Kath Williams + Associates Projects

Old Faithful Visitor Education Center

Yellowstone National Park
LEED Gold - 2010
LEED NC v2.1
Owner:National Park Service
Developer:National Park Service
Washington, D.C.
Builder:Swank Construction
Valier, Montana
Architect:CTA Architects & Engineers
Billings, Montana
HVAC Engineer:CTA Architects & Engineers
Billings, Montana
Commissioning Agent:CTA Architects & Engineers
Great Falls, Montana
LEED AP:Sue Anderson/Ted Conover
Senior LEED AP:Senior LEED AP: Kath Williams

Project Narrative Provided by CTA Architects & Engineers

Yellowstone National Park holds a sacred trust for both the land and its people. Its long history—from being the nation’s first national park to being one of today’s most loved visitor destinations—the demands on the Park are extensive. Trying to balance preservation of the land and wildlife while affording access to all is a major challenge to the National Park Service, who plan and operate these major tourist centers.

The Old Faithful Visitor Education Center (OFVEC) is an interpretive center to replace the existing visitor center at the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park (YNP), Wyoming.  The existing visitor center contained asbestos and did not fulfill the needs of the growing number of visitors to the Old Faithful area.  Planning for this project, as well as securing funding from Congress, took more than five years.  Design and construction took another five years.

Designers of this project, chosen for the extensive experience and relationship with Yellowstone Park, provided opportunities and challenges not seen in any other projects. Although the new building has a program similar to other visitor education centers—a theater, exhibition space, classroom for children, bookstore, and staff offices—the site considerations alone had to be incredibly sensitive. The site is within the Old Faithful National Historic District and precedence was set by the other existing historic buildings at the Old Faithful area including the Old Faithful Inn built around 1900.  Careful attention was given to selection of materials, roof design, snow management, and detailing to mesh with the area’s existing architecture and to respond to the harsh environment of YNP.

Operationally, the challenge was that it will be open year round, but portions of the building must be able to be shut down to reduce maintenance and utilities during the slower visitation winter season.  While the general positioning of the project was determined by the Old Faithful Geyser location and the existing visitor center, the entire Old Faithful area serves both tourists and staff, as a major headquarters. Tourists visit the area in the summer time by personal cars, tour busses, and a few by bicycles. It is 34 miles to the nearest park entrance, West Yellowstone. During the winter, a daily limit of tourists access the area on over snow vehicles including snow coaches, guided snowmobile tours, and matt tracks or by cross country skiing.  It is an isolated rural community in itself for the permanent staff residing in the area for each season.  Staff can bike, walk, snowshoe, and cross country ski to work from the residence area south of the site depending on the season. The area provides a balance of services and accommodations for tourists’ and staffs’ temporary and permanent stay.

National Park Service (NPS) rules and regulations were followed during design and construction to preserve the history and natural environment of Yellowstone National Park.  Preserving the natural environment is obviously one of NPS’s top goals. Extreme care was taken in preserving existing trees and vegetation and stockpiling topsoil for redistribution. Earth moving equipment had to be steam cleaned to prevent the introduction of non-native microorganisms. This equipment was inspected at the West Yellowstone entrance by National Park Service rangers and was refused entrance to the park if there was any soil evident from outside the Park.

Site work was designed to provide only natural habitats for wildlife. Human food and food containers had to be locked up at all times during construction and occupation to prevent wildlife from becoming dependent on humans as a source of food. During winter construction, over snow transportation was limited to Best Approved Technology snowmobiles and matt tracks.  This reduced the noise and exhaust of the vehicles to limit the disturbance of wildlife during the harsh park winters. Both the design team and the contractors lived in the Old Faithful Area for almost two years to reduce commuting impacts.

The sustainability goals began with the new design not disturbing the sub-surface geothermally heated soils or the natural sub-surface water “plumbing system” for the surrounding geyser basin. The idea of tapping any of these natural resources for building use was not even considered due to even the slightest possibility of environmental damage. The new building was sited over the location of the existing visitor center to take advantage of already disturbed site areas. The excavation to remove the existing footings was required to not disturb more of the existing landscape than necessary. The new building was positioned to be on axis with the Old Faithful Geyser and having the visitors flowing from an existing parking area towards Old Faithful Geyser and to integrate an existing circular plaza into the circulation sequence.

The Old Faithful Geyser Basin has a unique balance between underground water systems and geothermal heat. This “plumbing system” is the driving force behind the hot pots, steam vents, and geysers. The building was designed to be thermally invisible to the ground beneath it. A ventilated crawlspace with an insulated first floor slab above isolates the building heat from the ground’s thermal dynamics. Grading and site work were designed to let precipitation percolate naturally back into the Geyser Basin’s underground plumbing system. Footings and excavation were kept shallow so as not to penetrate the soil layers or disrupt the natural plumbing system. The disruption of the thermal water features would have been an ecological disaster.

With this site being within a national park, the protection of the native ecosystem is not a goal, it is an imperative. Natural re-vegetation/germination is used for disturbed open site areas. The introduction of non-native plants would be detrimental to the local ecosystem. This natural re-vegetation, of course, also saves on operations and maintenance, such as landscaping costs and conventional irrigation.   The use of irrigation would also have an un-natural effect on the geothermal plumbing system.
The high alpine climate of the Old Faithful area introduces substantial temperature swing days.  A natural convection system was designed to ventilate the building naturally. The main lobby space is 60’ tall with automated operable clerestory windows and damper system at the floor level.  This convection system is tied into the HVAC system to allow natural ventilation and convection when weather and inside temperatures allow.

Protection of the night sky, extensive nocturnal habitat, and uninterrupted solitude of the area became an imperative for this project. All lighting in and around the building is automatically shut off at night. Lights would also disturb nighttime views of Old Faithful Geyser.  NPS staff members are accustomed to using head lamps and flashlights around the Old Faithful area and surrounding trails with minimal or no exterior lighting regardless of the time of year. During construction, workers turned off lights at the end of the day. 

Exemplary construction waste management was also an imperative, given this site is within a national park. No landfills are accessible inside YNP and all items brought into the Park—whether by visitors, staff, or the construction team—must be taken out of the Park. During the planning, it became obvious that reduction of conventional waste, reuse where possible, and recycling would have less environmental impact as well as reduction in cost for the project. Because the site location offers all workers the opportunity to demonstrate best practices in construction waste, the Contractor instituted and managed an outstanding waste reduction program that shows measurable results.

Successful LEED projects require integrated design and teamwork. The leadership on this team came from the Owner of this project, the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Both of the following have experienced LEED-APs on this project, including the project designers, CTA Architects Engineers and the general contractor, Swank Enterprises.  LEED support was by Kath Williams + Associates.