Two-Star Certified Pilot Project

Location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Project Size: 105 acres
Project Type: Open space - Park
Site Context: Rural
Former Land Use: Greenfield
Terrestrial Biome: Desert
Budget: $14 million
photo by: National Park Service

Project Overview

The site sensitive landscape design surrounding the Visitor and Research Center reflects Mesa Verde National Park's mission to educate the public about the archeological, biological, and physical resources of the park and their inter-connectivity. Revegetation of the site was accomplished through a mix of native and drought tolerant species while addressing concerns of fire danger. The new building, located at the park entrance, replaces the aging Far View Visitor Center as the park's primary facility for orienting visitors to opportunities within the park and surrounding area. It also houses a state-of-the-art research and storage facility for the park's archives and museum collection of over three million objects. The new facility also earned a LEED® Platinum rating.

Regional Context

Mesa Verde, Spanish for 'green table', occupies just over 52,000 acres of the Colorado Plateau. The correct geological term for the area is cuesta. Cuestas are similar to mesas, but instead of being relatively flat, they gently dip in one direction. Mesa Verde is inclined slightly to the south at about a seven degree angle and has been highly dissected by wind and water erosion into a series of canyons and “mesas.” Elevations range from about 6,000 feet in the canyon bottoms near the southern park boundary to 8,572 feet at Park Point, about ten miles north. Visible geologic formations in the park date to the late Cretaceous Period, from 90 million to 78 million years ago, and consist largely of sandstones and shales.

During the winter, the weather is usually mild, however, snowstorms can occur as late as May and as early as October. June through September are warm to hot, with cool evenings. Daytime summer temperatures can reach into the 90s. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August. The climate is semi-arid, with an average annual precipitation of 18.4 inches.

SITES Features + Practices

The project team focused on trying to use as many locally-available materials as possible, selecting plant materials that were native and adapted to the tough conditions on site, and amending the soil as little as possible to mimic naturally occurring soils on site. Other important design features include multiple opportunities for on-site power generation, preferred parking for carpool and alternative fuel vehicles, and educational elements for visitors on the sustainable features of the site and building, as well as the cultural and natural history of the site and region.

The Visitor and Research Center is providing over 95% of the energy required for the site and building using on-site renewable energy sources, including solar panels, a solar hot water system, a ground-source heat pump, and a micro-hydro turbine. Stormwater runoff is directed through vegetated swales and retention/detention ponds providing the only water features on the site and conserving and managing this precious resource. The plant materials were grown in soil that was similar to the on-site soils. The use of locally-quarried stone helped the project blend with the natural surroundings and reduce the transportation impacts and costs for materials. Efficient, temporary drip irrigation tubing was used around the base of each tree and shrub on site, and groupings of perennials were temporarily irrigated with rows of drip tubing. All wood on site was from non-threatened species and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and the base material (asphalt millings) for the entrance road and parking area came from another road project in the park.

The project was also part of a pilot project by the National Park Service (NPS) to develop revegetation monitoring standards for future projects throughout the NPS land nation-wide. The project expanded the existing body of knowledge on plant salvage and transplant through efforts to salvage and transplant over 40 native Indian Apple plants on the site. Thorough research and documentation of the effort will provide others in the government and the landscape industry with information needed to attempt similar successful efforts. Results will be posted to the NPS/Denver Service Center Workflow webpage.


The integrated design team worked together throughout the multi-step NPS Design-Bid-Build process. Regular team meetings were held throughout the design process and during construction to ensure that project goals were continually in-focus and on-track for being implemented, with communication between team members as needed to address any potential issues as they arose. Consistent, thorough communication resulted in a project that met its over-arching goals and objectives.

The project followed regulations (Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)), Building Codes & Industry Standards (IBD, IEBC, Accessibility and Universal Design) plus Government Directives & Government Standards (sustainability requirements especially "Guidance for Federal Agencies on Sustainable Practices for Designed Landscapes and Implementing Sustainable Locations for Federal Facilities"). Plus, NPS requirements (such as Management Policies and Director's Orders) had to be taken into account. It is important to note that the Ancestral Puebloans provided an example to modern society of sustainability and living in balance with natural systems. It was determined early in the design phase and documented in the project's Design Guidelines, that this new building and site must exemplify these same concepts of sustainable design practices. The commitment did increase capital costs for the building construction in minor increments in favor of long-term energy savings, reduced maintenance costs, and a more healthy/productive work environment.

Maintenance + Stewardship

The National Park Service identified the over-arching sustainability goals for this project early in the design process. Many of the criteria identified by SITES have a direct relationship to specific missions/goals/directives/federal executive orders already in place by NPS. Together, with NPS federal requirements and SITES goals, the project will be continually evaluated each year. This includes identifying specific project work tasks (such as reseeding, replanting, etc.) in NPS databases that develop overall work priorities. Priorities will then be used to ensure long-term goals and results are achieved.

The goals and implementation procedures outlined in the Site Maintenance Plan reflect current practices for maintenance personnel in Mesa Verde National Park, and the practices that will be carried over to the new Visitor and Research Center. The NPS has existing procedures and policies in place for educating maintenance personnel, and for reviewing, updating, and revising maintenance goals and procedures.

An independent contractor was hired to monitor two areas of interest: Control and manage known invasive species and Restore native plant communities. The National Park Service Washington Office has approved the first year of monitoring needs at $5,000. Each of the two additional years must be requested at a later date due to the funding processes of the federal government. Additionally, the NPS Mesa Verde National Park natural resource expert and park landscape architect continue to provide monitoring throughout the year. Park staff will inform the extended team of project results as required.

With the Visitor and Research Center formally dedicated in May 2013, it is too early to see direct results in the surrounding community, however, the interpretive messages on exhibit panels in the Orientation Plaza and the Exhibit Graphic Dashboard have both received favorable comments on the projects sustainable components. Visitors are also provided with a handout describing the sustainable features of the site that they can take home. Park Rangers also provide education programs to local schools where sustainability is a key component. 

Site Challenges

The most significant site challenge was working with the native clay soils, the drying winds, and recent pattern of drought in the region. It was also very important to thoroughly consider the dangers of fire to the landscape and the structure.

Project Goals + Successes

The project brought together over 24 Native American tribes, key stakeholders, and NPS staff to develop a design that respects the setting, the history, and the future of the site. The primary goal of the project was to revegetate the site with water-wise plants native to Mesa Verde National Park. These plants are adapted to the harsh natural climate, and require no supplemental irrigation after establishment. The intent of the planting design is to let the plant community evolve naturally over the years to fit with the surrounding environment and look like it was not "designed". Additional plants will move in and establish themselves, existing plants will grow and spread around the site, and some existing plants will die naturally in their own time.

The landscape needed to be low-maintenance due to minimal budgets within the park for site maintenance, and also fire-wise considering the severe wildfire history of the park and the recent patterns of drought in the region. It was also important to utilize as many local materials as possible due to the already-remote location of the site.

The project also achieved LEED® Platinum Certification, and is nearing net-zero energy use with the project supplying over 95% of its required electricity needs.

This project is proof that if sustainability goals are set early in the design process and the extended team continues to validate design decisions to this goal, success can be achieved!

Lessons Learned

The team learned the importance of thorough documentation from the beginning of the design stage through the warranty period. It was also important to communicate that park maintenance and park volunteers understand the landscape around the Visitor and Research Center encompasses native vegetation and native seeding.

The project also experienced budget concerns related to SITES documentation and requirements. When the funding request was made available for this project, it was not known that it would be a SITES pilot project. It was therefore difficult, financially, to acquire the needed funding for completing the documentation. Funding was eventually identified from a multitude of sources. In the future, when a federal project pursues SITES, this opportunity needs to be identified early in the project life-cycle.

SITES has provided the NPS with additional resources to conduct successful construction projects where buildings and ecosystems can coexist, providing mutual benefits. Through careful site planning, grading, and drainage design development footprints were reduced, stormwater runoff was minimized and treated, and urban heat island effects were substantially lessened. The project maximized opportunities for self-sufficiency and minimized environmental impacts. These lessons and SITES criteria/requirements are easily transferable to other NPS, federal, or other projects.

Project Team

National Park Service - Mesa Verde National Park:
Bill Nelligan, Deputy Superintendent

National Park Service - Denver Service Center:
Jodie Petersen, Project Manager, Landscape Architect

ajc architects:
Derek Wilson, Architect, SITES documentation

Landmark Design, Inc.:
Lisa Benson, Landscape Architect, SITES documentation

Eric Winters, PE, Civil Engineer
Bryan Close, PE, SITES documentation

BNA Consulting:
Gary Mesker, PE, Electrical Engineer

Colvin Engineering:
Jon Burrows, PE, Mechanical Engineer

Dunn Engineering:
Chris Olson, PE, Structural Engineer

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