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Gulf State Park Master Plan and Phase 1

Landscape Performance Benefits


  • Reduced building footprint by 9 acres through siting of the new lodge. The former lodge had a much larger footprint which encroached on the primary dunes.
  • Captures, treats, and reuses approximately 200,000 gallons of stormwater per year from the Interpretive Center. This is more than sufficient (105%) to meet the water requirements for the building and associated landscape.
  • Reuses 230,000 gallons of HVAC condensation each year to supply the pool at The Lodge, saving approximately $2,300 annually.
  • Restored or protected over 50 acres of habitat along 2 miles of beachfront for the Alabama beach mouse, a federally protected species.
  • Increases ecological quality as demonstrated by an increase in Floristic Quality Index (FQI) from 0 to 5.45 in the bioretention area at The Lodge. Species richness continues to increase, with 3 additional native plant species that were not originally planted observed in the bioretention area (a 17% increase).
  • Generates an estimated 24,820 kWh of solar power annually, more than what is needed to meet the Interpretive Center’s energy needs. This has saved an estimated 41,840 lbs in carbon dioxide emissions since solar panel installation in 2018, equivalent to 316 trees planted.


  • Attracts an estimated 2 million visitors annually. 909 visitors were observed at the Interpretive Center and Lake Shelby Park on a typical Friday and Saturday in April.
  • Encourages bike use, with 40 visitors observed utilizing the free rental bikes and an additional 156 visitors utilizing other bikes on a typical Friday and Saturday in April.

At a Glance

  • Designer


  • Project Type

    Nature preserve
    Park/Open space

  • Former Land Use


  • Location

    20115 State Park Road
    Gulf Shores, Alabama 36542
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  • Climate Zone

    Humid subtropical

  • Size

    2,115 acres

  • Budget

    $140.5 million (Phase 1 buildings and landscape)

  • Completion Date

    Master Plan and dune restoration: 2016; Buildings and trails: 2018-2019

The Gulf State Park Master Plan provides a roadmap for the future for an 83-year-old state park on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, an area devastated by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and the BP Oil Spill in 2010. The plan utilized oil spill recovery funding to strengthen the park’s resilience to natural disasters. Elements of the plan expand environmental education opportunities, overnight accommodations, outdoor recreation, and accessibility for the park’s 2 million annual visitors while improving habitat health and resilience. The first phase of projects includes 50 acres of dune restoration and protection; a FORTIFIED, LEED, and SITES-certified Lodge; an Interpretive Center; a learning campus; and 15 miles of new trails along with other connectivity improvements for pedestrians and cyclists. The plan aims to change how the nation views Alabama by creating a model for sustainable tourism and coastal resilience.


  • Expand enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources.
  • Maximize the park’s function as an outdoor classroom that engages learners of all ages in environmental inquiry and discovery.
  • Improve walking and bicycling opportunities to allow visitors to park their cars and explore the park entirely on foot or bicycle – this was impossible before the renovation.
  • Ensure that park amenities like lodging and picnic areas meet the needs of diverse user groups.
  • Restore natural systems, including the dunes’ natural cycle of movement and replenishment.
  • Achieve Living Building certification for the Interpretive Center and construct buildings to FORTIFIED standards.
  • Create long-term employment opportunities for Alabama residents.
  • 15 acres of a healthy, dynamic, and complete dune system were restored. The engineered primary dune was built from externally-supplied sand that was shaped into a dune using bulldozers and geotextiles. Cuts were created through this artificial dune form, and the area was planted with sea oats (Uniola paniculata) and saltgrass (Distichlis spicata).
  • 35 additional acres of dune were protected as part of Phase 1, for a total of 50 acres of dune restoration and protection.
  • 15 miles of new trails, many educational signs, and 4 resting areas expand and improve the trail network and make it possible to safely move between destinations in the park without driving, which was previously essential for park exploration. Trails are wide and gently sloped, allowing a wider variety of users to investigate the park’s 9 different ecosystems. To further encourage non-motorized transportation, a free bike-share program is available to all visitors for trips up to 3 hours.
  • The pedestrian bridges at the hotel (The Lodge) and the Interpretive Center improve safety and ease of crossing in key areas.
  • The Lodge and the Interpretive Center are located on previously developed areas to minimize dune disturbance. They have small building footprints to allow dune growth and movement.
  • The 20,654-sf bioretention area at The Lodge captures and cleans stormwater runoff from over 1 acre including the adjacent roads, parking spaces, and other areas. Native and adapted plant species in the bioretention area include sea rocket (Cakile lanceolata), muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and purple sandgrass (Triplasis purpura).
  • The Lodge was constructed using 15% recycled materials, and over 70% of construction waste from building The Lodge was recycled (instead of sending it to a landfill). The Lodge utilizes passive cooling techniques, and an HVAC condensate recycling system is used to replenish pool water. Windows have bird-friendly glass. 
  • The Interpretive Center’s rainwater harvesting system includes a series of decorative rain chains and buckets along with a 11,000-gallon cistern, which captures about 200,000 gals of water annually from the Center’s roof. The Center’s water treatment system uses more than 50 filters and an ultraviolet disinfection system to clean approximately 156 gallons of collected stormwater per day. Drinking fountains, restrooms, and a water/sand play station use only rainwater that has gone through the water treatment system. After use, water is allowed to infiltrate into the ground. A kiosk on the building’s exterior shows water use in real-time.
  • The 51 ground-mounted solar panels next to the Interpretive Center generate an estimated 68 KWh of electricity daily, more than enough to meet the 52 KWh used by the Interpretive Center on an average day. During a power outage, the Interpretive Center’s two batteries can keep the building running for up to a week. Solar panel energy production, building energy consumption, and weather are continuously monitored using apps which also report estimated carbon dioxide emissions reductions based on the data.
  • The Interpretive Center’s building materials were selected to meet Living Building Challenge standards. This includes the use of salvaged materials, Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber, and locally-produced materials as well as not using any products or materials that contain chemicals on the Living Building Challenge Red List. All wood used in the Center came from less than 650 miles from the park.
  • The Learning Campus building provides a center for environmental education about the park’s natural and cultural heritage for school groups, researchers, and other learners.

Although completed before the landscape architect became involved, an important element of Phase 1 is Gulf State Park Pier–the second-longest in the Gulf of Mexico at 1,540 ft long. The original pier, which was 250 ft west of the current pier, was built in 1968 and then reconstructed in 2020 to repair damage sustained by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. On September 16, 2020, just as the pier was set to reopen after this substantial renovation, Hurricane Sally collapsed a 200-ft section of the new pier. A partial section of the pier has been open since January 2021. Pier amenities include restrooms on the landside and at the middle of the pier, showers, 4 fishing stations, a concession building, and an observation deck at the south end (destroyed by Hurricane Sally; being rebuilt as of 2022). The individual pallets making up the pier’s decking are 4 ft by 4 ft in size and are numbered using brass plates to indicate their placement on the pier. They pop out for easy repair and can be completely removed with 24 hours of notice in the case of a hurricane. After Hurricane Sally (2020), washed out pallets were found, identified, and returned to Gulf State Park thanks to their unique numbering system.

A saltwater supply intake line under The Pier at Gulf State Park travels approximately 5.5 miles underground to the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center, a saltwater fish and oyster hatchery owned by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The intake line provides approximately 36,000 gallons per hour of seawater for the facility.

The FORTIFIED, hurricane-resilient roof on The Lodge is estimated to have cost 25%-40% more in fastening costs than a typical roof. The premium paid for the FORTIFIED roof is estimated at $100,000, but the roof will be resilient to storms up to storms with wind speeds of up to 111-135 mph.

  • The restored dune system has proven to be resilient. In 2016, cuts were strategically created through the existing waterfront berm to encourage the growth of secondary and tertiary dunes. Hurricane Sally, a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph, produced widespread wind, storm surge, and freshwater flooding across coastal Alabama. When Sally tested Gulf State Park’s dune system on September 16, 2020, the dune system held, and there was little damage to The Lodge. Through tests like these, the park demonstrates how nature-based techniques like dune restoration can work with resilient building design to create a multilayered approach to hurricane and flood protection.
  • The natural movement of sand in a coastal environment was central to the design of the Interpretive Center, The Lodge, and the rehabilitated dune landscape, but it also posed many challenges during installation. For instance, after the completion and approval of rough grading but before final grading and plant installation, the sand moved enough that some initial dune shapes were not as intended. Because of this, some drainage did not work properly. A tighter window between grading approval and planting or working in specific areas could mitigate this. For example, the construction could be phased such that one smaller area is graded and planted before moving to another smaller area, rather than grading the whole site then installing all of the plantings.
  • The bioretention planting at The Lodge has proven to be more resilient than expected. These plantings established without any irrigation. Plantings of sea oats (Uniola paniculata) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) have done particularly well. Sea oats seem to have a higher survival rate when planted in groups or clusters rather than as a single plant.
  • Establishment of trees in a dune landscape was incredibly difficult. Many of the trees planted initially, and even their replacements, did not survive. While species were selected to be native to the dunes, the nursery-reared trees were not adapted to the harsh conditions of the site when planted. Park staff have had limited success planting trees of any size within this system. For this reason, it is important that future management and/or design preserves as many existing trees as possible.
  • The initial planting plan included a wide variety of herbaceous native dune species, but many of these plants were unavailable. It took close collaboration with local native plant nurseries to determine which plants were available in the quantities needed for such a large project.
  • Getting community feedback during the master planning process was essential for the project’s success. Survey responses were received from participants in all 67 counties in Alabama and 34 states. The designers were able to gather information on the public’s desires based on the survey responses, which helped give park staff the confidence to move forward with improvements.
  • Gulf State Park continues to seek Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification for the Interpretive Center, which is pending as of 2022. Though the building complied with requirements for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within the Materials Petal of the LBC, full LBC certification has been delayed due to the off-gassing of VOCs from materials inside the building taking longer than expected. Built in 2018, the Center has had several years for interior materials to off-gas VOCs but is still off-gassing.
  • One unexpected difficulty during the design process was the sometimes conflicting requirements between certifications. For instance, FORTIFIED standards, important in this hurricane-prone area, do not include any approved roof attachments that would allow solar panels to be installed on the Interpretive Center roof, which would have helped fulfill SITES and Living Building Challenge requirements. Ultimately, the solar panels needed to be installed on the ground.
  • Designers should plan accordingly for the time it takes to complete documentation for certification programs. While the Gulf State Park design was in line with SITES standards, the diagrams and justifications needed for submission took extra time to complete. Looking for overlap in required documentation between multiple certification programs may mitigate the extra time spent on documentation.

Geotextile for parking lot at The Lodge: TrueGrid

Project Team

Client: Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Landscape Architect and Planner: Sasaki
Gulf State Park Project Team: University of Alabama Center for Economic Development
Plan Consultants: Watershed, Spackman Mossop & Michaels, Barry A Vittor & Associates, Biohabitats, Inkhouse
Lodge Design: Lake Flato, Raburn Rasche Rector & Reece, Architecture Works, Looney & Associates, Volkert Environmental Services, Volkert Construction Management, Native Design & Brand Communications, MBS Engineers, Newcomb & Boyd, Sasaki, Thompson Engineering, CBI, Camacho, Lang Lighting, Network Technologies, Inc., Lurch Bates & Associates, Watershed, Spiker Baldwin Associates, MW Rogers, Rabren Contractors, Bray Whaler
Dune Restoration: Volkert Environmental Services, CBI
Interpretive Center: Architecture Works, Walcott Adams Verneuille, Thompson Engineering, Watershed, Sasaki, Volkert Environmental Services, Volkert Construction Management, MBA Engineers, Integral Group, Dave Nelson & Associates, HatcherSchuster Interiors, Native Design & Brand Communications
Learning Campus: Architecture Works, Walcott Adams Verneuille, Thompson Engineering, Watershed, Sasaki, Volkert Environmental Services, Volkert Construction Management, MBA Engineers, BBG&S Engineering Consultants, Ray Engineering Group, LLC, Dave Nelson & Associates, HatcherShuster Interiors
Trails and Visitor Center: Architecture Works, Thompson Engineering, Volkert Environmental Services, Volkert Construction Management, Native Design & Brand Communications
Cultural Resources Research: University of Alabama Office of Archeological Research
Communications: Hersick & Webster Creative Partners, Robert Finkel, Jason Wallis, InkHouse

Role of the Landscape Architect

The landscape architect led the master plan (including the engagement process), designed the new park branding, and completed the landscape design for The Lodge, Interpretive Center, and Learning Campus. They conducted broad outreach to park patrons through in-person and web-distributed surveys and sessions to determine priorities for the park and worked closely with numerous consultants to determine broad goals and strategies for the master plan.


Land efficiency/preservation, Stormwater management, Water conservation, Habitat creation, preservation & restoration, Populations & species richness, Energy use, Recreational & social value, Health & well-being, Trail, Rainwater harvesting, Bioretention, Onsite energy generation, Native plants, Efficient lighting, Educational signage, Active living, Biodiversity, Resilience, Restoration, SITES®

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