards the Blue Ridge Parkway.

About the Author: Robin Rogers is the founder of Solaripedia.com, an online encyclopedic resource that features green architecture and building for architects and builders. She is also an architectural designer of green homes.

About the Contributor: Francesca Lyman, managing editor of Solaripedia, author and freelance journalist, contributed to this article.

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  Primland High Country Magazine NOV 2011 (3,876 kb)

  Primland Above and beyond Golf Course Article (238 kb)