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Everglades opens new Shark Valley Visitor Center

The new Shark Valley Visitor Center.  The rooftop domes are Solatubes that capture sunlight.
The new Shark Valley Visitor Center. The rooftop domes are Solatubes that capture sunlight.
© 2014 George Leposky

Everglades National Park opened its new $1.3 million Shark Valley Visitor Center on Saturday, March 8, 2014.

Solatubes (bright spots in ceiling) help to light the interior.
© 2014 George Leposky

Perched on an island surrounded by the Everglades’ vast “river of grass,” the 2,963-square-foot structure is a “green” building designed specifically to fit into this environmentally sensitive landscape.

The visitor center houses an information desk; an office for park rangers; exhibit space; a gift shop; a bicycle-rental shop; ticketing for the trams that take visitors on a two-hour, 15-mile loop tour through the sawgrass prairie to an observation tower; and a sheltered waiting area where passengers board the trams. Rest rooms are in an adjoining building.

Previously, a cluster of makeshift structures performed these functions. After the old facilities were demolished, their site was returned to a natural state. The new visitor center occupies already disturbed land at the opposite end of the parking lot. Thus, the project achieved a net gain in undisturbed grasslands, says Mike Savage, manager of the park’s professional services office.

LEED Silver

The new building meets the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) requirements at the upper end of the silver level of sustainability. Its major features include:

• A metal “cool roof” with high reflectivity and low absorption of solar heat.

• New sections of the parking lot paved with “pervious pavement” that allows rainwater to soak through into the ground.

• Use of high-efficiency air conditioning with quiet condenser units to minimize noise pollution.

• Use of recycled building materials such as insulation.

• Selection of millwork and other interior finishes from regional suppliers.

• Use of glues, sealants, coatings, and paints with low emissions of VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

Equipped with Solatubes

The Shark Valley Visitor Center’s windows can be opened on nice days when air conditioning isn’t needed. They are sized and placed to admit considerable natural light, augmented by tubular daylighting devices called Solatubes.

Unlike traditional skylights that merely let sunshine enter a building’s interior, Solatubes employ optical technologies to capture the sun’s rays for delivery where they are needed inside, while screening out infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths to improve the quality of the light. In the visitor center, artificial lighting automatically dims to reduce energy consumption as the intensity of the available natural light increases.

The building’s windows have two layers of hurricane protection – impact glass and storm shutters.

Project timeline

The National Park Service’s Denver service center managed the project, which took five years from inception to completion. Savage said planning began in 2009, and design in 2011. The architect of record was Cristy Fletcher of Lord Aeck Sargent, an Atlanta-based architectural firm.

Construction took place from August through December of 2013. It was complicated by the site’s remote location 40 miles west of downtown Miami, where some contractors didn’t want to work or haul materials.

Presiding over the ribbon-cutting ceremony was Dan Kimball, Everglades National Park’s superintendent, scheduled to retire March 31 after 10 years in that position. “We’re dedicating a significant accomplishment for the park,” he said. “I’m glad it happened on my watch.”

Kimball noted that funding for the project came from park entrance fees, concession revenues, and contributions from the private not-fot-profit Everglades Association, which operates the park’s gift shops.

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