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Project

Eielson Visitor Center Off-Grid in Denali

Credits: ©2004 National Park Service / RIM Architects

In the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve, six million acres of protected wilderness surround the Eielson Visitor Center, the most visited site deep within the park boundaries. The project site commands a view of the Alaska Range featuring Mt. McKinley (Denali), North America's highest peak. Located 60 miles from the park entrance, the visitor center is operated seasonally, June through September, and is off the power grid. All visitors traveling to Eielson Visitor Center ride on one of Denali's Alternative Transportation shuttle buses for four hours. Visitors experience firsthand how vast Denali's wilderness is as they view the sub-arctic environment and protected wildlife of Alaska en route to the visitor center. The existing visitor facility was too small (3,500 square foot) and had serious maintenance needs. For two years, a team of architects, engineers, and park staff worked together to design a new 8,900 square foot facility that would better meet the needs of the users. As one of the leaders in sustainable design, the National Park Service (NPS) made it a priority to make the new visitor center a model of sustainability. The team applied and evaluated various design options with green energy at the heart of its decisions.

 

Eielson by Ron Niebrugge

Denali National Park and Preserve is comprised of six million acres of protected wilderness that surround the off-grid Eielson Visitor Center, the most visited site deep within the park boundaries. ©2012 Ron Niebrugge

One of the main goals for the project was to design a low-profile building that blends into the landscape and minimizes the visual intrusion of a manmade structure in that environment. The steep slope enabled the designers to partially bury the building, which will visually screen the structure from the road. The design of the new visitor center called for a green roof. To achieve this, tundra mats salvaged from the construction site were relocated to planters dispersed on the roof terrace to camouflage the roof deck, helping the building blend into the landscape. The green roof also assists in storm water run-off reduction and thermal energy conservation. Other high priority strategies used in the design of the visitor center include maximizing natural daylighting by optimally locating a series of clerestory windows, selecting energy-efficient heating and venting systems, use of renewable energies, and thoughtful selection of materials including recycled and locally produced material. Remote site concerns and construction costs led the team to analyze ways to re-use portions of the existing visitor center by grinding up the concrete block and using it as fill in the parking area as well as an attempt to design the site such that the cut and fill were mostly balanced.

In the past, the remote location spurred the park to implement award-winning renewable energy strategies at the site, including the implementation of a hybrid generator system with photovoltaic panels and a battery bank. The Department of Energy's HOMER Analysis program was applied to the project to evaluate the best mix of renewable energy options and helped determine the optimal mix of renewable energies. With the information gained from the HOMER program the building design will include the following alternative renewable energy systems: expanding the solar photovoltaic panels and battery bank that was already in use at the existing visitor center, installing a solar hot water heating system for the public restrooms, and constructing a small hydroelectric system in a nearby stream.

Denali National Park and Preserve is a National Park System Center for Environmental Innovation. The park has committed to showcase new technologies, motivate and educate the public and NPS employees about environmentally friendly practices, install systems and alter behaviors to reduce energy needs and adverse environmental impacts. The design effort for the replacement Eielson Visitor Center embraces that challenge and exemplifies these goals.

from RIM Architects:
The Eielson Visitor Center is located 67 miles inside Denali National Park and Preserve, one of the largest parks in the United States. The National Park Service desired that the project become a direct reflection of their mission and aspirations for sustainable development, and intends this project to be a visible demonstration of sustainable principals; this includes a national and international audience.

The design team aspired to create a sustainable, remotely-accessible, off-grid visitor center deep within the park wilderness. In addition to the positive attributes such as various self sufficient energy sources, material reuse, and native materials, no visual impact was to be made on the natural environment.

A scheme of no impact was particularly challenging, though completely appropriate for delivering an effective hierarchy of “wilderness first." Several schemes were explored, ultimately resulting in an earth-sheltered building with a spectacular panorama of the Alaska Range. The design process, through the use of working models, revisited first principals in understanding the specifics of sunlight and latitudes. In turn, successfully integrated skylights and ventilation portholes became a major working component of the project.

All power is generated on-site, either through an array of photovoltaic panels (integrated into the facia system), or a micro-hydroelectric generation system.

Access to the site is restricted to mass-transit visitor buses.

Water is collected and disposed of on-site, being carefully directed to water-saving fixtures with limited treatment.

In addition to new building construction, the designers tackled issues related to demolition / reuse of the existing facility, and of the impacts to the construction contractor. This facility is situated 100 miles from the nearest landfill with much of that travel occurring through a wilderness corridor. Reuse of construction materials was an important aspect to limiting disturbance to both landfills and to the natural setting.

The end result is a stunning collaboration between architecture and engineering, experienced mostly from the interior. Some facilities shout their message; the intent of this facility is to quietly articulate an important message within a context that allows that quiet delivery to be absorbed in a meaningful manner to a diverse collection of individuals.

2008 Citation Award

American Institute of Architects, Alaska Chapter

2008 Members’ Choice Awards [Most Alaskan; Liked the Best; Most Original Design]

American Institute of Architects - Alaska Chapter

from TreeHugger
2008
Sixty miles down a dirt road in the Alaskan Wilderness, sits a cutting-edge green building nestled in the mountains.

An educational landmark for visitors and a starting point and shelter for backcountry hikers, the Eielson Center in Alaska's Denali National Park sports some of the greenest features yet produced by federal funds.

The building was completed late this summer -- based on the designs of RIM Architects and RMI's Built Environment Team -- and sustains itself without an electricity grid lifeline.

How exactly does the building supply its own energy?

First, passive design measures and energy efficient technologies help cut the building's energy use by half.

Some of these passive design features include:

• South-facing, high-performance windows that maximize solar gain and are well insulated to accommodate for the extreme climate.

• The building is constructed partially underground, which allows the advantage of ambient earth temperatures and protects the building's walls from strong winds.

• Apertures in the side of the building and skylights, which provide the majority of daytime light. Daylight sensors monitor light levels to reduce the use of electric lighting during the long summer days.

• The ability to "go cold." In the extreme Alaskan winters, temperatures reach -40 degrees Fahrenheit and Denali becomes impassable for six to seven months. This could have resulted in the expenditure of large amounts of energy. Instead, when the visitors stop coming, the building "goes cold." Exhibits, plumbings, and other elements were designed to endure extremely cold temperatures without incurring any damage.

• Heat recovery ventilators that recover heat from exhausted air to warm the cold incoming air. This is especially useful when waves of visitors create large volumes of stale air.

Renewable, distributed technologies like integrated photovoltaic and small-scale water turbine systems supply the center's remaining energy needs.

While the design, architecture, technologies, and remote location are fascinating in themselves, the Eielson Visitor's Center is notable for a more practical issue -- its low cost.

Operating costs are 84.7 percent lower than the average building its size (15,000 square feet), and Eielson was the first National Park Service building to receive a LEED Platinum rating within a federal budget.

Proving that integrated design and cutting edge technologies can indeed be cost effective, Eielson is set to be a model for future National Park Visitor Center designs.

Already, the new Visitor's Center in Lassen Volcanic National Park is expected to become the second center to earn a LEED Platinum rating within the limits of a tight federal budget.

 

from U.S. National Park Service:

Sustainable features of Eielson Visitor Center
As one of the leaders in sustainable design, the National Park Service made a priority of re-modeling Eielson Visitor Center using sustainable building methods and materials.


Building into the tundra
A main goal of the project was to design a low-profile building that blends into the landscape. The steep slope enabled the designers to partially bury the building, which visually screens the structure from the Park Road. The roof is literally "green," as tundra mats salvaged from the construction of the site were relocated to planters dispersed on the roof terrace. These camouflage the roof deck, helping it blend into the landscape. The green roof also assists in storm water run-off reduction and thermal energy conservation.


Other sustainable building techniques
The planning and construction of Eielson included strategies such as maximizing natural daylighting, selecting energy-efficient heating / venting systems, the use of renewable energies to power the building and thoughtful selection of recycled and locally produced.


Renewable energy
In the past, the remote location of the center spurred the park to implement various renewable energy strategies at the site, including a hybrid generator system with photo-voltaic panels and a battery bank. Information gained from analysis of this and other strategies led to expanding the solar panels and battery bank, installing a solar hot-water heating system for the restrooms, and constructing a small hydroelectric system in a nearby stream.


Commitment to environmental sustainability
Denali National Park and Preserve is a National Park System Center for Environmental Innovation. The park has committed to showcase new technologies, motivate and educate the public and park service employees about environmentally friendly practices, and install systems and alter behaviors to reduce energy needs and adverse environmental impacts. The design effort for the replacement Eielson Visitor Center embraces that challenge and exemplifies these goals.

Relevant book:

Off the Grid Homes

Off the Grid: Modern Homes and Alternative Energy


Documents

  Eielson Visitor Center Environmental Assessment (5,563 kb)

  Eielson Visitor Center Denali Fact Sheet (2,159 kb)