In rural Eureka, NV, the terrain is rough and mountainous. So rough, there were few options in this mining town for locating a new gymnasium near the local high school. The site available was a neglected, nearly unbuildable piece of land between the existing high school and the community swimming pool. But the challenging site would prove to be a powerful catalyst for the building’s design, according to Architect Jack Hawkins of Hawkins and Associates. “The concept was to create a modern interpretation of a stamp mill cascading down the mountainside as viewed from the primary frontage street,” says Hawkins.
Taking Shape and Taking Form
With a design reference that so respectfully acknowledges the local vernacular, the gymnasium project has its long, west-side elevation buried into the hillside. As a result, the mountain views are unobstructed and the massive gymnasium structure complements the existing school campus without looming over it.
The low, horizontal form of the building is stepped down the difficult site and it is reinforced both visually and structurally with hard-wearing materials. Concrete masonry units were specified as a contemporary solution with timeless appeal and for an appearance substantial enough to anchor the project to its site. Integrally colored, standard 8x8x16-inch (203x203x406-mm) concrete masonry units are laid in a stack bond. The warm, red color of the block was selected for the exterior as well as the interior, and matches the existing high school color.
Beauty and Efficiency are Function
But color is only one of the reasons Hawkins specified concrete masonry units for loadbearing walls as well as in-fill panels. “It is a substantial, fire-resistant, rodent-resistant, long-lasting, low-maintenance material,” says Hawkins. And in addition, the concrete masonry walls could be dually employed as shear walls for the project. The material’s durability is especially beneficial for the running track area, restrooms and other heavily used spaces.
Weather conditions and temperatures can change quickly in the desert. In response, the designers created an all-weather, glass perimeter running track. Mostly cantilevered, the running track appears to float above the concrete masonry walls supporting it, according to the designer. The track was used as a design tool to break up what is normally the uninspired large box structure of a gymnasium. Its indoor-outdoor feel, combined with the weighty concrete masonry walls below, helps blur the transition between nature and the built environment.
Energy efficiency was also an important part of the program. Sustainability shaped many of the design decisions about architecture, lighting and mechanical systems. Daylighting from the perimeter running track brings natural light to interior spaces and allows for virtually no artificial lighting most days. By burying the entire west side of the structure in the hillside, a thermal buffer helps modulate indoor temperatures. In addition, the radiant slab heating and cooling system with a water-to-water heat pump, combined with evaporative cooling, mean there are no condenser units or chillers in the facility. The gymnasium is designed to accept a future active solar system—both panels and photovoltaic cells— to complement the passive solar strategies that are an integral part of the building design. Hugging the concrete masonry building to the landscape helped the designers enhance its energy efficiency and its cohesiveness with the natural environment.