Central Arizona Project Water Education Center
Architecture as educator on water issues in the desert
To say that the Central Arizona Project impacts the daily lives of almost 6 million Arizona residents and businesses across three counties—as well as tribal communities all along the Colorado River system—is an understatement. The CAP manages one of our state’s most critical and precious resources—one that allows life to exist and even thrive in our arid desert home.
For many, water seems infinite: we drink from single-use plastic bottles, it reliably flows from our taps, we water our lawns and fill our swimming pools. Actively connecting visitors to the CAP’s system makes our current water challenges relevant in their daily lives.
To do this, the Water Education Center straddles the canal, providing visitors with a visceral connection to their water source. The design for this new 8,000-sf Net-Zero Water facility emphasizes climate resilience and illustrates the preciousness of water via stormwater harvesting in the site and building.
Architecture as educator
The entire facility is designed as a significant water exhibition. A cylinder of weathered steel embedded in the earth expresses the water harvesting system for the site and acts as a sculptural catch basin for the stormwater. Formed into the hardscape of the entry plaza, a diagram of the entire Colorado River watershed with the CAP canal and prominent rivers highlighted educates visitors about the geographic footprint of our water system.
Flexible multi-purpose spaces and educational exhibit spaces open to the exterior gathering space that bridges across the canal. The 27,000-sf canopy protects visitors from the desert sun and collects rainwater for reuse, culminating in an expressive scupper that frames the entry. A 6,000-sf photovoltaic array and energy-efficient radiant cooling systems supplement traditional passive design strategies such as thermal mass and self-shading.
The client sought a Net Zero Water and Net Zero Energy building, with Living Building Challenge concepts as guidelines on sustainability. In response, this design embodies a holistic approach to sustainability, from the architectural form and site design to the building systems integration.
Passive rainwater harvesting is embedded into the design, with a large roof canopy over the buildings and a canal bridge to collect stormwater and express it demonstratively for visitors. The canopy also accommodates a large exterior exhibit and gathering area, which takes advantage of the natural evaporative cooling effect of the canal’s micro-climate.
Beyond designing the building envelope to optimize its solar exposure, cooling and lighting strategies minimize the building’s energy consumption. A photovoltaic array harvests energy and offsets the building’s energy usage; a preliminary analysis shows that the PV system will only need a 6,000-sf roof array to ensure the facility is Net Zero Energy.
The goal of the new Water Education Center is to be both inspirational and aspirational: the content of the exhibits will resonate long after visitors are gone, while the architecture and landscape are themselves teaching tools that demonstrate and celebrate innovative conservation and reuse strategies. As a high-visibility project, it simultaneously affirms CAP’s stewardship of water and taxpayer dollars. On opening day, Arizona politicians will be clamoring to tour their constituents around the Water Education Center to herald CAP’s enormous strides (or—shall we say—strokes) in water management.
The greatest return on investment is a space that will influence generations of Arizonans. From second graders on a field trip learning where the water for their baths comes from to members of the state legislature involved in consequential decisions about apportioning the Colorado River system among the Lower Basin states, every visitor should leave the facility a lifelong advocate of CAP’s work and a conscientious steward of this limited resource.