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Tahoe Center's Green Keeps Lake Blue

Credits: ©2009 Melissa Siig / Nevada Magazine

The Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences’ spacious, brightly lit basement is filled with cheerfully painted pipes and the quiet hum of machinery. The pipes are neatly labeled to identify their function: cold, hot, and reclaimed water. Wide pathways between the equipment provide ample space for people to walk. There’s not a cobweb or piece of junk to be seen. TCES’s basement is not your average cellar. Rather than a dark, dungeon-like space intended only for storage and use by the maintenance crew, the center’s bottom floor was designed with the public in mind. It is, in fact, a classroom. “The architects made the basement inviting,” says Heather Segale, education and outreach coordinator with the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center who manages the public education center and public outreach programs inside TCES. “All the pipes are color-coded and labeled so we can teach about green building and sustainability.”


Tahoe Center Entry

Located at Sierra Nevada College on Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in the U.S., the 40,000-square-foot facility provides a world-class venue for education and scientific research on alpine lakes and preservation of such important natural resources. ©2008 BPitzer20

Innovative design features include:

• A cogenerator that alone cuts the carbon impact of the building’s electrical consumption by two-thirds.

• Electrical generation by 30kW of integrated photovoltaics.

• Nighttime chilled water production and chilled beams for cooling.

• Laboratory exhaust heat recovery.

• A unique snow and rainwater catchment system.

• Waterless urinals and low-flow toilets.

• Light shelves to increase daylighting.

The TCES, located in Incline Village, is a collaboration between Sierra Nevada College and UC Davis in partnership with the Desert Research Institute and the University of Nevada, Reno. It’s one of the premier institutions in the world devoted to the studies of lakes, in particular the ecology and water quality of Lake Tahoe. In designing the 58,000-square-foot building, which opened in 2006, UC Davis and SNC officials decided to make it not only a place where scientists, students, and visitors can learn about Tahoe’s environment and how to protect it, but also a model green building that serves as an example of sustainable development.

In 2007, the TCES building received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification—the highest level available—from the U.S. Green Building Council. At the time, it was the first building in Nevada and one of only 26 facilities and five labs in the world to earn Platinum recognition. “Everything we’re doing is related to protecting the environment, so we felt the building should do the same,” Segale says.

Visitors can learn what goes into creating a LEED Platinum building on TCES’s green-building tour, which is held based on demand Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. “If you’re building a new home, this is a great tour to come on,” says Segale, who was inspired to make green choices—such as bamboo flooring and low-VOC paint (volatile organic compounds release low-level toxic emissions into the air years after application)—when remodeling her own home. “With every little decision, it made me think about it more and not just [make] the designer choice.”

The TCES building was designed to minimize environmental impact by following the key principles of green building—ecological site development, energy and water conservation, and occupant comfort and health. In terms of energy efficiency, the facility uses 60 percent less than a similar-sized building. It’s able to do this through the use of photovoltaic solar panels on the roof, which provide 10 to 20 percent of the building’s annual energy demand (during the summer months, the panels provide one-third of the building’s energy); an evaporative cooling tower that employs only 5 to 10 percent of the energy needed to operate traditional air conditioning; and a co-generation system that captures heat exhaust from a natural gas-fired generator. “Gas is essentially used two times—once to make electricity and [again] to heat the building,” explains Chuck Levitan, SNC professor of natural sciences and TCES green exhibits manager. “This is one of the most cost-effective systems in the building.”

Posters and an animated computer screen in the lobby explain how the building’s 15 operational systems work. Soon to be added is a Building Dashboard, which will provide real-time energy monitoring, both as a lobby exhibit and on the Web. “You will be able to see exactly what percentage of energy comes from solar, et cetera,” Segale says.

The architects and designers made every effort to use sustainable and local materials to reduce the building’s environmental footprint. Rain and snowmelt is collected in a 3,000-gallon tank that supplies 80 percent of the water for the facility’s low-flush toilets. The landscaping is composed of native, low-water vegetation such as aspens, lupines, and penstamins. All the boulders used in the landscape come from the hole dug for the foundation, and the mulch was made from trees felled during construction. Even the trim and wainscoting in the lobby’s interior was made from pine trees harvested from the building’s footprint and milled on site.

The lobby contains a hands-on materials display where visitors can see and touch all the materials used in the building. This includes samples of the ceiling tiles, made from recycled newspaper, a piece of old blue jeans from the recycled denim insulation, and a close-up of Hardiboard, the concrete mixture used for the building’s “wood” siding. Concrete is more durable than wood and requires little maintenance. The lobby’s floor is also concrete, stained different shades of blue to match Lake Tahoe.

Lastly, the building was designed to be a welcoming environment, both for employees and visitors. More than 90 percent of the space has a direct view of the outdoors, and all rooms have some natural lighting. The building’s atrium, with large skylights, provides daylight to the middle of the building and lobby and reduces the need for electrical lighting. While most traditional buildings have forced air, which is 85 percent recycled, the TCES has a plenum that brings 100 percent fresh air into the building. “When people get outside views and natural light, they are healthier,” Levitan says. “There’s lower absenteeism and sick days and higher retention.”

All of this makes for an inspiring place to work. “It’s an honor, especially being an environmental sciences building,” says SNC junior and UC Davis intern Steven Sesma. “It’s amazing to put both science and helping the environment together.”


  Tahoe Center Green Building Systems (198 kb)

  Tahoe Center Project Description (144 kb)

  Tahoe Center LEED Platinum Press Release (44 kb)

  Tahoe Center Chilled Beams Article (1,974 kb)

  Tahoe Center Fact Sheet (228 kb)

  Tahoe Center Poster (3,890 kb)

  Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences Case Study (599 kb)


Collaborative Design Studio (Nevada, USA)