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First "Net Zero" Visitor Center Makes NPS Greener


The Anthony C. Beilenson Visitor Center at the King Gillette Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California is the first in the National Park Service to attain “net zero site energy” status—which means it produces and exports at least as much renewable energy as the total energy it imports and uses in a year. NPS Photo.

Since its inception in 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) has been charged with protecting our country’s national parks for generations to come. Since the push to “go green” has become an increasing part of public consciousness in recent years, so too has the NPS expanded its efforts in that arena. From locally produced food served in park restaurants to cutting edge energy conservation, the NPS has many sustainable practices in place.

Now, the NPS has gained its first “net zero” visitor center, the Anthony C. Beilenson Visitor Center at the King Gillette Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California. Check out these other National Park Service green buildings—

The visitor center has been awarded a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification (the highest) for its design. LEED provides building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions. In addition to this building, the NPS has several other LEED certified buildings.

The King Gillette visitor center is “net zero site energy,” meaning it produces and exports at least as much renewable energy as the total energy it imports and uses in a year. The building boasts a mix of both new technology and older insights into green building: photovoltaic panels, LED lighting, geothermal heating and cooling, as well as a use of natural light and green building materials. The visitor center’s energy production and consumption can be monitored online.

The Anthony C. Beilenson Visitor Center is in alignment with the Park Service’s green parks plan, which encourages units of the park system to reduce carbon emissions and use sustainable management. Kate Kuykendall, a NPS spokesperson, said, “It’s really about walking the walk since our entire agency is about protecting national resources.”

Located in northwest Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the largest urban national park in the United States. The area has a long history of human occupation and contains many significant historic and prehistoric sites and a Native American history. The national recreation area actually is made up of many parks and locations, from the beaches of Malibu to the peaks of the mountain range and is only a hop, skip, and jump from Los Angeles, making it the perfect location for a family vacation or a quick outing on a business trip.


Believe it or not, $9.5 million is relatively cheap as NPS visitor centers go. There were so many design changes in the 'fast track' construction contract that the new VC at Paradise, Mount Rainier ended up far behind schedule and cost well over $20 million, almost ten times the initial estimate. And that for a building half the size of the old one that's open to the public only about half the days of the year! Much of the NPS PR campaign emphasized it's greenness, but even if it saves half a million dollars per year, that's still forty years to break even by my calculus. Thousands of winter trips by heavy construction trucks during the phony six-month 'flood' closure of 2006-07 added so much collateral road damage that now additional tens of millions are being spent on repairs.

I see this green propaganda by the top-heavy NPS management as a smokescreen to justifiy their existence and their development agenda. This VC may be greener, but a truly 'green' agency, or society, would recognize that endless growth is not sustainable and decentralization is the key to efficency. I'll believe the National Park Service is greener when a small NPS unit can get a tractor shed built in-house for $25,000 without the Denver Service Center horning in and running the cost up to a quarter-million dollars. I'll believe top NPS management is green when it begins to dismantle itself to save tax dollars rather than threatening the public with park closures if its budget is cut.

The law of diminishing marginal returns applies to everything, including energy efficiency. At some point, the increased cost never pays off. For example, I've been looking into a solar roof, and I just can't justify the cost (with tax rebates and self install). Instead I bought a bunch of LED lights, a good washer and my electrical bill never goes over $60 a month.

Here is what I found out in going Leed in attempting to build a small building (2400 sq ft) for a governmental agency. It was going to cost us additional 10,000 to get 2x4 studs certified as "non old growth" lumber. it was going to cost about another 10K to go throught the LEED certification overhead that benefitted no one but the LEED council. It was going to be a 40 year+ payback for solar assuming no maintenance or replacement costs. To use "non vapor" emitting carpet, insulation, paint, etc was a considerable amout extra to acquire and would not compare to the installation of foam insulation, for example, for efficiency. Having to bring in concrete materials certified to have come within a certain mileage of the building was more,in fact, not available. There were so many of these add ons to meet Leed, we dropped it and built a standard high efficiency building for considerably less and saved our taxpayers a bundle of money. Our highest electricicy cost so far has been $160 and that is in Texas heat. The cost of feeling "warm and fuzzy" did not justify the additional costs.

Anon 2:25 -

I can't speak to the "need" for this facility as this is not an area I visit. But the $9.5 mil price tag (source?) does indeed seem quite excessive if all it covered was the building. That's $1600 a square foot or nearly 10x (1000 percent) higher than typical building costs. Sure seems like alot of facilities could have been repaired/built for $9.5 million.

Neither the article nor any of the comments address why this 6,000 square foot building cost $9.5 million dollars! Homes of that size which also price in the cost of the lot can be built for one tenth of that, easily, even including the solar panels.

Of course the greatest energy savings is not building anything at all, particularly when no visitor's center was really needed.

Let's see, 1000 percent of 37 is something like 3700 isn't it?

No its not - its 370 or less than .05 of one percent of the market.

Do you want to try again? Can you show us any information from a reputable architect, builder or anyone who says that the future of energy efficient buildings is bleak?

No because I never made that claim. It adds substantial cost NOW as the article indicates. Perhaps, in the future, when it doesn't - when it makes economic sense it will then make sense for the NPS (and anyone else) to use those techniques. This Visitor Center wasn't built in the future, it was built at current rates at a premium that means other improvments can't be done.

I'm chuckling right now. Anon @9:59 did you actually read the article you presented here?

Unless my reading comprehension has up and left the building, it looks as if this article is actually supporting net-zero and reduced impact residential building. You point out that only 37 net-zero homes were built, but did you read the rest of the paragraph: "As of February 2012, 37 homes have been rated net-zero-energy or better on the industry-standard Home Energy Rating System e-scale of the U.S.-standard auditor. This number could grow 1,000 percent or more in 2012 if projects continue as planned." (Let's see, 1000 percent of 37 is something like 3700 isn't it? And that is net-zero. Less expensive reduced impact homes are likely to make up a much larger part of the new housing market.)

Reading a little farther into the article we find: "

Shea Homes, a large builder in the West, announced last month that it plans to make net-zero energy or near-net-zero energy homes the standard model for new homes in all 10 of its retirement communities in Nevada, Florida, Washington, California and Arizona.

If interest in the communities mirrors last year's level, that could mean 500 to 600 solar-paneled, high-efficiency homes, 80 percent of which will be net-zero energy, said a Shea Homes spokesperson. (To achieve net-zero-energy, solar-power-enhanced homes have to be on lots that allow a certain amount of sun exposure.)"

Then, the article tells of a home buyer named Don Asay, who says: "Shea Homes has long featured extremely energy-efficient designs, though the upgrade to solar panels could be costly -- around $30,000, said Asay. He and his wife were considering the upgrade, but when the announcement was made that the new net-zero homes, with solar, were only
$7,000 more than the previous base model, they jumped: "Sign us up."

Finally, the article ends with: "The paradigm of construction is changing," said Phil Fairey, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center, an important partner in the recent growth of the net-zero energy home movement. "Now, greater efficiency doesn't cost you more," he said.

And the cost of solar energy, he added, has dropped 50 percent over the last two to three years -- from about $8 per watt to $4 per watt.

"It's not a huge trend yet," said green homebuilding consultant Carl Seville, "but it's growing slow and steady." Right now, there are pockets of demand like Austin, Texas and the West Coast, he said, but the movement is slowly spreading.

It's not so much that homes are generating so much more energy with photovoltaics, said Seville, but rather that builders are becoming more savvy about home design and energy efficiency.

A well-designed, well-built home without energy generation can get pretty close to net-zero energy efficiency, he said, and energy generation takes it over the top."

Do you want to try again? Can you show us any information from a reputable architect, builder or anyone who says that the future of energy efficient buildings is bleak?

Any time new technology comes along, someone must be brave and bold enough to take the lead and prove the way. Once it was people like Lewis and Clark. Now it may be the NPS -- and I'm proud to back them in those efforts. Even if it does mean we invest some extra dollars to help make it workable. I'm about to leave for a trip to my dentist. I'm old enough to remember when visits to the tooth doctor were pure torture. I don't know who the people were who led the way to the state of dental practice today -- but I'm certainly thankful that someone did it. And I'm sure it wasn't without opposition from time to time.

Rick - only because you involked it.

If you pursue uneconomic, unproductive activities that have no real environmental benefit purely for the sake of calling yourself eco-friendly then yes, I believe you are an "eco-extremist".

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