So you’re headed west to the mountains, and the 32-ounce soda you downed in Winston-Salem has finally run its course. If you can make it to North Wilkesboro, stop at the state’s first environmentally friendly rest area, the Northwest North Carolina Visitor Center. On Oct. 1, the N.C. Department of Transportation opened the center, located on the northbound side of U.S. 421 in North Wilkesboro.

The $12 million, 10,030-square-foot green rest area will recoup some of its construction costs through several energy-saving features:

  • Roof-mounted solar panels will preheat water for restrooms.
  • Day lighting will come from numerous large windows that will help reduce electricity needed for artificial lighting.
  • Motion sensors will turn off lights when rooms are unoccupied.
  • Increased insulation will help keep the building warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
  • Fourteen photovoltaic panels located atop the building will produce nearly 4,400 kilowatt hours per year. (A typical home uses nearly 12,000 kilowatt hours per year.)
  • A geothermal pump supplied by 13 on-site wells in a closed-loop system will heat and cool the building. The pump is expected to reduce energy use by nearly a third.
  • Rainwater harvested from the roof and stored in a 26,000-gallon cistern will be used to flush urinals and toilets.

In addition to features normally provided at visitor centers, such as parking for cars and trucks, vending machines and picnic areas, a walking trail loops the site. Benches and wood chips that line the trail come from trees felled during construction. NCDOT claims that because of these recycling efforts it was able to reduce the amount of waste sent to local landfills by 90 percent.

See live outputs from the rest area’s systems at