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A Green Room with a View

By Jennifer Walton

This is not your usual green building.

Of course, the priorities for green building—efficiency, comfort, and ease of maintenance—are all in place. But the newly rebuilt Eielson Visitor’s Center in Denali National Park, Alaska, has something more to offer those willing to travel the distance for a visit. According to RMI Principal Victor Olgyay, the park’s director wanted to create a building that took nothing from the view, which meant blending the new architecture with the landscape. In essence, the new Eielson strives to be an “invisible” building, responsive and adapted to its remote location, extreme climate, and seasonal use.

“People don't ride on a bus for eight hours to look at a piece of architecture—they ride on a bus for six hours to look at a great landscape. Rather than fight it, we decided to join it,” said James Dougherty, Principal of RIM Architects, the architecture firm that designed Eielson in partnership with RMI.

In addition to RMI/ENSAR (now RMI’s Built Environment Team) and RIM Architects, energy modeling agency Enermodal Engineering helped shape the design of Eielson. Carrying RMI’s main consulting responsibilities, Olgyay and RMI Consultant Ashley Muse, who served as a project manager, facilitated design charrettes, provided energy and daylighting recommendations, and helped identify the best methods for alternative energy sources for the building, such as photovoltaics, battery storage, and small-scale hydropower. Olgyay and Muse also later coordinated the LEED application process, resulting in Eielson’s Platinum certification. Created in 1994 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program has proven to be a useful tool in benchmarking just how “green” a building is—and is emerging as a definitive standard for what constitutes a high-performance building.

Much of that planning occurred in 2005. Since then, Eielson’s original 1960s era visitor’s center has been completely redesigned and rebuilt. It is the first entirely federally funded National Park Service building to receive LEED Platinum certification, and it is running completely off the grid. The building also boasts top-notch passive design and the ability to “go cold” during the six to seven winter months when Denali becomes impassable and is not in use.

“When you are out in the wilderness, you don’t want to be confronted with something that interrupts your experience of the awe of nature and its wildness,” said Muse. “This building really sort of becomes a part of the landscape; the architectural design is aesthetically in tune with the experience of the beautiful vistas.”

Luckily, visitors to Eielson won’t have much to interrupt their reverie. Sharing walls with the hillside and tucked beneath a roof planted with native species cultivated from the surrounding foliage, the center neatly blends in to its tundra setting. In addition, the building is small, measuring just under 15,000 square feet. One does not find it by accident; the only way to get there is to take a bus from the park entrance. It is an educational landmark for visitors to the interior of the park and a starting point and shelter for backcountry hikers. It can accommodate up to 300 people and in addition to the exhibit space in the main visitor’s lobby, the building houses a first aid room, a bookstore, restrooms, and a small staff apartment.

Eielson’s superb design results in an annual energy cost reduction of 84.7 percent. The building’s passive design halves energy consumption immediately and keeps the atmosphere bright and comfortable. Designers capitalized on Eielson’s function as an assembly space by devising a natural heating system that recovers heat from the air as it is exhausted after a rush of visitors. The heat collected by the HRVs—heat recovery ventilators—is then used to pre-warm incoming air. Eielson’s design maximizes solar gain through its south-facing windows and is well-insulated for the extreme climate, including the use of high-performance windows that reduce the glass’s transfer of bitter temperatures while allowing plenty of light into the space.

Heat conservation is additionally facilitated by the partial underground location, where the ambient earth temperature is warmer and a majority of the building walls are protected from the wind. Apertures in the side of the building and skylights provide the majority of daytime light, and daylight sensors monitor light levels to reduce the use of electric lighting during the long summer days. The little energy demands that remain are met by the integrated photovoltaic and small-scale water turbine systems, which are supplemented by a propane generator in times of high-energy need.

Denali’s “summer” season is May through September. During the winter, Denali can be one of the coldest places on Earth, sustaining temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit and below. Large amounts of energy that might have been used to maintain the building throughout the winter are not needed, however, because the building is designed to be shut down or “go cold” in winter. The exhibits, the plumbing, and other elements are designed to withstand the extremely cold weather without damage.

Eielson’s redesign is also a certification measure for preservation. In pursuing LEED Platinum certification, which is based on a credit-point system, the design team was awarded points for innovation in design through the preservation of the site’s viewshed. The redesign of Eielson is in part intended to help preserve the panoramas and vistas that bring visitors from around the world. According to the project’s LEED application, the preservation credit highlights the intent “to protect and preserve this viewshed as a unique and limited resource pivotal to the sustainable design of the facility.”

“From an architectural standpoint, we were able to stretch our legs and explore our boundaries,” said Dougherty. “Through that process, we were able to achieve a better blend between the natural environment and the built environment.”

Moreover, Eielson’s LEED Platinum certification is significant because it shows that state-of-the-art buildings can be built on a federal budget. Both Muse and Olgyay noted that several years ago, most Park Service projects using the LEED rating system aimed for LEED Silver certification; however, more recent Park Service projects have begun to push for higher levels of certification. Eielson is a shining example of such an effort. Despite its remote location, which made design and construction even more expensive, designers were encouraged to reach for Platinum within a federal budget.

“It’s not just that they are meeting the majority of their energy needs through renewable energy—this is possible because the team has worked so hard to design something that is appropriate to place, an important cornerstone to sustainability. And they were able to do all that within the budget of the federal government,” said Muse.

Eielson was completed on June 8, 2008, and the dedication and grand re-opening ceremony took place on August 12, 2008.

Eielson is just one shining example of the hundreds of successful projects completed by the Built Environment Team at RMI, including several more in partnership with the Park Service. RMI’s partnership with Denali National Park began in 2002, in the redesign of Denali Visitor’s Center.

Other work RMI is doing or has done with the National Park Service includes the new Visitor’s Center in Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is also pursuing LEED Platinum using solely federal dollars, Zion Visitor’s Center in Zion National Park, and Apgar Transit Center in Glacier National Park, which has been certified LEED Gold. Additionally, they are assisting in the renovation of Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor’s Center at Carlsbad National Park, and Beaver Meadows Visitor’s Center in Rocky Mountain National Park.

By contributing to the design of projects like Eielson, RMI’s Built Environment Team has become an international leader in the green building industry, with projects throughout the world that span diverse climates and building types.

--Published Fall/Winter 2008

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