Long viewed as an environmental renegade, Las Vegas created the first big splash in the green building market a few years ago with the announcement of MGM Mirage’s $7.4 billion City Center that will include a casino, a 500,000 square-foot retail and entertainment district and thousands of hotel rooms and condominiums while “pursuing a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver certification. This article notes that much of the sprawling Las Vegas Valley is now following suit, with many jurisdictions there requiring a green label on most new construction and having their planners educate developers and contractors on LEED standards.
The article includes a discussion of the environmentally-focused designs, materials (including energy efficient glass and reused wood, stone and steel), geothermal wells connected to high-efficiency heat pumps and other sustainable practices. It ends with an overview of the $250 million Springs Preserve park and educational center that teaches people how to live “with the environment instead of in it.” Among the innovative products and approaches taking place there:
- Carpeting made from recycled soda bottles;
- Biofiltration ponds for reclaiming wastewater;
- Rammed earth and straw bale walls; and
- Evaporative cooling systems.
Source: Brian Sodoma, Kimberly Reinhart, Planning (Chicago), February, 2008, v74 i2 p40
Long viewed as an environmental misfit, the sprawling Las Vegas Valley is changing its tune. Jurisdictions throughout the valley are requiring a green label on much of the new construction, and planners are educating developers and contractors on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.
Starting with the Strip
Las Vegas is known around the world for all the construction cranes along the famed Strip. So perhaps fittingly, the first big splash in the green building arena came a few years ago with the announcement of MGM Mirage’s $7.4 billion CityCenter, a 76-acre mixed use project that is currently under construction. When it’s finished in about two years, City Center will include 2,650 condominiums, 4,540 hotel rooms, a 500,000-square-foot retail and entertainment district, the requisite casino, and other amenities, all while pursuing a LEED silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Boyd Gaming’s Echelon Place, the $4 billion replacement for the Stardust Hotel and Casino, now being built at the north end of the Strip, will also seek LEED certification. Both Echelon and CityCenter will feature energy-efficient glass and reused wood, stone, and steel, and employ other sustainable practices. But the biggest project and the most exciting is going up on an infill site in downtown Las Vegas. Union Park was recently selected as a pilot project in the LEED for Neighborhood Development Program. The mixed use project will include housing, offices, and three anchor institutions: the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, and the World Jewelry Center.
The city, which owns the land and is the master developer for the project, began construction on the first of four stages in 2006. All the construction will be required to meet LEED standards.
Plenty of other registered LEED projects are already in place. By the end of 2007, there were 79 such projects in the valley, most of them commercial developments.
An outstanding example is the $107 million, 265,000-square-foot Molasky Corporate Center, which occupies a former Brownfield site in downtown Las Vegas. It’s the new home of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the recent recipient of a LEED gold certificate.
“We didn’t set out to be a gold building, but we kind of got sucked into it,” Richard Worthington, the president of the Molasky Group of Companies, the building’s owner, recently told a local business journal. The company expects a 39 percent annual energy savings on its building, which has been held up as the standard for future sustainable office buildings in Las Vegas.
Other smaller, but significant, projects are creeping into the headlines as well. They include: the Burkholder Middle School, one of the oldest middle schools in Henderson; Cashman Equipments 270,000-square-foot corporate headquarters, also in Henderson; and the 70,000-square-foot corporate headquarters of Las Vegas-based developer LaPour Partners, built on the city’s west side. All three will seek LEED designation.
Paul Gerner, associate superintendent of facilities for the Clark County School District, says future school buildings are likely to include green features such as the 300-foot-deep geothermal wells at Burkholder and two other sites. The wells are connected to high-efficiency heat pumps for considerable energy savings.
The school district has set new energy targets of 30,000 Btu per square foot per year, nearly half of the average 55,000 to 60,000 Btu used today.
Las Vegas’s two-year-old green building program focuses on residential development, says Thomas Perrigo, AICP, the city’s deputy director of planning and development.
The program began in 2005 with the announcement that a local developer, the Focus Property Group, had paid a record price for 1,700 acres in the far northwest valley with the intention of building a master planned community of 16,000 residential units. The project, Kyle Canyon Gateway, is now under way. At the time, the city was concerned about preserving the arroyos and other natural features of the site, says Perrigo. But even earlier, Mayor Oscar Goodman and the city council had asked the Department of Planning and Development to begin work on a set of sustainability standards for the entire city. “One thing we realized is that we shouldn’t make a set of standards for one project, but that we needed to do it citywide,” Perrigo says.
Working with the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association and other groups, the planning department created a set of standards that, among other things, requires a 15 percent reduction in energy use and a serious reduction in residential water use.
The program’s water conservation standards comply with the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Water Smart program. To date, 7,000 Water Smart homes have been built in the valley, many of them in Mountain’s Edge, a Focus development in the southwest valley.
The city’s development agreement with Focus for the 1,700-acre Kyle Canyon project includes strict guidelines for protecting the arroyos and other natural features. The mixed use plan includes residential, retail, and gaming components.
Focus says Mountain’s Edge residents are expected to use 25 percent less water than those in traditional master planned communities. The company hopes to reach this goal by limiting backyard turf and prohibiting turf in front yards.
Maintaining natural open space is another objective. At Mountain’s Edge, Focus set aside 80 acres for a mountain park at the community’s entrance. The company also harvested about 10,000 native plants from the area and used them to restore a mountain that had been scarred by years of off-roading activity. “We try to protect and preserve a development’s large natural areas and use them for passive open space,” says CEO John Ritter. “Typically that would be trails and seating areas as opposed to ball fields and tennis courts, and things like that.”
Setting the Standard
The Strip might be the big destination for tourists from around the world. But locals and an increasing number of tourists are beginning to discover a far different kind of attraction just a few miles away. It’s the Springs Preserve, a 180-acre park and educational center that endeavors to show visitors how to make green living the norm even in the arid Mojave Desert. The site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places because its artesian springs once nourished the city’s earliest settlers.
The $250 million, seven-building complex, which opened in late 2006, is meant to be an educational experience to teach people how to live “with the environment” instead of in it, says Jeffrey Roberts of Luchese Galati Architects, designers of the Desert Living Center. “One of the things we tried to do was to establish an architectural aesthetic that was responsive to our climate,” he says. “We wanted it to be a touchstone for the community to be used as an example and model.”
Some of the innovative products and approaches used in the project are: carpeting made from recycled soda bottles; biofiltration ponds for reclaiming wastewater; certified sustainable lumber; rammed earth and straw bale walls; radiant floor heating; evaporative cooling systems; and paints, furniture, fabrics, and wood composites with low VOC (volatile organic compounds).
Beyond the glowing city lights, Las Vegas’s 600square-mile metropolitan area is surrounded by seven million acres of federally owned public land. Just over half of this land is protected in areas like the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, and Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Alan O’Neill, executive director of the Outside Las Vegas Foundation, a nonprofit foundation committed to helping preserve the area’s natural and cultural heritage, says the public lands attract 18 million visitors annually and pump $1.5 billion into the local economy.
But O’Neill’s group has another agenda item besides preservation. Its goal is to help create a trail system that connects all the area trails.
Over the past couple of years, various valley jurisdictions have adopted trail plans. In all, 760 miles of urban trails are planned for the metro area, in addition to 1,100 miles of bike routes and on-street bike lanes. “What we’re trying to do now is define the additional primary trails on the federal lands and see how we’ll be able to connect them with the urban trails,” O’Neill says.
About 300 miles of the urban trails are already funded, largely from proceeds of BLM land auctions. A third of those trails should be completed within 18 months.
O’Neill stresses the trails’ importance both in reducing carbon emissions and in building a sense of community. “Sixty to 70 percent of trips in an automobile are two miles or less,” he notes. “People can use these trails and make them more than a patch of asphalt. They can be a good experience,” a way to commune with nature.
Despite these accomplishments, there’s still skepticism in the valley about the long-term commitment to sustainability.
“It’s a mixed bag,” says Tom Perrigo. “You have some things that are very progressive, but then you see acres of land chewed up by conventional subdivision development. Even with technological advancements, we’re far from meeting any sort of low auto emission standards.”
David Hassenzahl, chair of the environmental studies department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is somewhat more pessimistic about the future.
“We talk about building communities, but the ones we have tend to be filled with upscale condos. People working here can’t afford them. A really integrated neighborhood has people who work and live there,” he says.
But other local observers are encouraged by what they see as a new mindset. They believe that valley
residents are beginning to understand the need to protect the desert landscape. “When 1 first moved here 12 and a half years ago, people viewed the desert as a place to dump your old refrigerator,” said Henderson’s assistant city manager, Mary Kay Peck, Aid”, speaking at a UNLV sustainability conference last October. “Now,” she added, “we have people who are starting to have an appreciation for the beauty of the desert.” Adventures in the Desert I thought I knew what was ahead. After all, I had lived in Nevada for seven years when I accepted the position of environmental planner with the Southern Nevada Water Authority. I had studied the region’s physical environment and developed working relationships with other environmentally minded professionals.
But in my first weeks with the water authority, I felt as though I had dived into a cold lake head first. The challenge of working on a high-stakes project that could affect the entire region was enough to cause me many sleepless nights.
Like many newcomers, I had moved to Las Vegas in 1999 from Oregon for its employment opportunities (although unlike many others, my dream was a job in environmental planning, not in a casino). I was lucky to land a position as a park ranger at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, which is one of the Bureau of Land Management’s largest parks. Just 17 miles west of the Strip, Red Rock Canyon covers 195,819 acres of beautiful desert landscapes, including rolling hills of red and white sandstone. Answering thousands of questions a day at the visitor center’s desk served as a crash course in the plants, animals, geography, and geology of the Mojave Desert. It gave me ready answers for those
people who describe the desert as a barren wasteland. I can show those naysayers dozens of places within an hour of the Strip that will take their breath away.
When a position opened a year later at the local branch of a regional consulting firm, I jumped at the chance to finally become an environmental planner. In six years with the company, I have learned what it takes to be successful in the permitting process and have added to my understanding of the intricacies of the desert.
I’ve learned about salvaging cacti and yucca (both protected by state statutes) and the effort to protect the Mojave desert tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Clark County’s Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan calls for an ecosystems approach to conserve 78 species, including the desert tortoise. Also, before I lived in the desert, I didn’t know about the importance of cryptobiotic soils in the fight for clean and healthy air.
These communities of living organisms colonize on bare ground and keep the pollution-causing particulates from being released into the air.
A year and a half ago, during the worst drought in the Colorado River’s recorded history, I accepted a new position with the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The focus of my work is a project that’s still in the permitting stage-the Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project. It’s intended to diversify the region’s future water supply by pumping some 200,000 acre-feet of groundwater annually from seven hydrographie basins in central and eastern Nevada and piping it to Las Vegas. It didn’t take me long to learn that being a planner on a high-stakes project was going to be an entirely new experience. The groundwater project requires coordination with federal, state, and local officials throughout Nevada. We must, for instance, meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other environmental laws. And we must obtain section 404 permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Daily I work with interdisciplinary teams composed of biologists, archeologists, geologists, hydrologists, ranchers, and community members. As a planner, I am also in close contact with other agency staff and legal teams to ensure that the work is proceeding properly. Combining all of these perspectives into the permitting and environmental process is my job.
I think the true reward of my chosen profession will become apparent in the future, when water starts flowing into Southern Nevada. During my career in Las Vegas, I have learned that all planning jobs are extremely different and that professionally there is much to gain from each. That is, after all, why I became an environmental planner.
Kimberly Reinhart is an environmental planner with the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She is the coauthor of Best Hikes with Dogs: Las Vegas & Beyond, published in 2005 by The Mountaineers Books.
The Southern Nevada Green Building Partnership is working with four area home builders-R/S Development, Signature Homes, Signature Custom Homes, and Pulte Homes-to promote construction of environmentally sensitive housing. The partnership is a program of the SNHBA and the Green Building Initiative of Portland, Oregon. For more, see www. nvgreenbuilder.com.
The author, Brian Sodoma, is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in real estate, development, and green building.