Water + Life Museums
A Desert Oasis: Two nonprofits join to create public exhibitions and offices demonstrating their commitment to sustainability.
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.
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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.
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This article appeared in the July 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine