Taking Flight

 By Kiley Jacques

Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Center makes significant strides in its conservation and education efforts using its new LEED Platinum building as a vehicle.

Liberty Wildlife has been a leader in rescue, rehabilitation, education, and conservation throughout Arizona since 1981.

Located on the banks of the Rio Salado River in Phoenix, Arizona, the Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Center uses its site and new green home to advance its work. Incorporated in 1981 by founder Dr. Kathryn Orr, a veterinarian and expert ornithologist, the nonprofit’s mission is to nurture the nature of Arizona by providing quality wildlife rehabilitation, environmental education, and conservation services. The award-winning, volunteer-driven organization uses raptors that have been deemed nonreleasable to evidence the importance of protecting wildlife species and their habitats. “We can take the face of an animal and use it to demonstrate why the use of sustainable practices is so vital to whatever you are doing,” says Executive Director Megan Mosby.

Taking Flight: Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Phoenix
30 October 2017

The Center’s location—a former brownfield now comprising upper Sonoran desert, riparian, and wetland biomes—is key to its teachings. The 6.5-acre parcel on which the new U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum facility sits is part of the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration project, the aim of which is to bring the poisoned river and natural surroundings back to health. The once thriving desert river and riparian habitat has suffered long-term abuse since the early 1920s, when industrial operations began polluting the region. “It was transformed from a lush blue-and-green ribbon through the valley into a kind of industrial scar in the center of the Phoenix metro area,” explains Philip Weddle, principal of Weddle Gilmore Architects, the firm responsible for the building.

It has been a long process with a large scope. What began in the early 1960s didn’t become a reality until the 2000s. The former gravel quarry on which the center was built was restored as part of a joint project between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city of Phoenix. Weddle sees the work as a transformation of that industrial scar into a place with purpose. “We are interested in that whole idea of how you can restore the waterway and the banks to make it a place that brings the community together.”

Liberty Wildlife environmental education and wildlife rehabilitation campus transformed a former sand and gravel pit into an innovative environmental facility with a restored riparian habitat.

Given the sensitive site, it made sense to build a LEED Platinum facility. Weddle’s design program called for bringing the native riparian habitat from the outlying landscape into the site and creating a series of bioswales to manage stormwater. Part of the aim was to make water conservation strategies highly visible to provide educational opportunities. To that end, they located two 28,000-gallon rainwater-harvesting cisterns at the front of the building.

The central courtyard is organized around a restored wetland and views to the Rio Salado habitat.

Likewise, energy conservation and renewable energy strategies are showcased to work in conjunction with the organization’s broader mission. To achieve Platinum-level energy efficiency, the nonprofit partnered with Salt River Project, the local utility company, which donated the entire 80.4-kW PV solar array, which produces over 80 percent of their energy demand. Additionally, daylighting strategies include an open north side, a minimally glazed east side, and protectively glazed south side; solar tube skylights were installed in rooms that would be otherwise windowless. Furthermore, recycled exterior materials include weathered copper panels, reclaimed wood, and river rock gabion walls.

Upon arrival, visitors are immersed in a learning environment. “The organization wants the building to be part of their educational curriculum, so we tried to make things visible and easy to understand,” says Weddle, noting that the interpretive signage includes both wildlife rehabilitation and sustainability messaging. “It’s nice to pair those stories together—they have very similar messages between them.”

Of note, too, is the shape of the building. Budget constraints called for a relatively simple design. Inspired by the organization’s work with raptors, Weddle and his team devised a wingspan-inspired layout, whereby one wing of the building is devoted to wildlife rehabilitation and veterinary care, while the other caters to environmental education with its classroom, interpretive spaces, and outdoor amphitheater.

Unique to Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Center’s work is the giving of molted feathers and animal carcasses to Native American tribes to use in cultural ceremonies. “It’s a huge part of what we do,” notes Mosby. “They haven’t been able to get feathers legally since 1996, which was causing the creation of a black market. . . . That’s a repurposing of a feather to help maintain the resource and preserve the Southwestern culture.” They are the only non-Native American organization to do this.

Additionally, they are conducting an experiment to identify solutions to the problem of negative interactions between power distribution and wildlife. They anticipate data that will support a redesign of power lines and poles, which large birds make use of for perching and nesting. The idea is to find a way to prevent power line–related deaths. “It is a very interesting and greatly needed research project that occurs smack dab in the middle of our 180-ft flight enclosure,” explains Mosby. “The structure itself is just cool. It has a bend to allow for flight banking maneuvers, a pond for stocking with fish if necessary, and several samples of utility equipment set up to mock actual poles.”

Prior to moving into the new building, the Center offered more than 800 annual educational opportunities in more than 400 different venues because they didn’t have the ability to host them. Now, they are open to the public, which expands their reach into the greater community. Plus, they operate from a center that makes the connection between the built environment and a sustainable ecosystem.

Watching the steady stream of people who come in with an animal in need of attention, Mosby sees the profound effect their site and center are having. “Every one of those people cared enough to pick up an animal and drive it to south Phoenix . . . and each one of them is blown away by the building.” In fact, it often sparks dialogue around sustainability—they see the cisterns and the solar panels, and they start to understand the landscape and its different biomes. “It’s been a powerful tool,” she says. “You don’t have to say a lot if you can just teach somebody to look around and take it in.”

The ultimate hope is that the Center will inspire a community commitment to sustainability and conservation in this thoughtfully restored area that would otherwise remain barren. “Our mission is to nurture the nature of Arizona. That’s what we do,” says Mosby. “And we feel like this building is an integral part of that mission. . . . It all fits together. You can’t pull one thing out without affecting everything else.”

A 28,000-gallon cistern captures approximately 90,000 gallons of rainwater annually for irrigation.