Few issues are as critical in California’s Pajaro Valley as water: 85 percent of the valley’s water use supports its $400 million farming economy. So when heavy demand for water led to saltwater intrusion in the local aquifer, three public agencies—The City of Watsonville Waste Water and Water Departments and the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency—pulled together to address the problem, and in so doing formed the Watsonville Area Water Recycling Project, based at the new Watsonville Water Resources Center in Watsonville, Calif.
Designed by WRNS Studio, of San Francisco, the center is both a functional and didactic extension of the water recycling plant it supports. The 16,000-square-foot building joins three separate but related departments to coordinate action on issues of water management and quality in coastal areas of south Santa Cruz and north Monterey counties. Administrative offices, a water quality lab, and education space form a comfortably scaled complex designed to achieve LEED Platinum certification. The building and landscape weave a narrative about water use and conservation that raises public awareness through exhibitions and tours. “On the experiential side, the entry sequence focuses on water,” notes project designer Adam Woltag. “Cars circle around a detention bioswale and, as people approach the building, they cross a footbridge over water. That really sets the tone.”
Active participation by the client group enriched a collaborative process with clear goals from the outset. “The layout of the plan was a critical first step,” says project manager Pauline Souza, WRNS’ sustainability director. A public patio divides the building into two parts, separating the office-heavy operations center from the laboratory. This yielded huge energy savings, allowing for energy-gobbling mechanical systems to be dedicated to the lab space while relying on natural ventilation in the office wing. In addition, the site afforded the long, narrow building a favorable east-west orientation, allowing for large glass surfaces on the north façade and small punched windows and long roof overhangs on the north and south. Interior planning took its cues from the resulting distribution of daylighting and views.
The building configuration, in tandem with landscape screens, creates exterior spaces protected from chilly ocean winds. Both the large public conference room and an employee dining room are placed next to exterior patios. With accordionlike glass walls, each of these rooms can be opened to the landscape, creating interesting indoor-outdoor relationships and accommodating public gatherings.
When possible, design elements were finessed to convey the idea that water is a finite, precious resource. A water feature in the main courtyard, for example, operates only when recycled water is available. During rainfalls, water flows off the shedlike roof, down rain chains, and into rock-lined swales, where it is directed to retention basins and treated before infiltrating the ground. Even the use of native and drought-tolerant plants reinforces the message. Along with the use of low-flow fixtures, such steps lower potable water consumption by half and reduce the need for energy-intensive water transport. “Seventy-five percent of the cost of water is tied to energy—how you clean it and move it from place to place,” Souza says. “People don’t normally connect that.”
The facility’s heating and cooling system is all about energy conservation too. Most of the building is tempered with a radiant floor system that circulates heated or cooled water; air flows with ceiling fans and operable windows. Vent stacks on top of the operations wing draw warm air out, while high-efficiency mechanical equipment in the conference room and lab reduces energy loads.
WRNS designed the center with materials selected for durability and low maintenance. Placing 2x6 studs at 24-inch intervals reduced the number of support members needed and allowed for more insulation. California redwood was an ideal choice for the exterior rainscreen, in part because of its resistance to mildew and decay. The wood was offered to the team when the city decided to clear several trees for fire protection. “They were going to use it for mulch,” Woltag says. Because it was sourced locally, the wood didn’t need to be acclimated and was milled nearby.
All of which adds up to a boon for a public project predicated on demonstrating environmental stewardship in ways that are apparent and direct. “It was really the simple things—the orientation, the thermal envelope, the tweaks on the mechanical system—that made this building a success,” Souza says. “That’s why the client bought in.”