Preserve will demonstrate ‘green’ living

The carpets are made from used pop bottles, the cabinets from old newspapers, banana peels, and the shells of sunflower seeds.

The exhibit on the benefits of recycling is built out of recycled rubber and aluminum.

For the developers of the Springs Preserve, it isn’t enough to simply preach the concept of sustainable living. They aim to show it to you.

The $250 million visitor attraction has been packed with functioning examples of so-called “green building” techniques designed to save water, electricity and raw materials.

Springs Preserve Director Francis Beland describes the 180-acre collection of museums, gardens, trails and gathering places as a “living machine.”

Every drop of water that runs down the drain at the preserve gets channeled into 40 acres of constructed wetlands called the Cienega, where aquatic plants filter the wastewater so it can be used again to fill toilets and irrigate landscaping.

“That is huge,” Beland said. “That is a great green feature.”

The grounds of the preserve are dotted with solar panels that generate enough energy to supply about 70 percent of the project’s needs.

Two of the arrays are for demonstration purposes only, generating just enough electricity for the landscape lighting. The real power plant is in the parking lot, where 2.4 acres of solar panels have been mounted atop the shade structures that keep visitors’ cars cool.

All told, the Springs Preserve produces more than 400 kilowatts of solar electricity, which it feeds into the local power grid to earn green energy credits on its monthly bill from Nevada Power.

The project’s living lessons all lead to the Desert Living Center, a five-building complex billed as the place for people to see green technology at work and learn practical ways to put it to use for themselves.

Beland said the complex is the first of its kind in the world, “a free-choice learning center” about how to live in the desert.

The buildings, which house a reference library, labs, classrooms and meeting rooms, were carefully placed and angled to limit heat exposure while maximizing natural lighting.

In some cases, mirrors are used inside to reflect daylight around rooms and reduce the need for electric lights. Awnings outside keep direct sunlight off of the windows during the summer months.

Each building has its own evaporative cooling tower and a computer-controlled operations system that senses rising temperatures and automatically opens small windows to vent hot air through the roof.

The outside walls are made using straw bales or rammed earth in thick, temperature-regulating layers. Sections of the walls are cut away so visitors can see inside. Signs nearby explain the benefits.

“The architecture talks to you,” Beland said.

Many of the design elements take their cues from the desert adaptations of animals and plants. Others are based on building techniques used by native cultures here and in other deserts around the world.

Recycled materials are used throughout. In the Dialogue Center, where classes and meetings will be held, the wooden roof trusses are made out of lumber salvaged from a railroad trestle built along the Great Salt Lake in 1902.

“You can still see the salt absorption in the wood,” said Jesse Davis, spokesman for the Springs Preserve.

Beland said the Desert Living Center has already earned enough points to qualify for a platinum rating from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program. He expects the buildings to pile up additional points as their water and energy use are measured and verified during the first 12 months of operation.

Only a few dozen other buildings across the country have earned platinum certification, which is the highest rating given by the U.S. Green Building Council, national sanctioning body for LEED.

Jeff Roberts, project architect for the preserve, said it is difficult to pinpoint how much the green improvements may have added to the cost of the buildings because they were planned that way from the start.

In general, though, earning a platinum rating can add up to 15 percent to the cost of construction, while the energy savings ensure that “payback is much sooner,” Roberts said.

“You’ve invested more money upfront to get a faster return.”

That is no more true than in the design lab and technical training center. There, visitors will be able to take hands-on classes in building solar screens and installing drip irrigation systems, among other subjects, all while cooling their heels in a 3,200-square-foot structure that requires no outside source of electricity.

“This building is completely off the grid,” Roberts said. “It’s our big experiment in completely passive techniques.”

Then there is the Sustainability Gallery, where visitors can check out ways to save water and power at home and reduce their trash output through recycling.

Among the displays is a Toyota Prius that has been turned into an exhibit on hybrid cars, a garbage truck decorated with recycled materials, a squishy tunnel for kids called the Compost Crawl, and a tower of trash that represents the monthly waste generated by the average Las Vegas resident who doesn’t recycle.

“It explores how to keep things out of the landfills and repurpose things,” said Kendall Christian, who designed displays at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland before joining the curator team at Springs Preserve.

The Desert Living Center also includes an outdoor kitchen for cooking classes and a wet lab where people can learn to garden with desert plants.

“We want to be a place where people come to gather,” said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and Southern Nevada Water Authority and the person credited with dreaming up the Springs Preserve.

The project’s other major complex, known as the ORI-GEN Experience, also was designed to achieve the highest rating for green construction.

“Those are the first two platinum LEED buildings in the desert,” Mulroy said.

The effort has not gone unnoticed by those who care passionately about such things.

The Sierra Club’s Jane Feldman said although she feels conflicted about the project’s $250 million price tag, she is impressed by its overall message.

“They have made quantum leaps forward with their designs at the Springs Preserve,” she said. “A lot of engineering, foresight and planning went into that.”

Best of all, it’s designed as a lesson everyone can learn from.

“There are so many things we can do smarter,” said Feldman, who is conservation co-chairwoman for the Sierra Club’s Southern Nevada chapter. “People want to do the right thing. It’s that they just don’t always think about it.”

Local conservationist John Hiatt also appreciates the preserve’s message, but the only way it will work is if residents also learn how easy and affordable it is for them to do their part.

“For most people, the driver is, ‘Well, what does it cost?'” said Hiatt, conservation chairman for the Red Rock Audubon Society.

Mulroy said the Springs Preserve is the first of several high-profile green projects now under way in the valley, including the $7.4 billion CityCenter project on the Strip and the $75 million Molasky Group building downtown, which eventually could become the water authority’s new headquarters.

Such work could help Las Vegas shed its image of “decadence and wastefulness” and emerge as a leader in responsible desert living, Mulroy said.

There’s never been a better time to make that change, said Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, who also is on the water authority board.

“We live in the desert, one of the driest deserts in the world, and we’re in the middle of a record, multiyear drought,” Reid said. “We’ve been trying to tell people that you can live in that environment responsibly.”

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