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Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
8:41 AM Tue, Nov. 20th

LEARNING FROM NATURE

PRESCOTT ­ The butterfly-shaped roof is one of the most stunning features of the Prescott area's first building designed to meet nationally accepted environmental standards.

But it's not the only feature designed to remind people of nature when they see the Highlands Center for Natural History's new James Learning Center, which sits on the Prescott National Forest next to Lynx Lake.

The huge wooden columns reach up like trees to hold the butterfly roof that also can look like cupped hands, Prescott architect Matthew Ackerman said.

"Here is a design saying, 'Water is a precious commodity,'" Ackerman observed. "That is the essential gesture that the roof is making."

The roof funnels precipitation into a metal rain funnel that local artist Royce Carlson created, which then sends the water onto a rock wall to create a waterfall. A drain then takes the water down to native plants.

Especially since it sits in the midst of the Prescott National Forest, Ackerman designed the building to respond to the seasons.

The leaves of deciduous vines, for example, will hang on trellises above windows to provide shade during the warmer seasons. The building then sheds the leaves during the winter.

The building's design, construction and operation aim to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's standards called LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Ackerman, his partner Jeffrey Zucker of Catalyst Architecture, along with the building's general contractor Haley Construction of Prescott, all are LEED certified. This is their first LEED project. The only currently certified LEED building in this region is Yavapai College's Agribusiness and Science Technology Center in Chino Valley.

Ackerman assembled a team of LEED consultants that included an energy expert and a mechanical engineer.

They studied the intricacies of nature on the building site so the structure would face the best direction in relation to sunlight, wind and drainage, for example. LEED designs heavily discourage massive grading.

"The idea is to work with the natural terrain," Ackerman said.

LEED requirements include sustainability, water efficiency, design innovation, indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency.

This building is off the electricity grid and it heats and cools itself 65 percent of the time, Ackerman said.

The project gets LEED credits during construction by recycling leftover building materials and using local supplies, such as schist from a quarry just across Walker Road. Leftover wood became landscaping chips.

LEED requires detailed documentation of construction credits, general contractor Tom Haley said. The center will submit its application for a gold LEED certification next month.

"It is a lot of work and it's a lot of tracking and it's a lot of paperwork," Haley said. But he's glad he did it.

The Highlands Center staff and supporters really wanted an environmentally friendly demonstration building to go with the center's mission to teach people about their environment, said Tom Benson, whose family donated money for the center's Benson Family Nature Store.

"This building really is the culmination of all that," Benson said. "It was very gratifying to see this building go up.

"It's an excellent demonstration of what can be done in construction today in an affordable manner that's still environmentally friendly."

Benson is a long-time supporter of the Highlands Center, acting as its first president when it took on its new name in 1994.

"The decisions that young people are going to have to make about the environment as they grow older are going to be complex, so they need a basic understanding of how nature works," Benson said.

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com