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K-State Today

November 7, 2012

Home on the range: Grants fund new lodging for visiting researchers at Konza Prairie Biological Station

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

After a long day in the field on the windswept tallgrass prairie, many visiting researchers to Kansas State University's Konza Prairie Biological Station want nothing more than a warm shower and soft bed.

The traveling distance to reach that comfort is much shorter thanks to a nearly $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and a $38,000 grant from the Manhattan-based Caroline Peine Charitable Foundation to construct and furnish a house at Konza Prairie for visiting researchers. The house is complete with an energy efficient geothermal heating system, an accessible bathroom, a full kitchen, a washer and a dryer, and 13 beds -- nearly doubling the lodging availability on Konza Prairie.

Over the past three years, Konza Prairie has been host to 173 active research projects from more than 11 universities and government agencies across the nation and five foreign countries, said John Briggs, Konza Prairie director, professor of biology and principle investigator on the grants.

"We've seen a 20-percent increase in the numbers of visiting researchers from other states and even other countries to Konza Prairie," Briggs said. "They need a place to stay when they get here, so we wanted to provide researchers and educators -- who are often graduate students -- with affordable and convenient accommodations while they conduct their research."

As such, Konza researchers are able to stay in the house at a cheaper rate than in-town lodging. The house can accommodate visits ranging from a single night to more than three months.

"Having these lodging facilities really increases the value of Konza, which is already one of the few places in the world to conduct tallgrass ecological research," Briggs said. "The low-cost lodging on site really makes Konza Prairie more attractive as a research site."

Briggs, as well as Dave Hartnett, university distinguished professor and co-principle investigator; Eva Horne, Konza Prairie assistant director and co-principle investigator; and Barbara Van Slyke, research assistant, collaborated with Wardcraft Homes in Clay Center to custom design and build the house to fit the unique needs of Konza Prairie.

"A.J. Bloom at Wardcraft was very good with changing the design for us as we discovered our needs and worked hard to make the house both practical and as energy efficient as possible," Briggs said.

Aside from high quality insulation and energy efficient appliances, the geothermal heating and cooling system will help keep the 1,900-square-foot house's energy costs within Konza Prairie's budget and mission of research, education and conservation of the tallgrass ecosystem.

"A geothermal system is 30 to 60 percent more energy efficient than a conventional heating and cooling system," said Paul Heitkotter, manager of trade and ally services at Westar Energy. "It is the most efficient heating and cooling system that I know of."

Heitkotter, who owns a geothermal system for his house, which is about the same size as the Konza Prairie house, said on average it costs him less than $600 a year to heat and cool it, averaging about $1.50 to $2 a day. Although the cost of installing the geothermal system can be pricey, the 30-percent federal tax credit -- available until Dec. 31, 2016, for private homeowners -- helps with installation costs, he said.

Although the new house is not the first onsite lodging, it is the largest. The house has five bedrooms and the common living area can be used as a meeting or classroom-like area.

"Not only will it allow researchers to stay onsite, but we are hoping during the non-field season that with our increased lodging capacity, coupled with our remodeled Konza Meeting Hall, we can host smaller regional meetings for ecological, environmental or educational work groups," Briggs said. "With daily flights in and out of the Manhattan Regional Airport, scientists can fly in and spend a couple of days on the prairie and have an economical place to stay."

Jointly owned by the university and The Nature Conservancy, Konza Prairie is managed by the university's Division of Biology. Located 10 miles south of the Manhattan campus in the Flint Hills, Konza Prairie spans more than 8,600 acres of tallgrass prairie and is segmented into various large research watersheds. Established in 1971, Konza Prairie became one of the first National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research program sites in 1981. More information is available at http://kpbs.konza.ksu.edu/.

More information on the Caroline Peine Charitable Foundation is available at http://peinefoundation.org/.