Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center
Thousands of people move to Las Vegas each year. It is a city of excess where many have diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge, but few understand what it is to live in the desert. The Mojave Desert is a delicate place. Extreme heat and little rain exaggerate the time it takes the land to recover from human disturbance. Educating this growing population on respectful living in the desert is a priority. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), with support from the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association, the Friends of Red Rock Canyon, and the Master Gardeners has used the current Visitor Center to apply their mission. After 28 years, even with numerous upgrades and additions, the facility no longer provides for the needs of both staff and visitors. Space is inadequate for users, exhibits, and storage. The building is increasingly expressing its age visually, and in wear and maintenance.
In support of the BLM’s mission to encourage stewardship for the land, the design of the new facility provides an outdoor experience which will instill in individuals, a sense of personal responsibility for their land’s well-being. Key to the visitor’s understanding of Red Rock Canyon is the need to experience, and be a part of the inspirational desert landscape. The design of the new Visitor Center fulfills this, where up to 1,000,000 visitors per year are introduced to the geology, science, art and culture of Red Rock Canyon, and encouraged to visit the nearby real thing.
The facility differs from traditional visitor centers by emphasizing the specific attributes of Red Rock Canyon itself, in lieu of traditional dioramas and pseudo-natural imitations. Here, visitors are introduced to outdoor abstract sculptural exhibits designed to inform them about the surrounding landscape and prepare them for their own explorations within the National Conservation Area. This innovative approach moves visitors and interpretation from interior conditioned space to exterior microclimates which are kept comfortable through the use of shade, evaporative cooling, and a large energy efficient fan. During summer months, these strategies make an individual viewing outdoor exhibits feel approximately 10-15° cooler than being in direct sunlight. This shifting of exhibits from air conditioned interior space to fully day-lit tempered outdoor microclimates leads to massive energy savings for the client and a truly unique experience for visitors.
Many resource-conserving ideas are incorporated into the facility. The Arrival Experience is sheltered by a “big hat” (a roof with ample overhangs) which creates intermediate thermal transition zones and forms the collection plane for rainwater harvesting (used for interpretive exhibits and landscape irrigation). These thermal transition zones alleviate shock to users’ senses by providing a place where eyes and skin can adjust while moving between the hot, bright, exterior and the cool, shaded interior. The overhangs also shade floor to ceiling glass in the summer while allowing the low winter sun to enter the space, reducing demand on the building’s mechanical system. High-efficiency mechanical systems are utilized; solar water heating, a transpired solar collector system and a 55 KW photovoltaic array convert the region’s intense sun into free energy. The transpired solar collector provides heating for the Rest Rooms, allowing the mechanical system in these spaces to be eliminated. Natural and durable materials such as concrete masonry, steel and glass reduce maintenance needs and help unify the building with the landscape. As part of future upgrades to infrastructure, a new recirculating waste water system will replace an existing septic system, treating reclaimed water for reuse in flushing toilets.
These innovative design elements at the new Visitor Center are visibly expressed to educate visitors on the importance of resource conservation. Situated along the Entry Plaza, the transpired solar collector is ideally suited for sunny locations with long heating seasons. This metal wall converts as much as 80% of available solar radiation to heat using minimal energy. As outside air is drawn through the collector’s perforated metal skin by a ventilation fan, its temperature increases by as much as 40°F. The heated air flows to the top of the wall where it is distributed through ductwork to the restroom interiors.
A ground mounted 55 KW photovoltaic array is oriented for year round optimization providing power to the new Visitor Center. Carefully sited between two earth berms, the array is hidden from view along the nearby highway, affording unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains of Red Rock Canyon. The photovoltaic array also provides an interpretive opportunity for visitors. After viewing the array, a computer located in the Visitor Center allows users to see how much energy the photovoltaics are producing and the effects that weather (such as cloud cover) have on its efficiency. A solar water heater also uses energy from the sun to help temper air for the mechanical system and provide hot water to sinks within the adjacent Administration Building.
Recognizing the effect that the extreme climate can have on building components, natural and durable materials were specified. Low maintenance concrete masonry makes up the majority of the building’s walls and visually helps the building grow from the site. Outdoor interpretive elements are constructed of painted and galvanized steel, further reducing maintenance needs. Due to the expected number of visitors each year, interior finishes are equally durable. Scored concrete floors and concrete masonry walls are left exposed to express the natural character and beauty of the materials.
Water harvesting is incorporated into the project not only as a method of resource conservation, but as an interpretive element as well. 15,000 gallons of rain water and snowmelt is stored for use in interpretive exhibit water features and landscape irrigation. One such exhibit, the drip fountain, is placed along the Entry Plaza to educate visitors about the desert’s most precious resource. Dripping into a small steel basin, water overflows into an area planted with vegetation native to semi-moist areas of the Mojave Desert, demonstrating the importance of rainfall for these plants.
The Visitor Center is an asset for the community, offering creative interpretive presentations and a unique opportunity to interact with one of the most exceptional ecosystems in the United States. The building stands as a physical example of how to exist and conserve in the desert by extending the usability of outdoor space, providing ample shade, harvesting rainwater, generating its own energy, and using natural and durable materials. The hope is that visitors will realize the benefits that these systems can offer, and then apply some of the same concepts in their own lives.
The project has received LEED Gold certification.
Contributed by Line and Space
Photos © Robert Reck
Owner: US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management
General Contractor: Straub Construction
Exhibit/Interpretive Contractor: H.B Stubbs Companies and Hilferty and Associates
Civil and MEP Engineer: GLHN Architects and Engineers
Structural Engineer: Holben, Martin, and White
Telecommunications: Technology Plus