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Sponsored article: BranchPattern shares why design in potentially extreme conditions is more important now than ever before.

Most people who visit or live in Colorado can experience the beauty of Pikes Peak Mountain. Maybe you’ve taken the cog railway to the top or the adventurous car ride on the highway. If you have been fortunate to get to the top of the mountain, you probably enjoyed the visitor center, where you can get one-of-kind souvenirs and doughnuts fried at 14,000 feet above sea level. At nearly three miles above sea level, the Summit House has operated since 1963 and has seen its share of highs, lows and extremes.

After 55 years in operation, the time had come for the weather-beaten Summit House to be replaced. In 2014, an Environmental Assessment request was issued to address the decades of guest and climate wear and tear. The top minds in architecture (RTA Architects and GWWO Architects), engineering and construction (GE Johnson) came together to collaborate with the stakeholder group, comprising the U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, City of Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Cog Railway and Pikes Peak America’s Mountain. This group’s focus was to build a new Summit House that could

  • Be ecologically sensitive while withstanding and living with the extreme environment.
  • Achieve net zero energy and water.
  • Improve and enhance the visitor experience.
  • Assure that it would not, “individually or cumulatively, significantly affect the quality of the human, biological, or physical environment.”

The design team, along with the stakeholder group, decided that the new Summit Complex would seek to achieve LEED Silver and certify all petals of the Living Building Challenge. Two elements drastically influenced the design and, therefore, the green building components of the project:

  • Bioclimatic design
  • Water reclamation

Bioclimatic design

Bioclimatic design is a design approach that responds to the local climate to create comfortable spaces for life.

The first step when undergoing bioclimatic design is to evaluate and test the current conditions for which you are designing. The Pikes Peak Summit Complex sits in climate zone 8, which as you can see from the map below, includes Alaska, most of Canada, some of the most northern parts of the U.S, and the top of the Rocky Mountains.

The design team was fortunate to have a weather station located on the project site that provided additional insight into climate conditions. One striking temperature conclusion was that the summit experiences temperatures below freezing 65 percent of the time. Wind speeds were also noted, with the team learning that the average wind speed is anywhere from 11 to 29 miles per hour throughout the day, with maximum wind speeds over 190 miles per hour. The wind and temperature measurements made it obvious that glass usage in the new structure had to be minimized. However, one of the integral project goals was to have a viewing platform from inside the building.

The team explored how we could shift programming in the building to accommodate for a glass viewing area that could be kept at cooler temperatures, instead of the traditional 70 degrees F. This allows for the building to have a warm core and cool perimeter, similar to how the human body operates in the cold. It also made sense with how humans interact in the space. When entering the Summit House, people will be coming in from the cold, many already wearing jackets, making the cooler indoor temperatures a more pleasant experience. It’s a win-win when energy goals align with human needs.

The hefty wind speeds also encouraged us to look for plant species that thrive in this climate. What naturally grows and thrives at the top of this mountain? The answer is lichen. This fungus species does particularly well in the area because it stays low to the ground and grows outward, not upward. This observation of nature pushed us to design a low-profile form. Not only will that decrease air infiltration into the building (less wall area exposed to winds), but it also helps the durability of the building by reducing risk of damage by flying debris.

Coming out of this early planning, we can see ideas starting to take shape—literally.

Water reclamation for a net zero water building

Fresh water is not available on the summit unless it is trucked 40 miles, round-trip. Therefore, the project proposed rainwater and blackwater collection, treatment and reuse. Rainwater would supplement municipal water for potable needs, while greywater and blackwater would be treated on-site and reused for toilet flushing.

Project update

On June 4, 2018, the project team broke ground. Construction completion is expected in the fall of 2020. Many construction challenges await, since there is only a three-month window for construction each year. Plus, on-site workers must go through rigorous training in order to do heavy lifting above 14,000 feet.

Check out our video of construction starting.

BranchPattern discovered that through this project, our methods of design in human comfort and energy efficiency have the opportunity to be applied to other projects. As conditions become more intense through climate change, we need to keep pushing designs forward to meet the sustainability goals of the future in ever-changing environments.