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Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park Interpretive Center in Agua Dulce, California by Brooks + Scarpa Architects
March 1st, 2012 by Sanjay Gangal
Article source: Brooks + Scarpa Architects
The Vasquez Rocks Nature and Interpetive Center is a vital gateway to a unique asset in the Los Angeles County Parks system. The high-desert site is one of the most significant natural areas in the region; its sculptural rock formations have inspired generations of visitors and provided the backdrop to dozens of Hollywood movies and television shows. Its location along the Pacific Crest Trail affords hikers on a 2,650-mile walk from Mexico to Canada an unforgettable point of reference.
The Nature and Interpretive Center, in our view, must address the theme of environmental stewardship, conservation, the visual drama of its surroundings and the cinematic imagery these surroundings have inspired. Through carefully integrated exhibits and design moments, a narrative unfolds, in synch with the folded plates of the sculptural form. The visitor immediately grasps the significance of the surrounding landscape when first confronted with a form that so clearly echoes that landscape. Her interest and understanding is deepened upon entering, as the significance of the geological and climatic processes that gave rise to the Rocks is communicated through a series of panels, mechanical interactive exhibits, and several A/V programs, and emphasized by the steep pitch of the surrounding structure.
As much as the shape is intended to communicate drama and intrigue, it is also a pragmatic resolution of site conditions that optimizes building performance and minimizes the need for energy consumption. The orientation of the building protects occupants from the scorching summer sun and admits the low winter sun; it is also oriented to capture prevailing breezes, cooling the building as wind passes over it. The angled roofs not only generate visual interest; they channel water into a storage tank. The overhang along the northeast and southwest edges frames the view of the surrounding landscape while sheltering the interior from solar rays. The expressiveness of the building’s form and the allusions of its materiality are intended to reinforce, rather than disguise, the sustainable strategies at work.
In essence, the new Vasquez Rocks Nature and Interpretive Center communicates the feeling that it is at one with its environment, treading lightly upon the land but leaving a significant cognitive impact upon the visitor. It is at once visually arresting and subtly integrated – it’s as if it has been there as long as the rocks themselves.
Passive sustainability occurs through careful massing, glazing location, natural daylight, and increased insulation in walls and roofing. Large overhangs provide welcoming transition zones and prevent direct solar heat gain. Large areas of glazing provide a connection to outdoors, ample daylight and minimize the need for electrical power. Occupancy controls automatically turn off power when space is not being used, and when daylight is sufficient. The orientation of the building follows an east-west axis for greater solar control.
The quality of the interior environment is increased by providing occupants with control over thermal environments and by utilizing natural ventilation wherever possible. Operable skylights, windows and louvers induce airflow through the space. Space conditioning through a water source heat pump will only be provided when outside conditions dictate that the system should be activated. The entire building is connected to a photovoltaic array, which will generate a portion of the power load. The shape of the building is directly related to the prevailing wind direction at the site, and maximizes natural cross ventilation.
We believe that environmental sustainability, economic concerns, and quality design are not mutually exclusive. A symbiotic relationship exists between them, which results in new discoveries and spatial qualities that nurture people. The Interpretive Center is designed to tread lightly on the earth and meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Solar insulation for this location is shown on the world map and the monthly graph. The total solar energy in hours, received each day, during the worst lowest-insulated month of the year is approximately 5 hours per day. For the specific location of Vasquez Rocks, the sun will provide about 6 kWhr/sq meter/day of energy from the sun. The adjacent graph is a breakdown of energy per month in kWhr per square meter. The photovoltaic solar panel array above water tank will be designed to provide approximately 3kW of electrical generation, or 13% of total building load.
Wind direction for this location is from the northeast/east 50% of the time and from the southwest/west 27% of the time. Winds are gusty and speed varies widely, . The average speed for 2009 was about 4 mph, with a high of 34 mph and a low of 1 mph. The building shape takes advantage of the prevailing wind direction by placing the operable windows in the most favorable location to induce natural cross ventilation.
Water conservation is very important for this site, and the greater region of Southern California. Strategies to minimize water usage include ultra-low flow or no-flow fixtures, stormwater containment systems and careful site grading and filtering of runoff from vehicles. Landscaping will require no new permanent irrigation.
Rainfall for the area is seasonal and typically occurs in the winter months. The average yearly rainfall varies from 5”-17” and in 2009, the yearly total was 10”. In lieu of providing a potable water hose bibbb for the building, a rain barrel will collect approximately 2,500 gallons of roof rain water for general site use. The remainder of roof storm water will be captured and directed to a sub- grade retention (drywell) system.
Temperatures for the site vary widely, from a high of over more than 100 degrees to a low below freezing. Average temperatures are in the 60- degree range. The building envelope will be designed to obviate these temperature swings and provide a comfortable interior environment. Both roof and wall will be designed for superior thermal values, and a high efficiency water source heat pump system will provide space heating and cooling when natural ventilation is not sufficient.
Our sustainable strategy for the Interpretive Center is twofold:
The building envelope maximizes thermal properties, daylighting, natural cross ventilation and shading to reduce building energy use ; a small photovoltaic system is provided to generate energy for a portion of the remaining load.
The relatively small size of the building dictates a simple strategy for heating and cooling the interior space. We propose a high-efficiency water source heat pump system. This reduces the initial first cost, and is less complex to construct than other systems. Thus, the ventilation and air conditioning strategy is mixed-mode. Air conditioning and heating will only be provided when the outside conditions are such that the systems need to be activated (through the Building Management Control system). At other times, when the building is occupied, natural ventilation will be used through operable windows, skylights and louvers.
Water use is reduced by deploying very low-flow and waterless fixtures; hot water is provided through small electric instantaneous hot water heaters at each sink location. Storm water is retained, both for general site use by way of a hose bibb, and retained for ground percolation.
The site landscape strategy is minimal: Reinforce what exists, complement the natural landscape and provide no new permanent irrigation. The building management control system will be provided to match existing County standards, or to standards developed by the heat-pump manufacturer.
The sustainable features of the project are of high educational value; they are essential components of the pedagogical function of the Interpretive Center and dovetail with the other programmatic requirements.
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