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U.S. Department of the Interior
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San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex Headquarters and Visitor Center

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California

Point of Contact

Kim Forrest
(209) 826-3508


The Headquarters and Visitor Center at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, California, is a new, high-performance, net-zero energy, 16,500 square-foot building.  It is the first U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building to earn a LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, making it "the whole package" of sustainability.  Passive solar architecture reduces heating and cooling loads and costs, and use of sunshades and colored paint on outside stucco surfaces are effective in reflecting or absorbing heat. Nine net-metered solar PV arrays totaling 59.2 kW provide renewable electricity for all energy needs. Recycled materials were used in building elements including: carpet, insulation, acoustical ceiling tiles, ceramic tile, gypsum wall board, cabinetry, and countertops.  Remarkably, 90% of construction waste and materials were reused, salvaged, and recycled. Both indoor and outdoor water are conserved.

DescriptionSan Luis NWR HQ and Visitor Center

Passive solar architecture reduces heating and cooling loads and costs, using sunshades and colored paint in outside stucco surfaces for heat reflective or absorptive applications.  The building's orientation, floor plan, and window locations were strategically placed for maximum daylighting and scenic views.  The "cool roof" has highly reflective metal coating.  Walkways for servicing the solar panels on the roof are painted with bright white urethane to minimize the heat island effect.  The operable, low-e, high R-value windows are glazed (films).  

Many energy efficiency design strategies, including duct sealants, were realized in the finished construction.  The building envelope's super-insulated structural insulated panels (SIPs) retain thermal mass.  Passive cooling by venting hot air through clerestory windows creates a "whole-house fan" that cycles air through the facility (thermal displacement ventilation).  The air is further cooled by an energy-efficient evaporative precooling/multi-stage indirect evaporative cooling system.  Nine net-metered solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays totaling 59.2 kW provide renewable electricity for all energy needs.  Seven arrays are on the roof, and two more are atop a separate shade structure.  No petroleum products generate heat or electricity.  Hot water is provided by electric (not gas) tankless water heaters powered by the solar PV system.   Performance of the automated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system is optimized by occupancy sensors and remote electronic access, enabling off-peak precooling.  Abundant integrated daylighting is achieved in offices, meeting rooms, and lobby space with windows, "SolaTubes", clerestories, and skylights that harvest light.  A lighting control system including occupancy sensors, daylight sensors, timers, and dimmers, together with energy-efficient T5 fluorescent, low ambient/task, and LED / solid state lighting, minimize energy used for artificial lighting.   Minimized site lighting features fixtures that direct light downward to ensure visual access to the night sky and prevent disruption of nocturnal animal habitat (dark sky principles).   Ventilation and thermal comfort exceeds standards.  A healthy indoor environment is guaranteed by low-VOC-emitting and formaldehyde-free composites, adhesives, sealants, paints, finishes and carpets that prevent harmful off-gassing of pollutants.
Floors in all but the four meeting rooms are concrete to eliminate the need for replacement in the future.  Building elements are all made of recycled materials, including:  carpet, insulation, acoustical ceiling tiles, ceramic tile, and gypsum wall board.   All countertops in the building (restrooms, kitchen, administrative areas, reception/front desk, and classroom) contain 60% recycled glass chips in concrete or 60% post-industrial metal shavings in resin.  Recycled wood and steel were used in the entrance details, and 41% of the lumber used in the building is Forest Stewardship Council-certified as sustainably harvested, including the massive posts and beams that give the building its architectural character.  Cabinets are made with wheat straw, a rapidly renewable resource.  Fly ash comprises approximately 5% of the 1,000 cubic yards of the concrete foundation.  Recycled steel is used in the rebar.  Ozone-depleting compounds such as refrigerants were avoided or replaced with less environmentally damaging products.  Remarkably, 90% of construction waste and materials were reused, salvaged, and recycled.   Clearly marked recycling containers for paper, plastic, metal cans, and glass are easily found both inside and outside of the facility.  A dedicated recycling room located close to an exit eases collection and transfer of recycled materials.

Water conservation is emphasized -- both indoor and outdoor water are conserved.  Low-flow automatic plumbing fixtures and waterless urinals conserve water indoors.  Water-efficient xeriscaping with wildlife-friendly native plants and forbs avoids chemical use.  Irrigation -- limited only to the first three years while woody plants become established – uses a drip-irrigation system.  Stormwater containment with drainage swales conserves more water outdoors.

Results and Achievements

Aside from the building's unique architectural design, a number of innovations in sustainable construction, together with success in using non-traditional energy efficiency strategies, make this project truly exemplary.  Design and construction followed the Guiding Principles; used multiple cost effective-innovative strategies; and specified systems to reduce energy, water, and materials, going well beyond "business as usual" measures.  The stringent LEED requirements led to contracting difficulties, which the Service overcame to design and construct the project within available funds.  Seventeen new technologies (NTs) are used in at least five U.S. Department of Energy categories:  building envelope, HVAC, lighting, power management, and water heating.

San Luis NWR HQ and Visitor Center WindowsA strong integrated design team was critical to the success of this $10.126 million project, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  (The elk statue was funded by private donations.)  A LEED coordinator who monitored requirements for the project, and a commissioning agent who ensured close coordination between the design team and the contractor, were actively engaged from the beginning of design throughout commissioning.  Enhanced commissioning, management, measurement, and verification were done to ensure correct systems' installation and operation.  To maximize efficiency, the HVAC system was reprogrammed and hardware changes were made during the facility's first year of operation.
The facility saved significant amounts of energy, water, and construction waste.  Building energy production, demand, and performance, as measured by digital meters, is at least 30% more efficient than a standard building.  During the first year of operation in 2012, with the solar PV arrays producing an impressive 103,048 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of renewable electric power, the net-zero energy use design of the facility is 0 kBTU/sq ft.  When combined with additional savings from the energy efficiency features of the building, 605 million BTUs (MMBTU) and $26,610 in energy costs were saved.   Assuming a 20-year life cycle and a 0.7% performance degradation per year (according to studies done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2010), the estimated lifecycle renewable energy production is 1,929.5 megawatt-hours (MWH).  The estimated lifecycle energy savings is 11,657 MMBTU.  No fuel is used for the facility.
The building's water use is reduced more than 35% below current standards.  Although actual water use varies based on the number of visitors, water savings of approximately 396,000 gallons was realized in 2012, for a cost savings of $486.
Vehicle fuel cost savings in 2012 was approximately $12,500 (not included in energy cost savings), which represents gasoline costs avoided because staff no longer have to drive the 20-mile round-trip between the former office site in Los Banos to the refuge to work (about 62,400 miles per year).

The project demonstrates excellent outdoor air quality by avoiding 42.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents of greenhouse gas emissions annually.


The environmental leadership shown at San Luis will have a lasting impact on the way visitor centers are realized in the future. This LEED Platinum certified facility has far exceeded the Service's LEED Silver goal and expectations. The experience gained here helps the Service achieve its Climate Change goal of attaining carbon neutrality by 2020 by striving to design sustainable, net-zero energy use facilities, while communicating our outstanding achievements to others. Design principles developed here have been used at four other Service Visitor Centers.  Other organizations including the Yolo Basin Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California State Parks are considering copying San Luis's successful initiatives in their future visitor centers.  In addition, a surprising number of design professionals and contractors have been visiting to learn about this LEED Platinum building.
A large dynamic, state-of-the-art, interactive exhibit interprets the facility's sustainable features for the estimated 150,000 visitors annually.  A new electric power meter in the Visitor Center is planned to be modified to show the output of the solar PV arrays. The Visitor Center is supported and used by local organizations including: water districts, Conservation Partners, NGOs, Los Banos Unified School District, Rotary, Amah Mutson Native American Tribal Band, Merced College, California State University – Stanislaus, Central Valley Joint Venture, California Fish and Wildlife, county governments, other educational institutions, and local land trusts.  The facility was featured in publications such as the magazine, Green Building and Design (May 2013 issue).