Redwood Visitor Center

Project Description

Context: The Redwood Visitor Center is located on a 125-acre property bordering Redwood National Park, just north of Orick, CA. The Visitor Center occupies a flat former lumber mill site covered by 21-acres of asphalt, remnant foundations, and berms erected for flood control. Surrounding the site is luxuriant, sensitive habitat: to the east, old growth redwoods that provide sanctuary for the endangered marbled murrelet; to the west, the confluence of Redwood and Prairie Creeks which provide critical salmonid habitat; and to the north, connections to trails that feature fairy rings and fern meadows. The project will be closely coordinated with a major site restoration effort and a trail network expansion.

Program/Scope: The new Visitor Center, located on the former mill site, will house interpretive exhibits, administrative offices, a café and wayfinding. Site amenities include an amphitheater, trailheads and a screened picnic area. The screened picnic area provides protected outdoor eating for visitors to ensure that visitor food does not attract corvids (jays, crows and ravens) who feed on the eggs of the endangered marbled murrelet.

The existing asphalt will be removed and the land recontoured to slow down and direct storm water toward the creek. A new curving entrance drive directs visitor views towards the restored creek, towards old growth trees, and finally turns back to focus on the visitor center.

The visitor center, located on a slight rise, forms a literal gateway to the park’s many trails leading to the tall trees and visitor experiences. Two gabled wings joined by a covered breezeway marks the start of the primary pathway into the Redwood forest. The eastern gable, housing most of the visitor center functions, slopes up to capture soaring views of old-growth Redwoods while the smaller western gable, housing the screened picnic area, will capture panoramic views of the restored Prairie Creek watershed.

Visitors approach the long side of the buildings, arced to shape an entry plaza with exhibits that explain the site’s ecological context. The breezeway, spanned by a light steel frame covered with clear glass, forms the gateway to trails as well as a connection between the two gables in inclement weather. Salvaged redwood siding punctuated with rhythmic slot windows clad the exterior.

Inside, the exhibit hall is designed as a single lofty space, allowing visitors to move easily through and around the interpretive exhibits, towards the expansive view out to the old growth Redwoods at the gable’s end. Steel bents create a tall, uncluttered volume to accommodate the tall interpretive exhibits.

The interior is designed to be warm and welcoming, sheltering visitors on damp and rainy days, while focusing on forest and creek views beyond. The exposed steel bents increase in height towards the major views. Behind the bents, the interior is wrapped in wood from ceiling to floor. The facility is designed to achieve LEED Platinum and to operate at or above net-zero energy.

Design Challenge

The Redwood National and State Parks welcome more than 130,000 visitors per year at their existing Kuchel Visitor Center, located on the beach at the west end of Orick. The existing visitor center is too small and sits on the beach in a tsunami zone where there are no redwood trees in sight. Our client, Save the Redwoods League, agreed to build a new, expanded visitor center on a site two miles inland from the existing facility, and will gift it to the National Park Service (NPS). NPS will operate it cooperatively with California State Parks and the Redwood Parks Conservancy. The new site, located at the intersection of two creeks, links two disconnected portions of the parks and borders a grove of old-growth redwoods. The new visitor center will serve as the southern gateway to the Parks, a place to learn about the redwoods, forests and streams, the wildlife and their habitats, the cultural history of the site and the vicinity, and the people of the redwoods. Unlike at the existing Kuchel Visitor Center, guests leaving the new visitor center will be able to walk to park attractions: trails will lead directly into the redwood forest. Shuttle buses will connect visitors to the further reaches of the park. Original project goals:
  • Function as the primary portal to experience the Redwood National and State Parks, with visitor welcoming, orientation, and trip planning; serve as the starting point for Park tours and other visitor programs, and provide a gathering place for visitors and local residents.
  • Convey the significance and impart the breadth of the Redwood National and State Parks for visitor exploration in the area.
  • Provide on-site visitor facilities such as a park visitor/education center and visitor serving amenities, such as short interpretive trails to redwood groves, longer connecting trails to State and National park trails, access to on-going watershed restoration, fish and tree viewing platforms, native tribe exhibits, visitor day use facilities, outdoor classroom and gathering areas, learning landscape playground, and other potential uses.
  • Provide on-site infrastructure including all utility systems, road access, parking facilities, drainage devices, and other required site features. Include elements designed to welcome and engage members of the local community, potentially including youth educational programs, community events and other community activities.
  • Design with the natural features of the site, in coordination with the restoration and trails teams, so that the facility development is integrated seamlessly with the restoration and trails design.

Physical Context

The Redwood Visitor Center occupies a former lumber mill site covered by 21-acres of asphalt, remnant foundations, and a berm erected for flood control. Surrounding the site is luxuriant and sensitive habitat: to the east, old growth redwoods provide sanctuary for the endangered marbled murrelet; to the west, the confluence of Redwood and Prairie Creeks provide critical salmonid habitat; and to the north, connections to trails featuring fairy rings and fern meadows. The project is closely coordinated with major site restoration to restore Prairie Creek, and recontour the site to restore natural drainage. The site rehabilitation will provide a framework for long-term ecosystem health and resilience and will connect these systems together with new trails and educational exhibits. Dark skies, bird-friendly design and site acoustics are given scrupulous attention. The design team worked with the Park’s wildlife biologist to refine the design of shielded lighting and bird-friendly glazing. The building is located to minimize effects of construction noise on marbled murrelet habitat; no construction will occur during their mating season. The Redwood Visitor Center is designed to connect visitors to a special place–the salmon-filled creeks and biologically diverse Redwood Forests of Northern California. The project integrates the highly specific functional requirements of a National Park Visitor Center with site and building designed to enhance visitors’ experience. Buildings and landscape are designed to interact in a synergistic way to provide a seamless transition from building to trail. The site, a valley near the intersection of two creeks, was developed first as a farm and later as a lumber mill. The asphalt-covered former mill site and the channelized creek will be restored to near pre-development condition. The design integrates a rich visitor program with climate-based building orientation and shading and simple forms characteristic of the north coast to create a powerful evocation of a spectacular site. The breezeway channels visitors directly into the redwoods, while the building provides exhibits and amenities. As visitors move through the buildings toward either end the gables angle upwards paralleling the slope of nearby ridges, opening to views of the restored creek to the west and old growth redwoods to the east, connecting people to place. The simple gabled structures are clad in redwood salvaged locally, tying it literally to place and demonstrating the continued beauty and utility of redwood. The building is designed to be all-electric and to achieve net-zero energy. Through iterative thermal modeling, the design optimizes orientation, building envelope and shading, reducing external loads. Natural ventilation is employed at the exhibit hall with the rising ridge, ceiling fans and operable vents near the peak. A photovoltaic system will produce enough energy on-site to achieve net-zero. The predicted Energy Use Intensity of 27 kBtu/psf is a 65% reduction from the Architecture 2030 benchmark.