Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
SAN LUIS NWRC: The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex’s New Headquarters and Visitor Center “LEED”s by Example: A Model for Sustainable Design, Construction, and Operation for USFWS Facilities
California-Nevada Offices , February 14, 2013
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San Luis NWR Visitor Center exhibit hall
San Luis NWR Visitor Center exhibit hall - Photo Credit: I-Ting Chiang
Bronze elk sculpture
Bronze elk sculpture - Photo Credit: Meg Laws
San Luis NWR Complex Headquarters and Visitor Center
San Luis NWR Complex Headquarters and Visitor Center - Photo Credit: Catalyst Architecture

By Madeline Yancey

On February 4, 2013, the U.S. Green Building Council certified the visitor center/headquarters facility of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex as a LEED Platinum facility. LEED Platinum is the highest rating a facility can achieve in this “green” facility rating system and is the first certified Platinum facility for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Service opened its new headquarters and visitor center on the San Luis NWR near Los Banos, California, in 2011. The 16,500 square-foot facility (funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) provides offices and work space for the entire staff of the San Luis NWR Complex composed of three refuges and a wildlife management area; but perhaps more importantly the new facility is an educational and environmental asset to the communities of the Great Central Valley and beyond.

The new facility enhances and strengthens the complex’s environmental education and interpretive programs by serving not only as a nexus between visitors and local wildlife, but also between visitors and the people responsible for protecting and conserving those wildlife resources. The visitor center provides a 1,500 square-foot state of the art interactive exhibit hall with more than 20 displays focusing on the unique wildlife and habitats protected by refuge lands, as well as a 1,000-square-foot classroom with audio-visual capability that will serve the environmental education needs of local public school and college students for decades to come.

Just as importantly, San Luis’ new visitor center serves as a valuable environmental asset for the Central Valley as it has earned a LEED Platinum rating – the highest level of certification possible – for “green” design, construction, and operations from the U.S. Green Building Council. In so doing, the facility has become the first Platinum-rated building for Fish and Wildlife Service facilities that are LEED registered and certified. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is a program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council that includes a rating system providing architects, builders, and facility owners and operators with a framework they can use to identify and implement practical and measureable “green” sustainable solutions to building design, construction, operations, and maintenance.

To earn its LEED Platinum certification, the facility met a long list of standards for energy conservation, renewable energy production, water efficiency, use of recycled materials in construction, and indoor environmental quality and control. The team responsible for the project was well-versed in sustainable design and construction. The architects are LEED-certified and include a LEED Accredited Professional who assisted by identifying environmentally friendly “green” elements that could be incorporated into the building’s design and construction. The facility was designed by Catalyst Architecture of Prescott, Arizona, and built by West Coast Contractors of Reno, Nevada, with input and assistance from Service staff.

Because the green building elements incorporated into the visitor center are widely available, the facility now serves as an example in the region to builders and homeowners wishing to construct more environmentally-friendly homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Two arrays of photovoltaic “solar” panels provide the majority of the building’s electrical needs. Even though electricity is produced on-site, many elements have been incorporated to reduce energy use to a minimum. Tall north-facing windows in office spaces and north-facing clerestory windows let in light while avoiding direct sunlight from the south that would heat the building’s interior. Natural ambient light is also enhanced with specially-equipped skylights that magnify incoming light and by light-colored ceilings that reflect natural light into rooms. When ambient light is not available or not sufficient, ultra-efficient LED and florescent fixtures, designed to turn off automatically when no one is in the room, are installed throughout the facility.

The clerestory windows also open during the cooler nighttime hours to vent hot air built up inside during the day. This creates airflow that works together with the building’s cooling and ventilation systems to cycle air throughout the building. Wooden arbor structures over the front entrance and over the wildlife viewing windows shade the lobby from direct morning and afternoon sunlight. Those structures along with shades on all the building’s windows help keep the interior cool during the Central Valley’s long hot summers.

The walls and ceilings of the building are made of 10-inch “structural insulated panels” known as SIPs. SIPs are made of a rigid foam core sandwiched between two sturdy layers made of recycled wood chips. They provide high R-value insulation while creating walls and ceilings that are virtually airtight. Their use typically results in energy-savings of 12 to 14 percent over standard stud or wood frame construction with less energy being required to maintain a comfortable interior environment for buildings’ occupants. Additionally, the use of SIPs results in considerably less on-site construction waste because they are assembled in a factory and transported to the construction site, ready to install.

The new facility uses less than half the water of a standard building of comparable size, thanks to low-flow fixtures and automatic faucets in the restrooms, as well as native-plant landscaping requiring little to no additional water once plants are established. The use of decorative concrete floors eliminates the need for carpeting which requires regular cleaning and replacement. Additionally, a portion of the volume of the concrete floor is “fly ash” – a waste product from coal-fired power plants, for which disposal is a problem. Use of the fly ash in the concrete mix makes the concrete stronger and helps address disposal issues. The counter tops throughout the facility use industrial refuse such as glass chips and metal shavings, which are imbedded in resin or concrete to produce counters that are as attractive and durable as materials like non-renewable granite. Close to half the lumber used in the building is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures that the forest products used are from sustainably harvested sources.

LEED design also applies to maintenance and operations. The new facility is painted with the latest generation of low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, and was built using low-VOC flooring, wall materials, sealants, adhesives, and pre-manufactured wood products. Volatile organic compounds are a leading source of indoor air pollution and toxins. Low-VOC materials are much less harmful to people and the environment, and their use results in healthier indoor spaces. To further reduce indoor air pollution, only “green” cleaning products are used for day-to-day housekeeping.

One of the Department of the Interior’s primary goals in its facilities is promoting energy independence throughout government and the country. The Service is working towards that goal by embracing the LEED-identified principles of sustainable design as it meets the agency’s need for new facilities and retrofits existing ones. The new visitor Center/headquarters facility at the San Luis NWR embraces that goal. As a natural resources agency, it is fitting that the Service model the way for “green government” and, in so doing, demonstrate how everyone can leave a lighter footprint on the land.

Madeline Yancey is a Pathways intern at San Luis NWR Complex.


Contact Info: Pam Bierce, 916-414-6542, pamela_bierce@fws.gov
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