The headquarters/visitor center at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in central California is the first U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest rating.

The 16,500–square–foot center is certified as LEED platinum. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

The center, which opened in 2011, was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It was designed by Catalyst Architecture of Prescott, AZ, and built by West Coast Contractors of Reno, NV, with Service input and assistance. To earn the platinum label, the center met standards for energy conservation, renewable energy production, water efficiency, use of recycled materials in construction, and indoor environmental quality and control.

Because elements incorporated into the visitor center are widely available, it serves as an example to builders and homeowners who want to construct environmentally friendly houses, neighborhoods and communities.

Two photovoltaic solar panel arrays provide more than half of the center’s electrical needs. Many other elements minimize energy use. Tall windows and clerestory windows—all north–facing—let in light while avoiding direct sunlight from the south that would overheat the building. Natural ambient light is enhanced with skylights that magnify incoming light and by light–colored ceilings that reflect natural light into rooms. Ultra–efficient LED and florescent fixtures, which turn off automatically when no one is present, provide light when ambient light is unavailable or insufficient.

The clerestory windows open during cooler nighttime hours to vent hot daytime air. This airflow works with the cooling and ventilation system to cycle air throughout the building. Wooden arbor structures shade the lobby from direct morning and afternoon sunlight. All of this keeps the building cool during the area’s hot summers.

The walls and ceilings are made of 10–inch structural insulated panels (SIPs). SIPs, which are rigid foam cores sandwiched between two layers recycled wood chips, provide high R–value insulation. This results in energy savings of 12 to 14 percent over standard stud or wood–frame construction. SIPs also result in less on–site construction waste because they are assembled elsewhere and arrive ready to install.

The center uses less than half the water of a standard comparably sized building, thanks to low–flow fixtures and automatic faucets in the restrooms, as well as native–plant landscaping that requires little water once plants are established. Decorative concrete floors eliminate the need for carpeting, which would require regular cleaning and replacement. A portion of the volume of the concrete floor is fly ash—a hard–to–dispose–of waste product from coal–fired power plants. Countertops are made from 60 percent recycled glass chips in concrete or 60 percent post–industrial metal shavings in resin. The counters are as attractive and durable as non–renewable granite. Close to half the lumber used was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as sustainably harvested.

The center also features low–VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint and low–VOC flooring, wall materials, sealants, adhesives and pre–manufactured wood products. Volatile organic compounds are a source of indoor air pollution and toxins. Low–VOC materials are much less harmful to people and the environment. To further reduce indoor air pollution, only “green” cleaning products are used for day–to–day housekeeping.

The visitor center serves as headquarters for San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge and Grasslands Wildlife Management Area. It includes a state–of–the–art interactive exhibit hall with more than 20 displays about 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.

Madeline Yancey is a writer–editor student trainee at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.