The transformation to sustainability
is continuing at the University of Texas (UT) campus in Houston.
This third in a series of articles picks up a little more than a
year later on the progress of the School of Nursing and Student
Community Center, a 190,000-square-foot addition to the Health Science
Center complex. As previously reported, an ambitious initiative
is underway at UT to include environmental strategies in its core
business and establish a model health sciences university for the
21st century with sustainability as one of its priorities.
The project is well underway with occupancy scheduled for late 2003.
The obstacles to success, though seemingly overwhelming at times,
have been largely overcome, beginning with an initial struggle to
convince a skeptical board of regents in oil-friendly Texas that
environmental initiatives were a worthy goal. That battle won, in
large part through the persistent tenacity of UT vice president
John Porretto, efforts next centered on building community and user
support. A town hall meeting, structured to carefully listen to
the concerns of each constituency, garnered broad acceptance. Additionally,
escalating costs in the Houston area and the inability to adjust
the budget upward necessitated finding smarter ways to accomplish
the projects goals. However, solutions were found to bridge
the gap between the program and the budget through innovative design
and trimming the fluff. For example, administrative areas that were
encumbering the budget were eliminated, resulting in a first-class
academic facility that benefits the students and the faculty rather
than the bureaucracy.
The next setback occurred in June 2001 when Houston suffered 25
inches of rain in a very brief period of time. The city had about
$4 billion worth of flood loss as a result of the storm, and the
university experienced losses in excess of $100 million. This prompted
a re-evaluation of the design to insure that the elevations were
at or above the 500-year FEMA flood plain designation. Brian Yeoman,
assistant vice president for facility planning and campus development
for the university, remembers the tremendous devastation that this
storm wreaked on the Texas Medical Center. We were well above
the 100-year flood point, which we thought was ample protection,
but what this flood told us was that we needed to elevate even farther.
Yeoman credits his design teamBerkebile, Nelson, Immenschuh,
McDowell Architects (BNIM) of Kansas Citywith keeping the
delays this setback might have caused to a minimum. It cost
us about $200,000 and three weeks in the schedule to make the changes,
but we had a design team who got even more clever in solving the
problems and further refined what we understood to be some good
responses to the sheeting of water and the natural systems
abilities to deal with water on this scale.
The design team faced other challenges during the design development
phase in trying to meet the performance goals set by the universityissues
related to such things as site development, natural ventilation,
daylighting and user-controlled thermal comfort. BNIMs Jason
McLennan remembers doing a lot of modeling and analysis in order
to help hone the envelope, glazing and the fenestration design and
seriously looking at material selection to assure they were meeting
their targets for the gold LEED rating the project is aiming
for. Similarly, they strove to far exceed common green building
standards in water use, energy reductions and recycled content.
(LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a product
of the U.S. Green Building Council and is a widely accepted rating
system for the design and construction of environmentally responsible
The team would actually like to be going for a higher platinum rating,
and Yeoman laments the few million dollars they are short for accomplishing
that goal. Going into the design development process we were
very fearful about what would hold up through the costing and were
gratified that so many of our ambitions held, he says. However,
if we had a spare couple million bucks wed get some renewable
energy grants and wed get LEED platinum. Also on his
wish list is a living machine, a water purification system that
uses plants and sunlight to treat wastewater to be reused for non-potable
uses. While its inclusion isnt possible at this time, the
architects have taken a long-range vision of what this building
needs to be throughout its entire lifetime and have designed systems
capable of accommodating pioneering technologies if grant monies
become available. The architects describe this building as a 100-year
facility, one that is flexible and adaptable over time so that theres
minimal waste and minimal churn expense as the building progresses
and ages gracefully to the century mark and beyond.
This longevity pledge is part of a larger set of principles established
by the client that are, in their words, non-negotiable. Another
that has guided much of the design development is the phrase light
belongs to the people, coined by Brian Yeoman. It is,
he says, a statement of our commitment to the idea of fairness.
It doesnt matter where you are in the organization, you have
certain inalienable rights to a quality work experience and a quality
interior environment that includes access to views and to daylight.
Were trying to give people the things that not only make them
productive but help to maintain their health and well being and
help them have a good time while theyre working here.
Naturally following on the heels of such an egalitarian approach
is the concept that the occupants who are actually going to be using
the building be intimately involved in its planning. First, contrary
to common practice, the building was designed from the inside out,
with user needs trumping all other considerations. A meeting was
held where people were given a toolkit of sorts with
some preliminary ideas, concepts, some materials and furnishing
suggestions to consider and do their own planning. The result is
a much more informed occupant who understands the process, the issues
and the consequences of the decisions that were eventually made.
The progress of the building is having an impact on people in the
design and engineering communities who look at Houston, in essence,
as a sin city second only to Las Vegas, NV, in poor air quality
and high building operating expense, etc. On Earth, an NRDC publication,
featured an article recently called The Silent Treatment
about the very close relationship between the petrochemical industry
and the medical industry and the rate of cancer that exists in the
Houston area. UT believes that its initiatives are changing some
minds as well as fostering interest in sustainable, integrated design
in the region. The School of Nursing and Student Community Center
has as its central theme a deep commitment to the notion that there
is an inextricable link between the built environment and health.
Theres also an RFQ out right now to build an Institute for
Molecular Medicine, a $120- to $200-million project. The university
has received 17 proposalsat least 15 of which are from the
worlds leading sustainable design firmsand many of them
have partnered with either Houston or Texas-based architects and
engineers who want to gain knowledge and experience.
Promoting environmental education is more than just a casual offshoot
of the project. Its deliberate and well planned enough to
be one of the innovation credits that the team will submit as they
go for their LEED rating. Yeoman and all those involved are justly
proud of their accomplishments and are eager to share their story.
They are fashioning a building that does represent the best that
sustainable design can be, and theyre doing it in a place
and in a style at a scale that is sufficient to make the design
community take notice. The real story is about a team of individuals
who share common principles, values and objectives and who insist
on a building that is a unique response to a universitys needs
and to environmental responsibility.