Nature lovers in St. Tammany Parish, La., who enjoy meandering through magnolias and bicycling past bayous now have a new gathering place. The Covington Visitor Center marks the western terminus for the Tammany Trace trail, which straddles five cities between Slidell, La., and Covington, La. The popular trail is Louisiana’s only participant in the federal rails-to-trails conversion. In the early 1990s, St. Tammany Parish purchased part of the abandoned Illinois Central Railroad corridor and created a 31-mile (50-km) asphalt path to accommodate pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers, as well as parallel an equestrian trail. The parish remodeled railroad trestles into pedestrian bridges and ensured the corridor conserves wildlife habitat, wetlands and historic landmarks.
The trailhead is placed in a historic section of Covington, north of New Orleans. The city of Covington decided to reclaim an underutilized gravel parking lot as the locale for the visitor center. The 3,200-square-foot (297-m2) center provides a refuge and meeting spot for the more than 200,000 annual travelers on the Tammany Trace. The facility houses public restrooms, offices for the city’s economic development department, an indoor theater and an exhibit room that is slated to become an educational museum complete with a film component and interactive kiosks.
Outside the visitor center, the city planted 20 trees and Moso bamboo, as well as provided additional attractions, such as a 60-foot (18-m) campanile, amphitheater, bandstand and space for the local farmer’s market. The city hopes the site will draw people to a variety of communal activities and spur new business downtown.
According to Covington-based architect James “Randy” Aultman, AIA, capturing the essence of Covington as it was in the late 1700s was the goal of the visitor center's design. He also fashioned the architecture after the original 1888 train depot now located across the street. The area’s traditional construction techniques inspired the selection of materials. The building’s framing is yellow pine that was harvested and milled within 60 miles (97 km) of the center, and the walls are made of brick and stucco. According to Aultman, every surviving nearby building built before the Civil War was made of brick derived from surrounding mud. The brick on the visitor center follows this convention; it was mixed from local mud and manufactured and transported from within 50 miles (80 km). A stucco façade protects the underlying brick wall on the old train depot’s exterior, so Aultman applied stucco to the first few feet along the bottom of the center’s exterior walls to complement the depot’s appearance. The area’s traditional construction techniques inspired the selection of materials. Although there was no direction to build sustainable features into the $1.65 million project, a combination of connecting to the historical architecture, relying on common sense and Aultman’s professional background led him in that direction. “I was a landscape architect before becoming an architect and part of my early training was to be a good steward of the Earth,” he says. “The visitor center didn’t set out with a goal of being a green building, but everyone involved is pleased with the green aspects of the project.”
Because heat gain is a primary concern in southeast Louisiana, Aultman’s design placed a major emphasis on passive solar mitigation measures. Indirect light enters the space from many windows on the building’s north side, but the south face has no openings at all to keep out excessive heat and lower cooling costs. Aultman created 10-foot- (3-m-) deep covered porches that offer shade and used heavy-beam construction on the porch to act as a heat sink at night. Ceiling fans dot the interior and exterior spaces to move ambient air, which greatly improves comfort levels in extreme humidity. The roof has a slight slope and 42-inch (1067-mm) overhangs. The deep soffits let the lower-angled winter sun into the space for natural light and warmth but prevent the high summer sun from overheating the building.
Material for the center’s roof was a decision based on aesthetics and practicality. Aultman wanted the center to relate to New Orleans’ architecture, which offered two alternatives. After Hurricane Katrina, numerous homes were built with clay-tile roofing to help forge a connection with the area’s architectural past. Many original slate roofs on commercial structures in the French Quarter had escaped serious damage. The familiarity of slate was appealing but it is expensive, heavy and absorbs heat. Aultman did some research and was surprised to discover the sustainable properties and flexibility of clay tiles. He found a manufacturer that made clay tiles using the same basic process as Louisiana bricks. “They take the dirt, wet it, heat it, glaze it and that’s it,” Aultman explains. “I was impressed with the simplicity of the process. The tiles are recyclable and the water that runs off the clay tile roofs is clean; that also appealed to me.” Although not all manufacturing is the same, Aultman selected a clay tile that is prepared at a lower heat for a longer time, which makes the product less porous and more structurally sound. The durable tiles have a 70-year warranty and can withstand hail. KJ FIELDS writes about architecture and sustainability from Portland, Ore.
MATERIALS AND SOURCES
CLAY-TILE ROOFING / LUDOWICI ROOF TILE, New Lexington, Ohio, www.ludowici.com
BRICK / ST. JOE BRICK WORKS INC., St. Joe, La., www.stjoebrickworks.com
SPECIALTY GLAZING / DEPENDABLE GLASS WORKS INC., Covington, La., www.dependableglass.com
LOW-FLOW PLUMBING FIXTURES / AMERICAN STANDARD, Piscataway, N.J., www.americanstandard.com
OWNER / City of Covington, La., www.cityofcovingtonla.com
ARCHITECT/LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT / James R. Aultman, Covington, (985) 893-4371
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER / H & H Engineering Inc., Covington, (985) 893-2104
MECHANICAL, ELECTRICAL AND PLUMBING ENGINEER / Howell Consultants LLC, Mandeville, La., www.howellconsultants.com
CONTRACTOR / Spartan Building Corp., Madisonville, La., www.spartanbuilding.com