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On June 8, 2008 Denali National Park and Preserve opened the new, LEED Platinum, Eielson Visitor Center. This visitor center is the first building constructed by the National Park Service to achieve a LEED Platinum rating. It is also the first LEED Platinum building to be constructed in the state of Alaska.
The visitor center opening was the culmination of an eight-year effort by park and regional office staff to replace a decrepit, undersized building that was a visual blight on Denali's expansive wilderness landscape.
Constructing a LEED Platinum building is challenging enough. Constructing a LEED Platinum building on a site that can only accessed by driving 66 miles on a primitive, restricted access road that winds through Denali's Wilderness, made this project even more challenging. Other unique challenges facing contractors, designers and park staff throughout the 3 years of construction included: the short construction season at Denali which is only 100 days long; rain, sleet and snow are more prevalent than sun; and the job site is 200 miles from the closest hardware store and lumber yard. Throughout the project it was critical that truck traffic be kept to a minimum in order to preserve the road character and protect the wilderness experience for the park visitors who shared the same access into the park.
Denali was selected to be a Center for Environmental Innovation and Leadership in FY2000. Since that time significant efforts have been put forth toward greening park operations and facilities. In 2004 the Park finished construction on the Denali Visitor Center, which is a LEED Silver building. The lessons learned from these efforts were rolled into the design and construction of the new Eielson Visitor Center.
In an effort to reduce impacts to the site the new visitor center was constructed on the site of the old visitor center. Much of the old building was reused in the construction of the new building. Concrete block were crushed and used for select backfill. Large timbers were re-used in the new building, as was the granite entrance feature. These efforts reduced the construction waste placed in the landfill by 60 percent. It also significantly reduced the truck traffic on the park road and the entrained fuel that it would have taken to get the material to the landfill, which is located over 120 miles from the construction site.
The new visitor center is twice the size of the old visitor center, yet it consumes less carbon based energy. Significant modeling and value analysis efforts were conducted throughout the design phase to ensure that the building would be as sustainable as possible and lifecycle cost considerations were at the forefront.
Energy Conservation Efforts
Great efforts went into reducing the energy consumption of daily building operations. Renewable energy sources, including the use of natural daylight in 90 percent of the building. Photovoltaic panels and a micro hydro system on a nearby stream provide 82 percent of the energy consumed by the building. A propane-fired backup generator provides the rest of the power for the building. Electrical energy is stored in a large battery bank, reducing generator run-time and associated exhaust and noise pollution. The heating and power generation systems are fueled by propane instead of diesel to eliminate the potential of ground and water contamination from fuel spills. Commissioning of the building provided the measurement and verification that building operations and energy consumption met the design intent.
The use of water and water saving strategies were carefully addressed throughout the design of the building. The building is "double plumbed" to reduce the amount of potable water needed for daily functions. Toilets and outside faucets use non-potable water, which reduces the amount of chemicals, such as chlorine, that are ultimately released into the environment. Waterless urinals cut overall water consumption in the building. Porous surfaces in the parking area and paths, along with planters on the roof, absorb the rains and reduce water runoff from the site. Natural vegetation landscaping eliminates the need for watering the vegetation.
Local and recycled materials were selected where possible to reduce the entrained energy in the building. Crews salvaged tundra mats and vegetation from the building site prior to construction. The crews kept the tundra mats and plants watered for four years before transplanting them back on-site after the construction was completed. This eliminated the risk of introducing exotic plants into the park and significantly accelerated restoration of the site.
The building is, essentially, an earth berm building. The roof of the building is at the same height as the parking lot, so visitors approaching the building by bus have an unobstructed view of Mount McKinley. The earth berm design increases the insulation qualities of the building and shields the building from harsh subarctic weather.
Low VOC materials were used throughout the building. Occupancy sensors, which incorporate CO2 monitoring, reduce energy loads while ensuring good air quality. The interior floor finish is made from recycled tires.
Funding this project required creative financing. The remote location and hyper inflation of construction costs in Alaska drove the price of the project well above the funds available through the Line Item Construction (LIC) program. Still, down-sizing the building to meet LIC funding availability was not a good option, as it was clear that a larger facility was sorely needed.
Concessions Franchise Fees provided the solution. The park's concessioner provides transportation services to over 400,000 visitors annually throughout the park, which generates a significant revenue stream to the park in concession fees. It was determined to be in the government's and the concessioners' best interest to use these fees to supplement the available LIC funds and award the contract, rather than trying to redesign and downsize the building. Additional contingency funds were "loaned" to the park in order to award the contract. These funds were restored to the LIC program once additional franchise fees were received from the concessioner.
The visitor center is unique in many ways and did not readily fit the LEED rating criteria in several areas. For example, the visitor center is not used year-round and is off-grid. This meant that the visitor center did not qualify for the points it would have received if it could have been compared to other buildings. Lacking points in these categories required additional efforts in other areas in order to achieve the points required for the LEED Platinum rating.
Educational exhibits in the building focused not only on the flora and fauna of the park, but also on Climate Change and Green Building. Visitors learn about the unique features of the building and the efforts put forth to reduce the carbon footprint of the building and park operations. They can compare the energy consumed by the visitor center to typical construction currently used throughout the country. Over 200,000 visitors experienced the new Eielson Visitor Center in 2008. From their visit they learned what actions they can take in their personal lives to reduce their impact on this fragile world we live in.