Desert Living Center in Las Vegas Teaches Sustainability (VIDEO)

Technology at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas teaches people environmentally friendly habits in harsh environments.

by / September 28, 2012
The Springs Preserve’s architectural beauties include the outdoor wireframe rotunda in the distance. Hilton Collins

Aaron Micallef has a keen awareness of sustainable technologies, but he wonders sometimes how well he spreads it. As the curator of exhibits for the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, he conveys the facility’s message of eco-friendly desert living to visitors, yet they often misunderstand the true nature of the green marvels before them.

The preserve, owned by the Las Vegas Valley Water District, opened to the public in 2007 and cost $235 million to produce. The site’s expansive 180 acres have walking trails, gardens and interactive museum exhibits, and venues include on-site concerts and educational classes. Despite his teaching, Micallef said he believes that patrons take the history of some features for granted.

Case in point: Buildings have evaporative cooling towers that pass hot air over moist pads inside them to cool the air, reducing the need for conventional air conditioning. According to Micallef, these “modern” innovative towers have a lot in common with minarets, towers in the Middle East that have funneled out hot air through their ventilated tops for thousands of years.

“It’s actually not contemporary technology,” he said. “It’s more ancient and older technologies that we have re-adapted for our own personal use.”

In fact, many technologies are borrowed techniques from elsewhere. “There was a lot of research done [on] what other people are doing in other warm environments to figure out what we can use,” Micallef said.     

Crafting a Green Culture

Micallef spreads the green gospel, so to speak, on preserve grounds, which include seven Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum-rated buildings. They’re built with sustainable architecture, and just outside are beautiful nature scenes and bio-filtration irrigation. They exemplify the preserve’s mission of living in harmony with an arid climate. People with open eyes and minds will see environmental history everywhere in the preserve’s architectural technology and components.

LEED certifications are awarded for structures that incorporate green design elements, and the nature park has earned two. One is for the five-building Desert Living Center (DLC), a campus that includes exhibits, meeting space and classrooms. The second is split between two others: the preserve’s guest services building and the Origen Museum, which contains more exhibits and an indoor theater. The LEED buildings comprise nearly 150,000 square feet of space that conserves energy and reduces the site’s carbon footprint.

Watch video of the Desert Living Center in Las Vegas.

These energy-saving features include radiant floor heating, a technique that dates back to the Roman Empire. Back then, Romans built spaces under floors that were heated by fires or furnaces, creating warmer air in the rooms above.   

The preserve’s radiant floor heating system is similar. “We have solar-powered heat to heat water to 140 degrees, and then that water gets circulated through tubing in the floor,” said Jeff Roberts, architect with Lucchesi Galati, one of the firms responsible for the LEED ratings.

Hot water warms concrete in building foundations and turns the floors into giant radiators. “It’s more conducive to comfort because it starts at your feet level and kind of radiates up through your body,” Roberts said.

Though that’s a slick way to generate heat, it seems strange to incorporate dynamic heating in a hot place like Las Vegas — but this feature was built for the city’s drastically different winter temperatures.

“The winters get pretty cool,” said Dawn Barraclough, a public relations representative for the preserve. “We can actually get snow here in Las Vegas Valley.”

But come snowfall or heat wave, the park has additional tools for weather relief. Walls with special windows absorb heat when it’s cold and reflect heat when it’s warm. The surfaces of the low-emissivity (or low-e) glass windows are laced with microscopically thin metallic layers. On hot days, regular windows reradiate absorbed heat into a room, but low-e glass blocks most of it from entering. And on cold days, low-e glass reflects segments of sunlight into a room and keeps it inside.

The companies PPG and Cardinal Glass first offered low-e glass in 1983, and other manufacturers have adapted it since.

A computer-controlled energy management system monitors the preserve’s power consumption. Operators use software to see how much lighting and air conditioning is being used. In addition, panels with red and green lights mounted on buildings tell occupants what energy consumption mode the park’s in.

“When we’re in red light mode, it’s the computer telling everybody who’s occupying the building that the computer has complete control of all of our heating and cooling systems,” Roberts said. “Our temperature is based on thermostats, and this can change from room to room and building to building, so it varies.”

In green light mode, the system has determined that the outside weather is mild, so mechanical heating and cooling technology is unnecessary. That means it’s up to the people inside to open doors and windows as necessary so nonmechanical heating and cooling factors, like ventilation, natural sunlight and shading, can take charge.

“The building becomes a living, thinking thing,” Roberts said. “Human occupants can make the building perform better by acknowledging the red light/green light system, with green light telling them to open the building up and let it breathe and naturally cool itself by using outdoor environmental conditions.”

Sustainable Power

Solar power is crucial to the preserve’s functionality. A solar-powered hydrogen fueling station serves utility vehicles running on hydrogen power. Solar panels generate more than half of the power onsite, and according to Roberts, the DLC is designed to avoid using any electrical lighting during daylight hours.

Photo: Visitors write down personal sustainability goals, and their pledges become leaves in this tree exhibit. Photo by Hilton Collins

The bulk of photovoltaic power comes from solar arrays constructed over parking spaces in the parking lot. In 2005, the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved a major $23.4 million project to build an expansive photovoltaic system at water distribution sites throughout the state, including those at the Springs Preserve parking lot, which sits atop an underground reservoir.

These arrays, engineered by PowerLight Corp., generate power that supports onsite operations, including water pumping and treatment processes, while shading the parking spaces.

“The Las Vegas Valley Water District is one of the biggest consumers of electricity in the state to move water, so they’re putting these photovoltaic power stations at most of the reservoir sites to save their electrical consumption load,” Roberts said.

PowerLight designed a 378-kilowatt alternating current system for the parking lot with an effectiveness that relies on the number of sunny days Las Vegas receives. The array produced 900,395 kilowatt hours of power in 2008 and 868,407 kilowatt hours of power in 2009.

Preserving a Future

The people who keep the Springs Preserve going will continue spreading the message of green living indefinitely, but there will be roadblocks.

Micallef is passionate about his role as an overseer of the park’s message, but his work’s not always easy. People enjoy the preserve while they’re there, but they don’t often have the patience to read exhibit literature or retain the information once they leave.

Photo: This photovoltaic array in the gardens converts sunlight into electricity. Photo by Hilton Collins

“You have a very low percentage of people who actually read your labels, and even then, those who do, they might spend anywhere from three to 30 seconds at something,” he said.

When the message sticks, that makes his efforts worth it. Micallef’s seen visitors take water conservation classes and ask for organic gardening tips, so something must be getting through.

However, the preserve’s goals aren’t so unique anymore, which presents another challenge. Conservation promotion has become so mainstream that it can be hard to stand out. “I think sustainability and the term ‘green living’ are thrown around so nonchalantly these days that what we’ve tried to do is make those ideas into something solid to people,” Barraclough said. “Something they can put their hands on [and] utilize on a day-to-day basis.”

The fact that the preserve features so much evidence of nature’s benefits solidifies that message, but in Roberts’ opinion, human nature still gets in the way periodically. “You can design the most cutting-edge, high-performance building that you want, and it can be environmentally, fiscally responsible. The hardest thing to change is human nature,” he said. “People still, at times, want to come in and turn on the lights. People still feel that if they’re hot, they need to turn down the air conditioner instead of learning to dress in layers.”

But the Springs Preserve will undoubtedly thrive despite these hurdles. The park’s newest attraction, the Nevada State Museum, opened in October 2011, after Gov. Brian Sandoval and the state budget committee approved the move earlier that year.

The city may be famous for the excitement of the casinos and shows on the Las Vegas Strip, but the preserve is crafting a sense of the area’s history and cultural identity beyond the noise and bright lights. “It’s really important that we provide Las Vegas with a community gathering place,” Barraclough said. “That’s not something most people think about when they think of Las Vegas.” 

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.