Going for net-zero was the natural choice for the headquarters and visitor center at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, which consists of nearly 45,000 acres of wetlands, grasslands, and riparian habitats, plus more than 90,000 acres of conservation easements on private lands. The LEED Platinum building, designed by Prescott, Arizona’s Catalyst Architecture, demonstrates an integrated approach to sustainability. Passive solar and high-performance mechanical systems, along with natural and LED lighting, maximize energy efficiency such that the building produces more energy than it consumes. Matt Ackerman, a principal at Catalyst, says the project was one of the most demanding work efforts the firm has ever undertaken, despite having prior experience with LEED and even off-the-grid projects. He considers it the firm’s flagship project. “Our success with visitor centers is how we tell the story of the place through the architecture,” he says, “and that’s what we achieved here, showing what makes the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge a unique place.”


Location Los Banos, CA
Size 17,000 ft2
Completed 2011
Cost $10 million
Client US Fish and Wildlife Services
Architect Catalyst Architecture
Electrical Engineer ES2 Engineering
Contractor West Coast Contractors

interpret / in-‘tər-prət / (verb)

To represent by means of art, bring to realization by performance or direction. The rich agricultural heritage of the San Joaquin River Valley, once populated by wooden farm structures, is interpreted through heavy timbers that cross overhead through the lobby of the building. On a quarter of the timbers a weathered steel skin that is both recycled and recyclable complements the wood. Outside, curving site walls and sidewalks tell the story of the river, which is characterized by meandering oxbows.

strategy / strat-i-jē / (noun)

A careful plan or method. To achieve net-zero, Catalyst took advantage of a comprehensive passive strategy, using a highly insulated envelope—walls and roofs are made of structural insulated panels—and natural daylight and ventilation. For remaining energy needs, the team installed two photovoltaic arrays, on the roof of the building and on the shade structure over the employee parking area, which together produce more than 55 kilowatts of energy.

protective / prə-‘tek-tiv / (adj)

Giving or capable of giving protection. With 30 species of waterfowl on refuge lands, San Luis is a protective place for birds stopping over on the Pacific Flyway migration route. To reflect these animals, the roof of the new building mimics the wings of water birds taking flight.

conservation / kän(t)-sər-ˈvā-shən / (noun)

Planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect. The building uses low-flow fixtures and waterless urinals, and the landscaping is designed to direct water runoff from the building roofs to planted areas—what Ackerman calls “the low-tech solution to water conservation.”