Green is Gorgeous
Photography: Don Weller
Green is the new black. While the fashion industry may disagree, it certainly is true in building design and construction. Case in point: the 10,000-square-foot Swaner EcoCenter which opened its doors in February 2009.
This state-of-the art facility, perched at the edge of the Swaner Nature Preserve, evokes images of the Sandhill Cranes who call these wetlands home. If you are looking down from the building’s glass observation tower, it is easy to see why Native Americans named this sacred place “Hole in the Sky.”
Started in 1993 with a donation of 190 acres by the Swaner family, the preserve has grown to 1,200 acres. Best known for its trademark open space, the property actually continues north of I-80 and includes a portion of the Glenwild trail system. The Swaner Farm flanks the property to the west providing a pastoral entry into Park City.
Wildlife thrives in this protected ecosystem which includes over 200 species of plants and animals. Coyotes coexist with foxes and ermines while elk and moose drink from the many streams intersecting the property. The preserve even boasts the successful re-introduction of the Columbia Spotted Frog.
“This land is such a gem, and wetlands are so rare in Utah, but they are so important to the wildlife,” reflects Nell Larson, Director of Land and Conservation for the EcoCenter. To allow visitors to view wildlife without intruding on this fragile environment, a 400-foot pier is part of the building’s design.
After years of hosting school field trips outside, the EcoCenter now brings education inside with interactive exhibits. Most noteworthy is the two-story climbing wall with motion sensors that trigger the sounds of wildlife. “It simulates climbing from the soil to the top of the cattails,” says Larson. Those who reach the elk at the top section of the wall are rewarded by the sound of his bugle.
Inspiration for the design of the EcoCenter came directly from nature itself. Architect Soren Simonsen, principal of Cooper Roberts Simonsen Associates, says, “Sunlight, earth, water and air are the four elements required to sustain life, and that was how we approached the design. We had sun on the site. How do we harvest it? By using solar panels to generate electricity and daylight to help light the interior of the building.” The result is a 54 percent energy savings.
Such smart design features have earned the building LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum Certification. Awarded to only a few structures nationally, this endorsement requires environmentally sustainable construction. In fact, over 75 percent of the building materials used in the EcoCenter are recycled or sustainable.
From the moment you approach the building, which sits on a bed of permeable concrete, eliminating storm water runoff, the focus on the environment is clear. Visitors can marvel at the cutout in the wall revealing recycled cotton insulation made from denim scraps. With countertops made of sunflower seed husks, sorghum stalk cabinetry and smart lights that shut off after inactivity, the EcoCenter feels like a green version of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. There is even a rooftop water collection system that gathers snowmelt and rainwater and uses it for irrigation.
Simonsen reflects, “We wanted to show that green design is equivalent to great design and creates elegant spaces. Hopefully we’ve inspired people along the way.”
Those who experience the EcoCenter can’t help but be inspired. Whether installing energy efficient light bulbs or being more vigilant about recycling, visitors will rethink how to protect our environment, one small step at a time.