The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the first new visitor service facility to be constructed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since the early 1960's and is the first structure in North Carolina to be constructed explicitly as a full-service visitor center.
The new 6,300-square-foot visitor center and adjacent 1,700-square-foot comfort station were 100% funded by the park's non-profit partners. It was constructed and donated by the Great Smoky Mountains Association at a cost of $3 million. The Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park provided over $550,000 to fund the visitor orientation and museum exhibits.
The center was designed from the ground up to be a model of energy efficiency and sustainability. The park followed the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System™ framework for design, site preparation, construction, and operation of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Designed to reflect the traditional National Park Service architecture, the state-of-the-art facility is green to the core and features energy efficient design and eco-friendly materials.
Highlights of the green design include:
- The natural environment was protected by locating the new visitor center outside of the flood plain. Additional steps were taken to protect the existing wetlands during construction.
- A construction recycling program was adopted to reduce construction waste. Metal, cardboard and wood were separated during construction for transport to recycling centers in lieu of landfills.
- Native, drought-resistant plants were used throughout the facility's campus to provide a drought tolerant landscape plan that requires less water.
- The exterior walls of the visitor center are cement fiberboard siding that is very strong and impervious to rot and insect damage.
- Innovative roofing technologies were employed. The roof shingles are composed of recycled post-industrial rubber with a 50-year life that looks like slate and made to match the adjacent historic visitor center. Sections of the roof are light colored with flat surfaces that reflect sunlight, reducing heat into the building and eliminating the need to cool hot air that would be absorbed through a dark-colored roof. A one inch air gap was constructed between the shingles and roof deck to decrease attic temperatures, introducing natural ventilation which continuously draws air though the eaves and expels it through the ridge vent.
- The geothermal heating and cooling system circulates water underground to reach the earth's constant temperature of 55 degrees then returns the water to the visitor center to heat or cool the building. The 12 wells that service this system are at depths of 250-300 feet.
- Low flow restroom plumbing fixtures and waterless urinals were installed in the comfort station. Rain water from the roofs of the visitor center and nearby comfort station is collected and stored in a cistern and treated on site for non-potable use in the comfort station.
- Lighting within the visitor center varies with the amount of natural light entering the building. Sun sensors dim interior lights on bright sunny days to reduce the amount of electricity used. In addition, solartube skylights and clerestory windows (high placement windows) were installed to harvest natural light along with light reflective shelves under window encasements that will distribute sunlight more evenly into the building. Green Power credits will be purchased.
- The heating/air condition and ventilation systems, as well as the light settings, are electronically monitored through remote computer access. These features allow facility management staff to make minor adjustments remotely to ensure optimum energy efficiencies.
- The visitor center incorporates recycled flooring materials. Rubber flooring and recycled carpets were used in the facility. American chestnut wood was salvaged from old barns in the region and reused as flooring.
- To improve the indoor environmental quality, low volatile organic compound (VOC) paint, caulk, carpets, glues, and vinyls were used to reduce toxic gases.
- Twenty percent of the building materials were manufactured and harvested within 500 mile radius to reduce fossil fuels for shipping.