Project Profile: Pikes Peak Summit Visitor Center
Scope of work: Construction of 38,000-square-foot building
BC&E Member company involved: GWWO Architects
For a design firm operating just above sea level in Baltimore City, the Pikes Peak Summit Visitor Center project was bound to be an extraordinary challenge. And then they decided to make it harder.
At 14,115 feet above sea level, Pikes Peak would be the highest altitude construction site in North America.
“Just thinking about building on the summit of that mountain felt crazy,” said Amanda Zellers Moore, Associate at GWWO Architects. Furthermore, “to protect such a unique environment that is accessible to everyone, we decided we had to strive to be as sustainable as possible so we began the process of pursuing Living Building Challenge certification.”
A highly progressive standard, the Living Building Challenge requires projects to satisfy imperatives within seven performance categories, including net zero energy, net zero water, minimal embodied carbon and nearly no use of ‘red list’ toxic chemicals.
The challenge of achieving net zero energy was heightened by the local environment which includes average summer high temperatures of 50 degrees and nighttime lows around zero, winter temperatures as low as minus 40 and windspeeds that can reach 200 mph.
Passive design strategies greatly lowered the building’s energy needs. The design placed the building on the southeast side of the mountain to maximize solar heat gain (and capture a prime view of Mount Rosa) and included a “super insulated envelope” with R60 insulation in the roof assembly and R40 insulation set between two concrete planks that comprised the walls. Designers also sank two sides of the 38,000-square-foot building into the mountain to increase thermal mass and “avoid having tall volume into the prevailing winds from the north and east,” Moore said.
Other design choices — including radiant floors, displacement ventilation and smaller mechanical units such as VAVs — further boosted building efficiency. “A planned solar installation, installed off-site to protect the panels from the gravel picked up by the strong winds, will help offset energy needs,” Moore said.
A vacuum toilet system, which uses considerably less water than low-flow toilets, combined with an onsite water treatment facility cut the center’s annual water use by 350,000 gallons compared to the previous center and eliminated the previous daily need to truck water up the mountain each morning and truck wastewater back down the mountain at night.
Attempting to achieve LBC certification required “a whole-industry effort” from designers, including GWWO’s partner on the project, Colorado-based RTA Architects, engineers and manufacturers through to the site workers who labored in harsh weather and thin air. “But standards like the Living Building Challenge are changing the mentality of the building industry to shift towards more progressive technologies,” Moore said.