Being ahead of the curve is exhilarating. It’s also challenging. We discovered this first hand in 1998 when we met with representatives from the Las Vegas Valley Water District to discuss development of a master plan for their 180-acre Las Vegas Springs Preserve.

Situated between U.S. 95 and Alta Drive – an area historically traversed by Anasazi Indians, Spanish explorers and Mormon settlers – the Springs Preserve has long been recognized as the “birthplace of Las Vegas.” Operated by the Water District, the Preserve was earmarked for freeway expansion unless something was done to develop the site. But what form should it take? An amusement park? An ecological preserve untouched by human hands? Or something in-between?

These questions were on our minds when we initiated a series of community workshops and stakeholder meetings later that year. By the time we developed our program document, it was agreed that the project would emphasize preserving and enhancing the land. At the heart of the Springs Preserve would be an interactive public outreach and applied research facility designed to promote sustainable life in the Mojave Desert – one of the most arid regions in the world.

Dubbed the “Desert Living Center,” the facility would strive to create a unique sense of place while serving as a catalyst for reform from living “in the desert” to being “of the desert.” As Las Vegas continued to experience explosive growth throughout the 90s, promoting these ideas became more important than ever.

Even at these early stages, we believed that a project focused on teaching the benefits of sustainability would need to be sustainable in its own right.  For this reason, we proposed pursuing a Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system.

LEED is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. It promotes a holistic approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. The Platinum rating is the highest in the LEED rating system. After we introduced the concept to the Water District, they embraced it wholeheartedly. Little did we know that we were all heading into uncharted territory.

But although a LEED Platinum rating is a worthwhile goal, it soon became clear that achieving such a status would not be easy. At the time, LEED ratings and green buildings were still relatively new concepts, especially in Nevada. Achieving this type of sustainability would be particularly difficult in a desert environment. The project’s status as a public facility posed additional problems in the bidding process, making it impossible to sole-source materials. And because Las Vegas is a city not usually associated with ecologically-friendly principles, it would be necessary to bring in experts and materials, such as straw bale and rammed earth, from other areas. After scouring the country, we recruited more than 20 specialists from places including Seattle, Vancouver and Boulder, Colorado to lend their skills and expertise to the project.

The Desert Living Center evolved from one large building, as depicted on the site plan during programming, to five smaller buildings, each showcasing different sustainable design principles. The overall approach was grounded in timeless building strategies, an honest expression of materials and our relationship with the desert.

Researching historical structures developed by various cultures in similar environments proved particularly useful. For example, the Anasazi Indians built according to solar orientation and used thickened walls as thermal mass to reduce heating and cooling needs, and cool towers and courtyard designs have been used in Middle Eastern countries for more than 1,000 years.

We also studied our own biological environment for design strategies. The desert tortoise’s ability to create its habitat by burrowing into the earth for cooling and the creosote bush’s ability to drop its leaves in drought times and sprout new growth after a rain shower were particularly interesting.

The Desert Living Center’s basic design reflects the local environment at every opportunity, beginning with solar orientation to optimize the benefits of the sun as a lighting and heating source. This concept continues underground and uses the earth as a thermal insulator by integrating the buildings into the land. Above ground, the thickness of walls and depth of openings protect from heat gain and loss. Long roof overhangs shield the buildings from the summer heat while allowing the low sun of winter to warm the interior spaces.

We incorporated such innovative building features as rammed-earth and straw bale construction, earth berming, recycled materials, passive cooling and renewable heating, electrical energy created by solar panels and reclaimed water systems.

The surrounding five acres of demonstration gardens display sections highlighting conservation, protection of natural resources, landscape design, lighting, and “how to” areas for irrigation and planting. The centerpiece of the gardens is a constructed wetland for treatment of all gray and black water for the entire Springs Preserve site. The reclaimed and treated water is reused in the DLC toilets and gardens.

Because many of these materials and systems were used in Las Vegas for the first time, traditional inspectors lacked a frame of reference beyond their traditional training. Permitting proved to be one of the most time-consuming stages, as we worked to communicate with and educate those involved. Total construction took more than two years.

Today, the 54,000-square-foot Desert Living Center is a true community resource, one that gives visitors the knowledge, tools and practical strategies to inspire them to make lifestyle changes for a sustainable future. Through dynamic and fun free-learning education programs for all ages, it serves as a cultural and social contribution toward creating a more harmonious relationship with the Mohave Desert. Lucchesi Galati is proud to have played an integral role in this important project, as it sets a new standard for community partnership and environmental sensitivity.