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Sustainability in Texas

Mr. Flato: We are kind of overlapping and working as an overall orchestra here. Rafael talked a lot about sustainability which is my subject is, as well. I may not get quite into as much of the technology so just assume that all of our buildings do all those remarkable things that his are doing. You know, I spoke with Larry a little earlier in the day and he had a completely different presentation that he was going to do.  So I was very blown away that you just tossed it out; it was marvelous.  I really appreciate it.

I am going to be talking about how sustainability comes home to Texas and I’ll give you some examples here in Texas.  I feel that it's an incredible opportunity we have here. In the past, we architects tended to focus on only inventing wonderful new forms. Now the direction, at least in terms of doing true sustainable architecture, is to let the environment and lead the way; to create architecture that is responsive to real issues.

The beauty of that is that you end up with architecture that's very particular to its place. That is something Mary spoke about earlier in the day, about what makes our world wonderful in terms of architecture is these unique places, Seville or Marrakesh or Rome or Venice.  All of these are very particular places. That is what sustainability is pushing us back towards; creating architecture that is unique to its particular place. You heard a lot about the different environments and ecosystems and beauty that we have in Texas.  But the beauty of Texas is this diversity and it screams for different responses when you're working in different areas.

It's fun to have the Philosophical Society together because we're all from different parts of the country and from Texas. You can very much appreciate the logic for having something that's particular to West Texas so that when you see that architecture you know you're in West Texas.  Or East Texas and that wet Piney Woods or south Texas and that scrub we get down there and the kind of architecture that really resonates in that environment or in this area of central Texas with our great, abundant limestone and great tradition of building.

Rafael alluded to this idea that sustainability really begins without the technology. Going back to what architecture was before central air conditioning and heating systems allowed us to ignore the environment.

This is the infirmary at Fort Davis.  I show this because of its immediate response to the environment.  It bellies up, first of all, against a cliff that is blocking the north winds.  It is one room wide so it allows for great cross-ventilation.  It has this great dog run that enhances that ventilation.  Then it's all covered in this great deep porch that allows the building to hide from the sun.  There is a lot to learn from older architecture.  This is one of the methods of thinking about the form and how you place buildings and how you embrace very typical issues of working with the environment.

The importance of material; sustainability is a lot about trying to deal with transportation costs. One of the beauties of thinking about materials that are grown locally or that are available locally is that the buildings then are very much of their particular place.  You can only imagine Fredericksburg all built out of limestone. This is a road cut, one of my favorite cuts out on I-10 that takes you beyond all the sprawl of San Antonio where you just get to nature and you see that beautiful limestone sliced through dead horizontal, kind of emphasizing the hills.  We have some remarkable materials at hand and some great talent at hand.  That is what sustainable design is all about, taking advantage of those things.

A third piece is thinking about materials in a really smart, efficient way.  You don't have to go back very far in our ranching, agricultural tradition to when people valued those materials a great deal. They were frugal and ingenious.

I love the upper right-hand corner shot, which is a shade structure that goes over cattle pens.  It's just light cable and sheet metal, but it created all the shade you need to work cattle. The slide in the upper left-hand corner is of oilfield pipe. Going out on ranches you see how remarkable people are about using that recycled material.  That is an example of a highly sustainable design that has been going on for a long time.  We just need to bring it back now and celebrate it. The lower shot is a metal shell structure, a classic agricultural form, but it is using material in a really thoughtful, efficient manner, spanning a big distance, also serving as the roof.

I'm going to walk through three projects with the intention of exploring three different regions of Texas and talking about how those sustainable buildings are very particular to their place and therefore, successful. Not only are they using less energy but they're also giving the feel like they could only have been built in that particular place. First we're going to go down to the Rio Grande Valley then go over to East Texas and then finally, in the medical center area in Houston; two landscape building opportunities and then finally, one right in the heart of one of the densest areas in Texas.

This is the World Birding Center, a Texas Parks and Wildlife project built adjacent to the Benson Wildlife Refuge that was a preserved area of tamaulipan scrub that you may know of.  The Rio Grande was once an incredibly vibrant ecosystem.  The river was flowing like gang busters.  Before we had many dams in place, you had a flooding system that encouraged some remarkable landscape, incredible habitat.  It still is an amazing place to go birding because a lot of birds are coming through that area.  But because a lot of that area has been turned into agricultural land, these precious places of that original scrub are extremely valuable and they're very important places to preserve.

We had this remarkable location of this great scrub but instead of building the visitor's center right there in that beautiful scrub, we built in the onion field, just that raw, open, depleted onion field.  We thought of the building very much as a way to start, to create some examples of how you could restore the landscape.  Also, because it's the visitor's center, it needed to create the opportunity for birding.  We needed to bring back that landscape and start to restore and mend this old onion field.

We built the buildings very much like how Fort Davis was done, where the main axis ran east-west, so very little exposure to the low-angle hot, western and eastern sun.  By doing that you also end up having a southern and northern exposure that you creates great light opportunities and great cross-ventilation opportunities. By doing a series of narrow bars you're also getting great balance of daylight, you’re getting light from both sides. I's an opportunity to create courtyards which are opportunities to have a new, vigorous landscape.  We built adjacent to the irrigation channel.  The tamaulipan scrub on this upper slide, off to the left.

The idea was to treat water as an incredible resource, as it is.  So we were saving the water off the roofs and collecting it in cisterns and using that for irrigation.  We're also using the irrigation channel to help us recreate the old flooding system that you get along the Rio Grande to create these garden opportunities that are flood irrigated: they flood and then they dry up for a week and then we flood them again.  By doing this, we started bringing back that landscape.

The amazing thing was that we created a habitat and because all our buildings were so close to that natural habitat, people had more time to spend in that habitat. They were in shade under these deep porches, they started noticing some wildlife that they had never even known existed there at the place.  There were two butterflies spotted in our little butterfly garden that they didn't even know existed in this area.  All that in a former onion field, very successful indeed.

Part of sustainable concepts is trying to mine your program for different opportunities.  In this case because it's a visitor's center we could afford to build less air conditioned space; to make circulation as an outdoor experience. As you're walking through the facility you're closely connected to the outdoors because that's why you've come to this place.  First and foremost, just building less conditioned space can often create more dynamic buildings.

We used this shell structure that was very efficient, it could span that entire width of these buildings and used very little energy. It also became the roof, as well as the structure.  We had deep porches and overhangs to protect the spaces beyond and dog rungs to facilitate cross-ventilation.  Because we had an east-west axis there was very little sun coming in, just great light and that connection to the outdoors.

The materials were harvested from nearby.  In this case, we used clay tile that came from that area and using the recycled brick and wood from the area. We used a completely different building system when we were in the scrub, away from the visitor’s center.  No concrete in here.  Resting lightly on the land.  We did what we called screw footings that were just auger piles that dropped down into the ground.  This is a hawk-viewing tower that's out in the scrub area.  We treated that scrub with something that it deserves, which was a very special and now very unique landscape along the border.

Now, going all the way over to East Texas, this is the Shangri-La Garden that is a 180-acre garden right in the center of Orange.  This is another natural area, but right in the center of a small town.  It's was a collaboration between the Stark Foundation and a remarkable science teacher that was there.

The lake was created by Lutcher Stark; it was a dream of his.  He called it Shangri-La and he built it in the 1940s, as I recall. He created a lake out of the wetlands and created a remarkable azalea garden and it was one of his great loves.  One winter it froze, there was incredible freeze, there was snow in Orange.  He lost his azaleas and it broke his heart. He basically left it to seed after that.

Well, the great thing about nature is it will take things back and it will start to restore things.  This lake became a heronry, an incredible dense heronry right in the center of the little town. We placed the visitor's center in this case as a transition zone as you come into the garden with the idea that locating large infrastructure should be placed in an area that has the least amount of impact on a site.  We created a courtyard and in the middle of the courtyard is a wetlands-cleansing system that starts to solve the problems with that lake and that heronry which currently is - or when we started the project - was oxygen-starved because it was carved out of the wetlands.  It no longer had a traditional circulation system.

Again, here with a great deal of celebrating the rain, we set up a system of collecting the rain, collecting it into a series of collection pools, cleansing that water and then turning that water back into the natural wetland systems.  The main gathering space is an outdoor room. A lot of the circulation system is outdoors, which also doubles as the gallery space.  You start to tell stories in open-air spaces again.  You're taking circulation and program and you're putting that outside. You're building less building with less footprint.

Then here is this water-cleansing system that is taking the lake water and running it through a series of polishing ponds or polishing cells and then returning it back to the lake in a clean state. The beauty and fun aspect of this project was that all of these sustainable infrastructure systems and solutions were very much apparent when you're in the building.  By the way, this is a platinum project, a high-star rating.  This is the only project in Texas, as well as the Gulf Coast, that's received this level.

The buildings out in the landscape touched the land very lightly, using felled wood from both Rita and Katrina.  Rita hit right as we were working on this project.  We took advantage of the problems, local problems, and used those materials.  Bird blinds were also built out of recycled wood.

Thinking about the transportation system on a place like this, we used electric boats rather than walking through the landscape so that we had less impact on the landscape.  We had these more remote facilities that are completely off the grid that are also built out of that felled hurricane material.

Finally, an urban solution here at the University of Texas Medical Center right across the street from M.D. Anderson.  The idea here is, again, to think about all the buildings around the one you want to build and how you can start to create a campus.  In this case it's the University of Texas Health Science Center. The nurses and the nursing administration on this project felt it was critical that the building spoke to their culture and the notion of a healthy building. This was a number of years ago, probably the first LEED gold building in the state.

The University of Texas, probably to Larry's credit, felt it was worthwhile to spend 5 percent more for a sustainable building.  That's about what it cost.  As opposed to these earlier projects where we could choose our solar orientation, here we had major challenges.  We had a very strong east and west exposure and a remarkable park adjacent to this building.  We had to think a great deal about the different skin systems, how we were going to get balanced light with low-angle sun conditions.

We thought a lot about all the facades, the roof. Because we had this remarkable park, we felt it was important that the park be the soul of the overall medical center, and that our building become the portal to that park.

It's a vertical campus, so we needed to create what would normally be a campus quad but in a vertical complex.  What we did was we created a grand dog run in the middle of the building that's an open-air space, like a great lobby, and put critical programming around it and then opened that out to the gardens.

We thought again about each facade with a different method to solve the different solar conditions.  On the park side we did vertical fabric panels that would block the low-angle sun when it crept slightly north or slightly south, and still bring in as much daylight as possible and open up views to the park. On the west side we used a perforated metal skin system, a recycled aluminum skin. We originally had a two-story brick building, so when we took that building down, we recycled all that brick.  The finished building was about 90 percent recycled material.

So we had these two skins, the perforated metal skin and aluminum skin that faces to the west.  The western views were not so incredible and it almost added to the impression of the overall medical center looking west.  Then looking east, there were the vertical fins blocking the light.  Then the grand dog run that runs through the space that allowed us to do what we call right sizing.  There was a request for a grand lobby, a huge space, but that would have required a large amount of air conditioning.  Instead we made it an outdoor space and made it an even more public space and then placed critical program elements around it like book stores and the cafe.  It became a normal campus quad.

We also thought about, which is a very important part of sustainability, how light would come into the building.  Rafael talked a lot about this and he's so right. I led off on this whole idea that low technology is the first way to do sustainable design.  The beauty is that you're getting buildings that are very particular to their place. You don't rely completely on technology to create buildings that use less energy, but you do use a great deal of technology in figuring out how light can enter buildings.  That's what these studies are.  What we found in a vertical campus is that we could get a lot of light from the different facades, but to really bring daylight, great daylight, into the building we needed to bring it in from above.  So we used a series of atriums, three atriums. Rather than just bring in traditional light through skylights we used a frosted glass system that was highly studied to get diffuse light, that better quality light coming into the building.  Bright light makes a dimmer area even dimmer.

In the spirit of wrapping up, many of us have been talking about the same incredible opportunity that we currently have. Buildings represent almost 50 percent of the energy use in the country. If you consider how many buildings we're always tearing down, how many new buildings we're building and how many buildings we're remodeling, the amazing thing is by 2050 two-thirds of our building stock will be built, will be new or have been touched by us. That means that we have an enormous responsibility to build buildings right.  Every time we build a building incorrectly, it will offset every building that we build well.

Sustainability allows us to have a road map for buildings that are very particular to their place and that are beautiful because of that.  Thank you.

speaker  mem flato Member and speaker Edward Flato, Principal, Lake|Flato Architects, San Antonio. Photo by member John Gullett.