Eielson Visitor Center as a Model of Sustainability

July 28, 2004

Illustration of Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park.

In the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve, 6 million acres of protected wilderness surround the Eielson Visitor Center, the most visited site deep within the park boundaries. The project site commands a view of the Alaska Range featuring Mt. McKinley (Denali), North America's highest peak. Located 60 miles from the park entrance, the visitor center is operated seasonally, June through September, and is off the power grid. All visitors traveling to Eielson Visitor Center ride on one of Denali's Alternative Transportation shuttle buses for 4 hours. Visitors experience first hand how vast Denali's wilderness is as they view the sub-arctic environment and protected wildlife of Alaska en route to the visitor center.

The current visitor facility is too small (3,500 square foot) and has serious maintenance needs. For the past 2 years, a team of architects, engineers, and park staff have been working together to design a new 8,900 square foot facility that will better meet the needs of the users. As one of the leaders in sustainable design, the National Park Service (NPS) has made it a priority to make the new visitor center a model of sustainability. Utilizing the LEE&mark; (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) evaluation process throughout the design, the team has applied and evaluated various design options with green energy at the heart of these decisions. NPS hopes to achieve a gold certification, although at this juncture a platinum level may be achievable.

Floor plan of the lower level at the Eielson Visitor Center at Denali National Park.

One of the main goals for the project has been to design a low-profile building that blends into the landscape and minimizes the visual intrusion of a manmade structure in that environment. The steep slope enables the designers to partially bury the building, which will visually screen the structure from the road. The design of the new visitor center calls for a green roof. To achieve this tundra mats salvaged from the construction site will be relocated to planters dispersed on the roof terrace to camouflage the roof deck, helping the building blend into the landscape. The green roof will also assist in storm water run-off reduction and thermal energy conservation. Other high priority strategies used in the design of the visitor center include maximizing natural daylighting by optimally locating a series of clerestory windows, selecting energy-efficient heating and venting systems, use of renewable energies, and thoughtful selection of materials including recycled and locally produced material. Remote site concerns and construction costs have led the team to analyze ways to re-use portions of the existing visitor center by grinding up the concrete block and using it as fill in the parking area as well as an attempt to design the site such that the cut and fill are mostly balanced.

In the past, the remote location has spurred the park to implement award-winning renewable energy strategies at the site, including the implementation of a hybrid generator system with photovoltaic panels and a battery bank. The Department of Energy's HOMER Analysis program was applied to the project to evaluate the best mix of renewable energy options and helped determine the optimal mix of renewable energies. With the information gained from the HOMER program the building design will include the following alternative renewable energy systems: expanding the solar photovoltaic panels and battery bank currently in use at the visitor center, installing a solar hot water heating system for the public restrooms, and constructing a small hydroelectric system in a nearby stream.

Illustration of third elevation of Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park.

Denali National Park and Preserve is a National Park System Center for Environmental Innovation. The park has committed to showcase new technologies, motivate and educate the public and NPS employees about environmentally friendly practices, install systems and alter behaviors to reduce energy needs and adverse environmental impacts. The design effort for the replacement Eielson Visitor Center embraces that challenge and will exemplify these goals.

For more information, please contact Mary Tidlow or Arun Jhaveri.