Future-proofing Our Protected Lands: Sustainable Design Solutions for Delicate Natural Environments

Cushing Terrell, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Yellowstone, GAOA, Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, USFWS, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor
Old Faithful Visitor Center. Courtesy of Cushing Terrell

By Shawn Pelowitz

Few places can boast the range of natural environments that the U.S. can. From the rocky peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the gulf wetlands—and all the national monuments that dot the landscape in between — it’s the stuff of great road trips, vacations, and field trips. But if we want to continue making these great American memories, it’s up to us, the design firms tasked with the updates, to ensure we’re caring for such sacred spaces, thoughtfully and with their protection and long-term conservation in mind.

It’s easy to assume these sites require little upkeep—a national park is just nature showing off, right? But without the proper maintenance and planning, visitors risk making memories on the backs of potholes and broken toilets, rather than on sunset hikes. It’s often the unnoticed work that allows the views to truly come into focus.

Over the past few decades, America’s national parks and monuments have fallen behind in the upkeep needed to keep them in top shape. This is in large part because visits have been on the rise, but funding hasn’t kept up. In 2019, the National Park Service saw more than 327.5 million recreation visits, a 2.9% increase from 2018 and the third-highest year for recreation visits. It’s not a new trend, either, as the number of visitors to the national parks system has grown by 50 percent  since 1980

And although final tallies are still forthcoming, the pandemic may not have slowed these figures. Yellowstone National Park, for example, had its busiest September on record in 2020 with more than 800,000 visits—a 21 percent increase from the previous September!

Despite this widespread increase in feet marching through, federal funding historically hasn’t kept pace. As of 2020, the national lands had collectively reached an approximate $12 billion backlog of maintenance services needed to repair roads, trails, campgrounds, monuments, fire safety, utilities, and visitor infrastructure. But there’s some good news: the largest land conservation legislation in a generation passed in 2020: the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). Its passage establishes a National Park and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund of as much as $9 billion over the next five years to fix deferred maintenance at national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, and other federal lands. It also guarantees $900 million per year in perpetuity for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

It’s an enormous triumph, but it’s just the beginning of the work to be done. If undertaken thoughtfully, the upgrades and repairs can help visitors appreciate the nation’s parks and monuments for generations to come.

Discoveries and Discussions

The public spaces covered by GAOA range from national parks, to national monuments and other conservation and historical sites. That means the care required runs the gamut as well. Service roads should be maintained, visitor centers upgraded for accessibility, signs and placards made more visible and tidy, and the list goes on.

Future-proofing updates like these are important to national parks and monuments for many reasons. The first is simple wear and tear. With so many visitors passing consistently through these sites—compounded by the wear of natural, sometimes extreme, weather—roads will start to deteriorate, signs will become faded, and time will simply take its toll.

Second, such deterioration can play a major role in whether people want to visit at all. It’s not hard to see how a bad experience with a public restroom at a campground can tarnish the trip. If a site is in any marked state of disrepair and visitorship drops, it can financially impact the location and the surrounding towns that rely on tourist dollars.

But sub-par maintenance is also a disservice to the sites. “It’s hard to see the value of something if you don’t think that those responsible for its care are taking care of it themselves,” says Shawn Pelowitz, government services lead at Cushing Terrell. “When facilities are updated and maintained, whether they are a natural wonder or historic structure, that’s significant. These are what help build discussions and breed discoveries for future generations.”

Think of what you would otherwise miss if a visitor education center wasn’t there to guide you through. The nation’s parks and monuments are fundamentally designed to educate the public, whether that’s simply providing the best views of our dynamic geography or offering a few nuggets of wisdom on a location’s history or importance. These facilities are necessary and so they call for proper development and care.

Mindful Upkeep

Mindful upgrades and renovations to national parks and monuments can include the use of local materials, site-conscious design and eco-friendly solutions. Most importantly, work like this requires a consciousness beyond the allure of updated facilities; it requires a thoughtful and unified re-evaluation of systems, cultural acknowledgments, and regional vernacular. It must be done with the intention of honoring what’s already there as well as drawing back the curtain for visitors. 

“You don’t want it to go away, so you preserve it,” Pelowitz says. “You don’t want someone taking your view away or cutting your trees down. You take preservation into consideration when you’re thinking about design.”

A project done well should blend in—yet still promote a full appreciation of the site. 

Thoughtful Systems

Consider the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center in Yellowstone National Park, which uses a natural convection system to ventilate the lobby, which spans 2,500 sq. ft. and is 60 ft. tall with automated operable clerestory windows and a damper louver system at floor level. This convection system is tied into the energy management system to coordinate with the mechanical system and allow natural ventilation when exterior conditions and inside temperatures allow.

The system is variable air volume with high-efficiency propane fueled boilers and the hydronic pumps are variable speed. This system facilitates zoning the building such that in winter, with decreased public visitation and staff, areas of the building are “idled” and maintained at lower temperatures.

Cultural Acknowledgments

The (highly sustainable) Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is a USFWS facility that incorporates design aspects and building materials that are important to and inspired by the region’s cultural history. The design incorporates aspects important to the native populace such as an east-facing entry and banding to express the red-tailed hawk. Inspiration was sought from the cultural history of the area, the landscape, the forms, and the native wildlife

“It’s a beautiful, modern facility that supports, rather than interrupts, its environment,” Pelowitz says of the building.

The center was designed to meld seamlessly with its surroundings, so the energy footprint was kept minimal. In fact, it has achieved zero net energy and LEED Silver accreditation using upgraded building insulation, daylight harvesting and a ground-source geothermal HVAC system.

Regional Vernacular

When integrated into the landscape and supported by sustainable systems such as PV solar panels and natural ventilation, these spaces provide modern amenities without complete disruption of the surrounding natural elements. Take the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Soldotna, Alaska, a structure sunken into the landscape upon which it sits. This intentional placement makes its presence among the wildlife to which it pays homage subtle and tasteful. 

When sustainable, multidisciplinary design solutions are layered into these public lands facilities, the opportunities to address future-proofing, from the exterior aesthetic all the way down to the inner workings and technical systems, can be fully realized. With their unique settings and specific uses, these buildings, facilities, and other amenities require specialized knowledge of location, materials, and sustainable practice.

A Caretaker Mentality

Going back to our roots means getting back to nature. Our country and its history are defined by a diverse and impressive geography. This funding is a monumental and commendable step toward honoring and preserving these unique treasures, and with it, the opportunity now exists to invest in public lands for the long term: from the cultural awareness needed to inform aesthetic and land use to the preservation of aged and storied structures, to the knowledge of highly sustainable systems and processes. 

But as with any public initiative, carefully utilizing the available funds is critical to the success of the program. By leveraging holistic, multidisciplinary design solutions, the varied needs of our truly dynamic national public lands become possible. Combining engineering, architectural design, landscape design, historic preservation, environmental design, and so many other services together under the same sustainable design process can streamline and optimize the output. 

Our natural environments call to us, and we visit these spaces for entertainment, education and simple appreciation, so we should never forget our role in keeping them safe — because they’re not called protected lands for nothing. With careful consideration, we will see these areas thrive so that people can continue to appreciate and visit them for many years to come.

About Cushing Terrell

Our mission: to invent a better way of living. Founded in 1938 by two architects with a shared passion for ingenuity, diversity, and empathy, Cushing Terrell empowers creative designers to discover imaginative, responsible first-of-their-kind environments. By integrating architecture, engineering, and design, our knowledge-hungry design process opens doors for transformative thought and enhanced creativity. For more information, visit cushingterrell.com.