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Two Museums, One Story

A museum complex in the Southern California desert tells how the building of a dam led to the discovery of a massive collection of ice age fossils.

August 01, 2007 |

Looking at the raw desert landscape of the San Jacinto Mountains outside Hemet, Calif., it's hard to imagine that more than 10,000 years ago this arid valley served as a natural watershed sustaining an ecosystem that included mastodons, woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers, and giant sloths.

The discovery of this once-thriving ice age world occurred in the mid-1990s during the creation of Diamond Valley Lake, a 4,500-acre recreational lake and reservoir. It was during excavation work on the massive $2 billion project—the largest earthworks project in U.S. history—that thousands of fossils were uncovered, a discovery that rivals that of Los Angeles's famed La Brea Tar Pits.

“They didn't expect to run into this many fossils,” says Mark Gangi, AIA, principal at Gangi Architects in Burbank, Calif. “It was a mother lode of bones, and they were all very well preserved.”

Gangi is one half of Lehrer+Gangi Design+Build, a team assembled specifically for the purpose of creating a museum complex to both exhibit the fossil artifacts and explain the earthworks project and the state's water infrastructure to the public. That complex is the $40 million, 62,000-sf Water+Life Museum, which occupies 23 acres at the entrance to Diamond Valley Lake, near Hemet, about 44 miles southwest of Palm Springs.

The complex consists of two buildings, each about 10,000 sf, separated by a large courtyard and loggia. One building is owned and operated by the Western Center for Archeology and Paleontology, the other by the Center for Water Education, a nonprofit operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The complex also has curating space, specimen storage, aquarium tanks, meeting rooms, offices, laboratories, gift shop, and a café.

“The strength of the place is that the two museums work together,” says Gangi. “You go to the Western Center and you see the story of the bones and then you go to the other and get the water story. It's difficult to separate the two, and the key really is that the stories are told together.”

Two separate stories and two different museums also meant two separate contracts and balancing the needs of two separate clients who didn't always see eye-to-eye. “It was our job to bring them together,” says Michael B. Lehrer, FAIA, principal at Lehrer Architects LA, in Los Angeles, and the other half of the project's design-build team.

When the water district invited Gangi and his family-owned development firm to submit a design proposal, he immediately sought out Lehrer, his former USC School of Architecture professor, to collaborate on the project. They quickly begat Lehrer+Gangi Design+Build to take the project through the first 25% of design development, knowing that they had a scant five months to secure an agreement on the basic design from the two boards before the project would go out to bid. During the bid process, the firm competed against two others and successfully landed the entire project.

“It was very satisfying that we were able to convince the two clients' disparate boards that two buildings reinforcing one big architectural idea is more powerful than having two buildings that were very different from one another,” says Lehrer.

The architectural concept on which the two boards saw eye-to-eye was a modern but classically proportioned complex with 10 slender steel-clad towers surrounded by plazas and courtyards. “We wanted something that would really grab your attention and sat very strong and proud in the desert landscape,” says Gangi. “We weren't looking for anything that blended in.”

Lehrer maintains that the industrial aesthetic is perfectly suited to the site. “We're the frontispiece for a three-mile-long dam and, while you can't compete in scale with anything that big, you need something bold,” he says. The team's design inspiration came from, of all places, the massive turbines, generators, and pumps used to maintain the reservoir.

While the two boards agreed on the complex's bold architecture, they disagreed on one major concept: sustainability. The Metropolitan Water Authority wanted the project to be at least LEED certified, while the Western Center, mostly worried about extra costs, was opposed. The Building Team solved the impasse by performing extensive modeling and analysis (at their own cost) to persuade the Western Center to go for green. “When they saw the numbers, they decided to redesign their mechanical systems to accommodate LEED,” says Lehrer. Their decision made quite an impact: the complex is expected to receive LEED Platinum certification.

To achieve this rating, the Building Team set their sights on optimum energy efficiency, focusing on the campus's mechanical systems. “We put most of our thought and attention on energy efficiency and we won all our [LEED] points,” says Gangi. “If you want to hit the higher levels of LEED, that's where your focus needs to be.”

The team beat its baseline, California Title 24 Energy Conformance, by 38%, primarily by using radiant heating and cooling, which works by heating or cooling interior surfaces rather than the air; this greatly reduced the load on the system's air handlers, even with 32-foot-high ceilings. “Our modeling shows that the interior spaces are very comfortable,” says Gangi.

The complex's 10,000 sf of east-facing glass, however, was poised to wreak havoc on the radiant heating and cooling system. “Starting at 5:30 a.m., the glass would start to get hot and radiate heat into the spaces,” says Gangi. The team's solution: nine 24-foot-tall translucent, pixilated banners hang from the building (falling eight feet short of the ground) and shade the high-performance insulated glass without blocking the view.

One of the world's largest rooftop photovoltaic installations (3,000 panels, 540 kW) contributes to the building's efficiency, although the complex remains on the grid. The $4 million installation (with a $2 million state rebate) produces 68% of the museum's energy and 40% of the campus's overall energy. The PVs also shade 90% of the complex's roof from the sun, which is expected to extend the roof's lifespan by 25%. Even so, the facility still has a white roof to reduce heat island effect. Solar panels are also used to cover walkways and shade some outdoor spaces. An exhibit educates visitors on the solar panel set up.

Additional features that up the complex's green quotient: advanced lighting control systems, low-VOC interior furnishings and fittings with high recycled content, and sustainably harvested wood. And although a significant part of the museum puts water on display, the facility's use of dual-flush toilets, waterless urinals, and a drip irrigation system using reclaimed water underscores the Water+Life Museum's emphasis on efficiency and conservation.

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