Desert Living Center Inside Out Exhibit

Pointing the Way

At Las Vegas’ Desert Living Center, interpretive sculptures reveal the keys to sustainable living.

Alarm bells have been ringing for some time that the American West will run out of water if residents don’t alter their ways. With its water-gobbling casino fountains, golf courses, and swimming pools, Las Vegas in particular has been criticized for its profligate use of water. But paradoxically, the city has also been on the vanguard of water conservation. It gives residents cash incentives to tear out grassy yards and use xeriscaping. Educational campaigns encourage residents to live in harmony with the desert environment and discourage them from trying to remold it in the image of greener locales. Through such tactics, the city managed to reduce water consumption 20 percent between 2002 and 2006, even while its population grew.

Just three miles off the Las Vegas Strip, the new 180-acre Springs Preserve is teaching residents about sustainable living while they enjoy walking trails and gardens at the site of the city’s original birthplace, where a natural spring nourished Anasazi and Paiute Indians as they crossed the Mojave. The Preserve is the brainchild of Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and director of the Las Vegas Valley Water District. In 1999—alarmed by projections that the city would run out of water in less than a decade—she embarked on a PR campaign focused on water conservation. It grew to become the $250 million Springs Preserve project.

Sustainability message

The Preserve’s sustainability message is communicated primarily through the Desert Living Center, a five-building compound that contains the first LEED Platinum buildings in the state. AldrichPears Associates (Vancouver), worked on the master plan with the prime architect, Lucchesi Galati (Las Vegas), to provide a graphics package including interpretive exhibits, signage, and interior and exterior sculptures that highlight the building’s energy-saving features.

Exhibits range from a “compost crawl” and a “garbage truck theater” in the Sustainability Gallery to interpretives that show how a solar chimney works, how buildings can be sited to take advantage of solar power, and how butterfly roofs can be used in conjunction with gray water systems to collect and manage water. Cutaway “truth” windows show how radiant heat works underneath the floor and how the walls, underneath the stucco, are made from straw bales. In keeping with the spirit of the project, AldrichPears designed all graphics using environmentally friendly materials such as biocomposite panels, aluminum, and other recyclable content.

Material as metaphor

In the Inside Out Gallery, a series of interpretive sculptures spotlight the materials and designs that put the center on the path to LEED certification. While signage and graphics don’t earn LEED certification points per se, they can yield innovation credits for interpreting and communicating sustainable features. Because many of those features are hidden, the sculptures are especially important, says AldrichPears Principal Isaac Marshall. But the sculptures don’t use words to communicate their sustainability message. “We thought that was too didactic an approach,” says Marshall. “We wanted to be more playful and artistic.”

A sculpture in the Preserve’s arroyo, for example, uses blue resin ribbons to illustrate the importance of the dry stream beds in channeling flash floods and managing ground water. Arrows mounted above clerestory windows show how the building’s design manipulates airflow to maintain comfortable temperatures with a minimal amount of air-conditioning.

The sculptures are made from materials that symbolize how changes in air circulation and water temperature help warm or cool the center’s buildings: brushed metal to represent cool air, rusted metal to represent warm air, and blue and red recycled glass and resin to represent cool and warm water. “We were given a directive by AldrichPears to live within the spirit of the LEED certification,” says Marc Burns, business development director for Pacific Studio (Seattle), the fabricator. 

The sculptures operate on many levels for various visitor groups. Elementary school kids may be asked to find the sculptures in an educational scavenger hunt. Architecture students who flock to see the only LEED Platinum-certified buildings in the region use the sculptures as a starting point for in-depth discussions.

“They act more like cues that present a problem for the visitor to try to figure out,” says Marshall. “Here’s this blank wall with a swirling arrow that transitions from shiny metal to rusted metal and there are some squiggly blue glass lines. What does that mean?”

Jay Nichols, Springs Preserve interim executive director, says the sculptures communicate the center’s message and helped with LEED certification under the education criteria, “while adding aesthetic qualities to the buildings that we didn’t have before.”

Ultimately, says Marshall, the sculptures aren’t just about fact transfer. They’re about inspiring people to look more closely at their world. “We’re not just presenting people with information; we’re actually challenging them to find information and use their critical thinking skills to figure it out.”

--By Beth M. Rogers, segdDESIGN No. 20, 2008



Location:  Las Vegas

Client:  Las Vegas Springs Preserve

Architecture:  Lucchesi Galati

Design:  AldrichPears Associates

Design Team:  Isaac Marshall (principal in charge), Lisa McIntosh (project manager), Brent Dutton and Richard Lien (designers), Naomi Seixas (researcher/writer), Ria Kawaguchi (graphic designer)

Fabrication:  Nassal Company (general contractor), Pacific Studio (interpretive sculptures); BBI (A/V integration)

Photos:  Tom Craig, Opulence Studios


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