Sip Lightly: In Las Vegas, a refresher course in the preciousness of water
For at least 3,000 years, migrating native Americans gathered at Las Vegas Creek, scattered seeds on its banks, and returned in autumn to reap the harvest. Modern Las Vegas rose around the creek precisely because travelers could find fresh water there, and in the 1890s inhabitants of the nascent city gathered at its artesian pools for social dances. But after the Las Vegas Valley Water District acquired the land surrounding the creek’s source—a spring mound from which pure water would emerge after a 100-year journey trickling through the mountains—this historical landscape went unused. Located just over a mile from the Strip, the area has become a community-gathering place once again with the opening of The Origen a year and a half ago.
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The Origen is the visitor center of the 180-acre Las Vegas Springs Preserve. The spring mound may not be visible here anymore, but it still actively supplies Las Vegas with 5 percent of its water. What has changed even more dramatically is people’s attitudes toward that scarce natural resource. By narrating different cultures’ interaction with water in Las Vegas, the programming content at The Origen intends to reverse the profligate mindset of many of today’s city residents.
The design of the visitor center, by Henderson, Nevada–based Tate Snyder Kimsey, reinforces that goal. The center comprises two buildings housing exhibition galleries and guest services, respectively, which total 73,500 square feet. The structures are configured to suggest compression, and the path between them is punctuated by boulders, which Tate Snyder Kimsey principal Randy Spitzmesser, AIA, likens to the spring water itself “coming through the mountains and box canyons.” The entrance to the exhibition building, the larger of the two, features blue recycled-content glass panels that evoke water and provide counterpoint to the board-formed concrete (with high fly-ash content) that makes up most of the building.
Inside the exhibition building, visitors proceed to a rotunda where they walk on structural-glass panels. The bubbling water underneath is not the original spring, but a recirculating water stream. “The first big notion of desert water is that the original source really came from below your feet, which is contrary to the way most people view the beginning of a water source,” Spitzmesser says. So that guests may glimpse the water feature more clearly, a screen composed of patinated mild-steel panels and multicolored recycled plastic panels filters the intense Las Vegas sunlight entering through the rotunda’s clerestory windows.
The water-conservation message is also articulated in the native, drought-resistant flora planted around The Origen; in combination with waterless urinals and ultra-low-flow toilets, the complex has reduced potable water consumption by more than 30 percent. Yet equally important is that museum-goers understand the measures being taken to reduce impact, and perhaps carry it home with them. So while lavatory users may not take much notice of their minimal flushes, for example, they can’t ignore a public-restroom installation of large pipes that, when activated with the wave of a hand, only release a trickle of water. The water feature is more educational than functional, and as Spitzmesser describes it, “It’s as if you’re getting the last drops of water out of the pipe, symbolizing the careless usage of valuable commodities like water.”
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