Watsonville Water Resources Center
Waterworks: Four separate agencies collaborated to create an integrated water management and educational showcase for an agricultural region of California.
Water is the story at the Watsonville Water Resources Center. Water conservation and watershed education were at the core of nearly every design decision for this new interpretive center, water quality laboratory, and administrative office that, for the first time, brings the city’s water management officials together under one roof.
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Watsonville is in the Pajaro Valley in California’s central coast region—an agricultural hotbed that is highly dependent on water for irrigating crops. To mitigate the drawdown of groundwater and prevent wastewater discharges into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Watsonville operates a large-scale water-recycling project on a site outside the city, providing recycled, UV-treated water to the $400-million local agriculture industry. However, the city’s water management officials were scattered in different offices and a new, integrated facility was needed to further the mission of water conservation and public watershed education. That facility is the new Watsonville Water Resources Center, a 16,000-square-foot building co-located with the water-recycling project.
“The idea that this was an educational moment for people of different experience levels drove a lot of the design,” says Pauline Souza, AIA, principal in charge of sustainability from WRNS Studio. While the center has become a draw for visitors of all kinds, local public school students in grades four to six are the primary focus of the center’s educational mission. After touring the water treatment plant and a water intake site located in a city-owned, FSC-certified forest nearby, all Watsonville sixth graders now visit the water resources center, where they can connect those lessons to the rest of the watershed. “They can see the redwood rainscreen cladding and remember visiting the site where the wood was harvested; they can look out across the fields and know that the strawberries they eat are being irrigated with water that is recycled here,” says Bob Geyer, assistant public works and utilities director for the City of Watsonville, one of four design team members representing the city agencies.
According to Souza, the goal of integrating the water management operations mirrored the collaboration of the design team during the process. “All the client representatives were present at every meeting so that all interests were always represented,” Souza says. Face-to-face meetings throughout the design process allowed the team to prioritize their goals and make sacrifices in the interest of greater resource efficiency. “By informing themselves on the issues,” Souza says of the client team, “they became comfortable doing things that public clients wouldn’t normally do”—things like trading perfect acoustics for improved ventilation; allowing for wider indoor temperature variation in favor of lowering cooling energy use; doing without carpet to maximize the effectiveness of the radiant heat; and living with extra blemishes in the low-grade redwood cladding, because it had traveled only seven miles from source to site.
The seasonality of water resources manifests as a theme throughout the design. Having vetoed a flat roof with water collection capacity in favor of a sloped, agrarian profile that would match the local landscape, the team chose to install rain chains at the eaves to visibly direct rainwater into swales, and from there into retention basins where it is treated before it infiltrates the groundwater. The design incorporates a water feature supplied by the water-recycling project; when no recycled water is available, the feature is conspicuously dry. Similarly, the native plantings on the site, including those in the interpretive demonstration garden, will not be irrigated after they have been successfully established if recycled water is unavailable. “If we have a bad season, the garden needs to look the way these plants would normally look in the native setting” in order to complete the water conservation message, Souza explains. Recycled water from the adjacent plant is also on display in the radiant-slab heating and cooling system underneath the polished concrete floor. Display panels revealing the radiant zone controls inside the walls were integrated as educational features wherever possible.
Passive design strategies reduce heating, cooling, and lighting loads, with rooftop vents oriented to harness prevailing breezes while skylights and operable clerestories invite daylight as well as natural ventilation. As the design team took these steps to reduce energy demands, they realized that the building orientation and roof slope meant that net-zero energy was becoming a realistic goal. The design calls for a photovoltaic (PV) installation that would meet 98.8 percent of modeled energy use, but economic hardship has so far prevented the public-private partnership from going forward with the PV installer. In the meantime, the city has purchased renewable energy credits (RECs) for landfill gas to offset its energy use until the PVs can be installed.
“It just shows how you can have great intentions and create a design that’s moving toward net-zero, but you still have to contend with the real world,” says Geyer. “But we’re proud to have this building that showcases environmental resource issues in our area—the journey isn’t over, but it’s a beautiful milestone on our path to sustainability.”