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Water + Life Museums Celebrate Fossils

Credits: ©2011 Lehrer Architects

The 70,000-square-foot Water + Life Museums complex is highly energy and water efficient despite its harsh desert environment of Hemet, California, USA, where triple-digit summer heat is normal, but where water can freeze in winter. The roof is topped with a huge photovoltaic installation - a 540 watt, 3000 panel solar array that produces 68 percent of the complex’s electricity needs while shading the interior from the scorching desert sun. Additional heat mitigation is provided by translucent PV panels that shade more than 8,000 square feet of the structure’s heat blocking glass. The interior makes use of abundant daylighting and features radiant flooring backed by a sophisticated HVAC system. The terraced gardens are watered through a drip irrigation system that uses reclaimed water. The museum complex owes its existence to the Diamond Valley Lake Reservoir; completed in 1999 by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, it became the largest earthworks project on US soil. During the massive dig to create the reservoir, some significant fossils were unearthed and put on display at the Diamond Valley Lake Visitor Center or in storage. Seeing the educational opportunities of displaying the finds, two non-profit organizations came together to design two new facilities with a large, outdoor connecting terrace. The resulting Water + Life museum complex became the first LEED Platinum green museum buildings in the US. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources)


Water & Life Museums Photovoltaics

The roofs of the Water & Life Museums are nearly all covered with solar panels in California. ©2007 Benny Chan / Green Source

Water + Life Museums
A Desert Oasis: Two nonprofits join to create public exhibitions and offices demonstrating their commitment to sustainability.
By Jessica Boehland, July 2007, Green Source magazine

The roofs of the Water and Life museums are nearly all covered with solar panels. Although hidden from view for visitors standing near the buildings, the panels are visible from a distance.

Angler Mike Long caught a 16.4-lb. largemouth bass on Diamond Valley Lake, California, in March 2007, setting a new lake record. Amazing, considering that just two decades ago, this 4,500-acre lake was farmland in the saddle between two mountain ranges. Three dams, 260 billion gallons of water, and $2 billion later, however, the reservoir could meet Southern California’s water needs for six months in the event of an emergency.

Located about 300 feet below the eastern dam, two new museums are part of a multimillion-dollar thank-you gift from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California to the community of Hemet for allowing the reservoir—the largest earthworks project in U.S. history—to be built in its backyard. “Water politics is big and complex,” says Michael Lehrer, FAIA, principal of Lehrer + Gangi Design + Build, with just a hint of understatement. The Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology displays fossils and Native American artifacts unearthed during excavation for the dams, while the Center for Water Education teaches visitors the importance of water in Southern California and its impact on the rest of the world.

Lehrer and Mark Gangi, AIA, who together led the design process, intended the project to honor the architectural tradition of large infrastructure projects, perhaps recalling the power and precision of the turbines in the dam. The architects wanted something “Stonehenge-ian,” according to Lehrer, with abstract, geometric volumes jutting out from the landscape. The resulting buildings intersperse large window walls with steel-clad towers, creating a modern, industrial aesthetic.

The 62,000-square-foot project houses facilities for both centers, including exhibit and interactive space, laboratories, classrooms, offices, a gift shop, and a café in its multiple buildings. While each of the two main buildings has its own air handler and radiant floor manifolds, they share a boiler, a chiller, and a building management system that controls and monitors the mechanical systems.

The buildings’ eastern orientation, along a road that leads to a marina, posed a challenge for passive solar design. In response, the design team extended the project’s prominent towers 16 feet beyond the glazing, shading the glass from direct sun at all times except early morning. Energy simulations revealed that even morning sun would cause unacceptable heat gain, however, as the mullions continued to radiate. Seeking shade but worried about the potential for dust and sand to compromise a mechanized system, the team made the potentially controversial choice to install large disposable scrims, sort of like exterior curtains. “We kept the banners eight feet from the ground, so from inside there’s still a clear view out to the valley,” says Gangi. The PVC-coated polyester banners, which hang across 10,000 square feet of glass, will last only three to five years, but Gangi says they’re easy to replace.

Neither museum’s board of directors was originally interested in green design. After nine months of explaining and modeling its benefits, however—especially its potential to reduce operational costs, an endless headache for nonprofit organizations—the design team convinced both boards to embrace green design. The change of heart led to significant design modifications. “We went from air-handling units to radiant heating and cooling, which meant redesigning the entire slab,” says Lehrer. Since the system adjusts the temperature at the floor, where occupants and exhibits are, instead of at the ceiling, it saves considerable energy. The buildings’ high ceilings—32 feet in the front space—made this decision especially beneficial.

It took another nine months for the design team to convince the Water Education Center of the benefits of photovoltaics. Gangi says he originally thought it was a stretch to expect a water museum to invest in solar power, “but then we learned that MWD is Southern California Edison’s [the energy supplier] largest customer.” The decision to install a solar array came down to a fateful meeting between the design team and Phillip Pace, then the director of MWD and chair of the water center. “I insisted that if they didn’t do this, they’d come back in two years and say, ‘What the hell were you thinking by allowing us to proceed without this?’” recalls Lehrer.

The ensuing photovoltaic array, which covers 50,000 square feet atop almost all of both buildings, currently generates nearly 70 percent of the project’s electricity needs, according to Peter Gevorkian, of Vector Delta Design Group, Glendale, California, who designed the system. The 540-kilowatt installation, using 185-watt modules from Sharp, was built by electrical subcontractor Morrow-Meadows, Industry, California. Although the system cost $4 million, rebates from the California Energy Commission and Southern California Edison’s Savings by Design program cut the price in half, yielding an anticipated seven-year payback.

The original LEED goal was a certified rating. Once the photovoltaic system had been approved, however, the team set its sights on Silver and then Gold. John Zinner, the project’s sustainable development consultant, says that as he reviewed the LEED submittal just months ago, “it dawned on me that it might be Platinum.” The team expects the project to earn all of the available LEED credits for energy efficiency and renewable energy in addition to the credit for purchasing green electricity and two energy-related innovation credits. The submittal for 52 points—the minimum for Platinum—also includes innovation credits for recycling more than 95 percent of all construction waste, by weight, and for using the building as a teaching tool.

Using the project for education extends to landscape architect Mia Lehrer’s design. The site tells the history of agriculture in the region and includes plant species whose fossils were dug up nearby. Lehrer also included rocks and boulders leftover from excavation. “They were piled up hundreds of feet high around the site, looking forlorn,” she says. “They were magnificent.” The most distinctive landscape element is a braided stream, lined by red rock. “It looks like someone took red paint and made a ribbon throughout the campus,” says Darcy Burke, executive director of the water center. A recent rainstorm inundated much of the surrounding area, “but none of the campus was flooded,” says Burke. “All of the water went into the stream.”

Burke says visitors love the solar panels that form portions of the roof. An exhibit inside shows how the project uses and generates energy “in real time and in ‘peoplespeak,’” says Burke, “so you don’t have to be an engineer to understand it.” Dual-flush toilets, waterless urinals, and a drip-irrigation system that uses utility-supplied gray water in place of potable water teaches about water efficiency. The team selected interior furnishings for recycled content, low chemical emissions, and regional availability. Much of the wood used meets Forest Stewardship Council standards for responsible harvesting.

The Western Center has been open since October 2006, and general admission has been running 20 percent to 30 percent above projections, according to executive director Bill Marshall. The Center for Water Education, on the other hand, has been struggling. Although it has hosted more than 2,500 visitors, the MWD took over the financially ailing nonprofit group operating the center and closed its doors. Most involved with the project believe that it will eventually reopen.

While the project’s upfront cost of $37 million hasn’t helped the water center’s current financial situation, nobody seems to blame the green design. To the contrary, Michael Lehrer believes that “the fact that this is an environmental showcase will probably be its saving grace. It will end up garnering interest and support that it otherwise wouldn’t have.” Pace, who has taken heat for the financial shortfall, says he’s received only positive feedback about the project’s environmental responsibility. “Everyone understands we need to protect what we have,” he says, “or we won’t have it very long.”

The following article is from ArchNewsNow, April 2007
Water = Life: Diamond Valley Water + Life Museums Campus by Lehrer + Gangi Design + Build
Two museums in the desert offer engaging environmental lessons, both inside and out.

The Diamond Valley Water + Life Museums Campus in Hemet, California, celebrates the link between Southern California’s water infrastructure and the evolution of life. Los Angeles-based Lehrer + Gangi Design + Build created a crisp, modern design concept that envelops the 23-acre campus and includes two sister museums – The Center for Water Education and Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology – along with laboratories, classrooms, administrative offices, support facilities, gift shop, café, and interpretive/educational landscape. Phase 2 includes and outdoor amphitheatre, front and courtyard water features, two auditoriums, and a canal.

The 62,215-square-foot, $36.8 million campus is a striking mélange of metal and glass at the eastern entrance to the 4,500-acre Diamond Valley Lake. The architectural idea for the museums is derived from the history of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s monumental architecture, such as Gordon B. Kaufman’s Parker Dam pump buildings at Lake Havasu.

Translucent banners hang across 10,000 square feet of east-facing glass. Printed with pixilated images, the banners not only identify the museums (tusks for Archeology; lake for Water), but also mitigate the strong desert sun.

A broad plaza between the buildings frames the desert landscape. Latticed loggias on either side of the buildings create a dramatic processional through filtered light. The layering of perforated steel slats and custom-made solar tiles adds depth and movement to the loggias.

The 23,000-square-foot water museum incorporates such educational components as a simulated dam, two aquarium spaces, and interactive exhibits to tell the story of water. Through education and delight, the museum’s mission is to develop the public as stewards of water and water conservation.

The 33,000-square-foot archeological center across the plaza houses an interactive theater in the round, research lab, archaeology and paleontology labs, and 9,000 square feet of specimen storage. While the earthen dams were cut 100 feet into bedrock to create Diamond Valley Lake, remains from the Pleistocene era were found and are now on display at the archeology museum.

The building program is a “living” example of sustainability and conservation, which further connects the notions of water and life. Green design elements cast the complex’s energy standards above the required minimum of California Title 24 Energy Conformance. The museum campus was built to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council; efficient design features range from dual-flush toilets to broad expanses of solar panels.

The buildings’ rooftop photovoltaic installation has a 540-kilowatt solar-power system of 3,000 solar panels, and generates energy for 47 percent of the museum campus (68 percent of the museum buildings themselves). It requires minimal maintenance, and lowers the toxic outpour of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The solar-power system, whose roof-mounted panels provide shading that will extend the roof-covering life by about 25 percent, boasts a projected net savings of about $13 million during its lifespan. A specially designed solar power display in the museum provides an interactive display so visitors can learn and request information on the solar power co-generation system.

The interior lighting design includes a network of electronic sensing devices and timers that optimize daylight harvesting and program zone lighting controls in all buildings. Office lighting is monitored by occupancy sensors or photoelectric controls, while outdoor banner projectors use minimal electrical power via light-emitting-diode (LED) lamps.

Heating and cooling are conducted through a sophisticated mechanical system of radiant flooring and forced air units. Translucent banners hanging in front of high-performance curtain walls at the east elevation mitigate heat radiation.

Designed as an environmental learning experience, the architecture and the landscape for arid campus were conceived from the beginning as one. The arrival procession introduces the principal qualities of water through the meandering braided stream toward the parking lot and the (Phase 2) water features at the front of the building, illustrating the importance irrigation and agriculture have played in the history of water infrastructure and use in California. Additional components of the outdoor learning exhibits include: archaeological digs, Paleolithic habitats, industrial and cultural water uses, water conservation, water uses in the future, and local Native American settlements.

The approach to planting within the campus has been sensitively and thoroughly researched to maintain the delicate ecological balance of the region and the environmental conditions of the site. Biologists collaborated with the design team to establish a plant list that responds to and is aligned with the Metropolitan Water District’s mission statement on sustainability, its drought-tolerant approach to the landscape, and its commitment to educating the public about water conservation. Disease- and infestation-resistant plants that thrive in hot, dry climates were selected. Shade trees and other landscape elements create a comfortable environment to explore the interpretive exhibits.

Sustainable elements of the landscape program include braided streams containing pervious surfaces to provide storm water management by conveying rainwater to the water table. Irrigation systems are state-of-the-art drip systems that use reclaimed water. Surfaces are made of naturally colored red and green decomposed granite.

Thousands of large, sculptural stones were part of the detritus resulting from drilling 100 feet into bedrock during the building process. The rocks were seen as waste until the design team incorporated them as major landscape features.

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  Water & Life Museums LEED Case Study (342 kb)


Water & Life Museums Video Link

Lehrer Architects (Los Angeles, California, USA)