Green Room With A View: Denali's Cutting-edge, Off-Grid Visitors Center

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Sixty miles down a dirt road in the Alaskan Wilderness, sits a cutting-edge green building nestled in the mountains.

An educational landmark for visitors and a starting point and shelter for backcountry hikers, the LEED platinum Eielson Center in Alaska's Denali National Park sports some of the greenest features yet produced by federal funds.

eielson denali national park rmi photo

The building was completed late this summer -- based on the designs of RIM Architects and RMI's Built Environment Team -- and sustains itself without an electricity grid lifeline.

How exactly does the building supply its own energy?

eielson ground mountains rmi photo

First, passive design measures and energy efficient technologies help cut the building's energy use by half.

Some of these passive design features include:

  • South-facing, high-performance windows that maximize solar gain and are well insulated to accommodate for the extreme climate.
  • The building is constructed partially underground, which allows the advantage of ambient earth temperatures and protects the building's walls from strong winds.
  • Apertures in the side of the building and skylights, which provide the majority of daytime light. Daylight sensors monitor light levels to reduce the use of electric lighting during the long summer days.
  • The ability to "go cold." In the extreme Alaskan winters, temperatures reach -40 degrees Fahrenheit and Denali becomes impassable for six to seven months. This could have resulted in the expenditure of large amounts of energy. Instead, when the visitors stop coming, the building "goes cold." Exhibits, plumbings, and other elements were designed to endure extremely cold temperatures without incurring any damage.
  • Heat recovery ventilators that recover heat from exhausted air to warm the cold incoming air. This is especially useful when waves of visitors create large volumes of stale air.

Renewable, distributed technologies like integrated photovoltaic and small-scale water turbine systems supply the center's remaining energy needs.

While the design, architecture, technologies, and remote location are fascinating in themselves, the Eielson Visitor's Center is notable for a more practical issue -- its low cost.

Operating costs are 84.7 percent lower than the average building its size (15,000 square feet), and Eielson was the first National Park Service building to receive a LEED Platinum rating within a federal budget.

Proving that integrated design and cutting edge technologies can indeed be cost effective, Eielson is set to be a model for future National Park Visitor Center designs.

Already, the new Visitor's Center in Lassen Volcanic National Park is expected to become the second center to earn a LEED Platinum rating within the limits of a tight federal budget.

For more information on the Eielson Center among other green projects, see RMI's Solutions Journal.

Image Credit:: Rocky Mountain Institute

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