Charged with the hefty job of rescuing and rehabilitating sea lions, seals, dolphins, and other creatures found along California’s coast, Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center needed a better facility than the aging hodgepodge of modified freight containers, small outbuildings, and eroding pipes the center had used since its opening in 1975.

After several years of planning and construction, the Marine Mammal Center recently opened its doors to a renovated first-class facility that not only integrates people and animals, but also shows creative reuse of its unique location.

Built on a decommissioned Nike anti-aircraft missile launch site and surrounded by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the nonprofit center inherited a mild climate, limited water supply, and two 3,000-square-foot underground missile silos.

Rather than abandoning the empty, buried silos as some suggested, the project’s designers, Noll & Tam Architects and Scott Dennis Architect, converted one of them into a research library that holds frozen organic specimens and is conveniently located underneath the research lab.

The second silo now houses state-of-the-art equipment that cleans and reuses up to 200,000 gallons of fresh and salt water at a time. In comparison, the center’s old facility could handle only 43,000 gallons of water. Employing salt-water brining, backwash recovery, and solar-powered processing equipment, all of the center’s water is reused with the exception of water that is lost to evaporation or used for cleaning.

The center’s dense animal population means that the system constantly has to churn and clean water, a feat that consumes both energy and money. To help offset the nonprofit’s power hunger, the architects fitted uniquely designed pens with 7,000 square feet of photovoltaic shade panels. The panels not only generate 18 percent of the center’s total power but also help cool the animals and their pools, thus conserving energy otherwise needed to chill the pool water. The shade panels also help conceal lamps that may otherwise confuse migratory birds flying over the area at night.

Credit: David Wakely

Although animals are the main focus of the Marine Mammal Center, its staff, volunteers, and 100,000 annual visitors weren’t forgotten in the new design. Exterior shaded walkways line the center’s three buildings, visually echoing the solar arrays over the animal pens and keeping much of the circulation outdoors while providing shade from the sun and shelter from fog and rain. Indoors, concrete floors allow for easy maintenance and cleaning, and radiant heat flooring offers warmth in cooler weather. The interior spaces also boast operable windows, ceiling fans, and ventilated skylights, increasing occupants’ control over the interior climates. After all, if the doctors are comfortable, the patients—even the whiskered kind—can’t be far from comfort too.

Originally crafted to house missiles but now home to a variety of animals, The Marine Mammal Center upgrades its water and energy systems