One of few remaining coastal wetlands of San Diego County, San Elijo Lagoon is home to an exceptional number of animals and plants. The lagoon is part of San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, a county and state regional park of nearly 1,000 acres (405 hectares) of diverse habitat including six plant communities: coastal strand, salt marsh, brackish/freshwater marsh, riparian scrub, coastal sage scrub and mixed chaparral. In the reserve, visitors can access over seven miles (11 kilometers) of trails via eight trailheads and encounter a wide variety of flora and fauna. The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy has been providing programming to the area residents for several years. Department of Parks and Recreation County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price was instrumental in pushing the county government and private funders to improve the existing facility. Nestled in the banks of the San Elijo Lagoon, the new 5,600-square-foot (520 square-meter) Nature Center serves to educate and encourage exploration of the surrounding wetlands. The building itself serves as an educational example of sustainable design.
According to the architectural firm of Zagrodnik + Thomas Architects, the building’s compatibility with adjacent lagoon environment was extremely important to the Department of Parks and Recreation. "In addition, we wanted to maximize the view to the adjacent lagoon and ocean while minimizing the building’s impact on the lagoon itself," says Jean Zagrodnik. The building’s design also was expected to incorporate "green" elements
which resulted in making it a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certified building.
With many site constraints, the building was carefully designed to preserve the endangered species habitat and wetlands; the footprint was limited to a previously developed area which comprised of shade structure and restrooms. The unique-shaped design was then organized to maximize daylighting and views to the lagoon. Visitors in the exhibit room can learn about the native plant and animal life through interactive exhibits while looking out the windows to see the wildlife. Additional exhibit panels identify the "green" features of the building that sit in this very sensitive habitat.
Considered sustainable, concrete masonry units were incorporated into the project for their aesthetic qualities, flexibility, durability and affordability. Burnished block was selected for its exposed aggregate and integral color. Two earth-tone colors of concrete masonry units were installed in a random pattern for an "earthy organic" appearance which complemented the site.
The NCMA Design Awards jury felt the color selection of the concrete masonry provided a natural look that blended well with the surrounding environment. The Nature Center’s concrete masonry walls incorporate recycled material and were made with materials regionally harvested and regionally manufactured for LEED credits. The Design Awards of Excellence jury found the rectilinear concrete masonry walls provide a solid anchor to the more playful lines introduced by the metal and wood elements of the building.
The concrete masonry units’ inherent thermal mass qualities also provide heating and cooling throughout the day which enhances the energy saving design by maximizing natural daylighting. There are tall windows in main habitable spaces. The windows are also energy efficient low-E dual glazed insulated glass minimizing the need to warm and cool the interior spaces. The windows are strategically located to catch the site’s prevailing breezes.
The trellis of the upper deck supports photovoltaic panels. Water conservation is provided with a 2-button flush toilet, low-flow faucets, native landscaping, recycled water for irrigation and flushing toilet.
Overall, the Design Awards jury felt the Nature Center deserved recognition because it beautifully reflects concrete masonry’s presence in a building designed for LEED certification.