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Attention to environmental details at center of new Pikes Peak Summit House

November 14, 2016 Updated: March 17, 2017 at 1:03 pm
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A rendering of the upper lobby view of the new Pikes Peak Summit House. Photo courtesy RTA Architects and GWWO Inc./Architects

The new Summit House is for the birds.

It's also for the tundra, Native Americans, historians and, most of all, the visitors.

Protection of migrating fowl is only one of many odd details to master as architects and builders prepare to create a visitors center at elevation 14,115 feet.

Birds migrate across the top of Pikes Peak, and architects shuddered at the prospect of people taking in the sweeping view only to have a bird splat into the window.

"We are on a migratory route," said Stuart L. Coppedge, principal of RTA Architects in Colorado Springs. "It's not huge, but a lot of local birds are up there."

Those winged wonders don't recognize glass, and 100 million to 1 billion of them die every year from collisions with man-made structures, the Audubon Society reports.

That won't happen at the Summit House, however. RTA has opted for a ceramic frit - providing UV patterns in the glass that birds can see but people can't.

A rendering of the dining terrace of the new Pikes Peak Summit House. Photo courtesy RTA Architects and GWWO Inc./Architects 

The giant windows gracing the 38,000-square-foot center need more than bird-safety features, though. They also must withstand winds hurling grit at nearly 200 mph.

The center will be hunkered into the southeast side of the mountain, with its back to the north and northwest, from whence most of the winds blow, Coppedge said.

"By controlling where cars and people go, it controls the grit that blows across," he said. "Most grit blows lower, so we have a wall at the bottom (of the glass). We might add a sacrificial layer that we could replace more easily than special glass."

That special glass is a triple-glazed electrochromic material that darkens to cut glare and solar gain lest excessive heat and marred views result.

"Because the views are the whole thing," Coppedge said. "We're really trying to avoid mechanical stuff that can break, that takes a lot of maintenance. The glass darkens to cut the glare. As the sun moves across the sky, the glass would track it around."

A rendering of an aerial view of the new Pikes Peak Summit House. Photo courtesy RTA Architects and GWWO Inc./Architects 

Yet even while confronting the complexities innate in a high-altitude setting with severe climate fluctuations, the team also is trying for the Living Building Challenge - the world's most vigorous performance standard for structures.

Such a building generates more positive effects than any negative environmental impacts, producing its energy through renewable resources, capturing and treating all its water and operating efficiently but with maximum beauty, reports the International Living Future Institute.

"Very, very few facilities have been designed at this altitude. There are so few (Living Buildings) around the world because it's such a high mark. . A lot of people think that is very, very special," Coppedge said. "They would see that as a sign that Colorado Springs as a community is leading the way in being good stewards of things we've been blessed with, which is this entire mountain range."

It's a lofty aspiration, he conceded, but the team's goals surpass LEED silver standards - the second of four rungs in certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Even the toilets will work on a vacuum system, reducing the water used by 90 percent, he said.

"We looked at different kinds of toilets and settled on the vacuum system. Driving down the amount of water makes sense economically and environmentally," the architect said.

A rendering of an overlook of the new Pikes Peak Summit House. Photo courtesy RTA Architects and GWWO Inc./Architects 

"Doing things for environmental reasons also helps operations. It's smart from a business standpoint. Because the climate is so severe up there, the payback for driving down energy uses is completely different than it would be here in downtown Colorado Springs."

Better insulation is one way to reduce energy use, he said, but using photovoltaics for solar "can get us to that positive in energy."

Also, the fewer loads of waste and water that must be hauled up and down the enormous mountain, the better.

The environmental assessment by the U.S. Forest Service, which controls much of the mountain, will look at more than those measures, however, said Jack Glavan, manager of the city enterprise Pikes Peak - America's Mountain.

"They consult with tribes that lived here or passed through; they work with the state historic preservation office," Glavan said.

About a dozen tribes will be consulted, including Northern Utes, Southern Utes, Apaches and Ute Mountain Utes, he said.

But the 10 acres or so that make up the land above 14,000 feet are a national landmark and fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, Glavan said.

A summit marker there will bear all the names the peak has been called through history - from Tava, which means "sun" in Ute, to James Peak and Grant Peak.

There, in the great outdoors, are "significant areas of undisturbed planting that we're doing all we can to preserve," Coppedge said. "We're marking it to keep construction off. The Forest Service will designate anything we should avoid."

Galvan said, "Most of the site has been disturbed."

But, said Coppedge, "Five or 10 years from now, the summit will feel more pristine and more natural than it does now. It's really one of the very few places in the world where anyone from an Olympic athlete to a disabled person can reach such a high altitude. It truly will be one of those things that's going to be on the top of everybody's bucket list."

A rendering of the northeast view from the roof terrace of the new Pikes Peak Summit House. Photo courtesy RTA Architects and GWWO Inc./Architects 

At least one of two Pikes Peak hallmarks is definitely here to stay.

Aramark will follow the same doughnut recipe that Pikes Peak hikers particularly relish. But rather than vent the air from the fryers, it will be recirculated.

One culinary tip: Eat your doughy treat while on the peak. "They don't do well coming down. The yeast works up there. They're good when they're hot," Coppedge said.

As for the familiar light that beams from the peak at night? The apex actually sports two 500-watt halogen bulbs, one on the north side and one to the east.

Whether the lights remain will depend on the project's environmental impact statement and how the U.S. Forest Service rates those beacons' effects.

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