Of Houston residents drive alone to work
When people say that everything is bigger in Texas, they’re talking about Houston. As a city, it’s huge. By population, Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States with 2.1 million residents. By area, its 628 square miles nearly doubles New York City and triples Chicago. By economy, it has one of the healthiest in the nation, managing to grow even in the wake of the 2008 recession by creating more than 250,000 jobs between 2010 and 2013 and exporting approximately $300 billion in locally produced goods and services in that same time.
But Houston is also a city of sprawl. Historically, Houston has never had or imposed any formal zoning regulations, which has lent to the city’s tendency to expand outward rather than upward, and it has also limited the development of the same kind of city-center that many American cities take for granted. Houston does have areas of concentrated activity—downtown, Texas Medical Center, Greenspoint, Greenway Plaza—but there is less intercourse between these axes than there would be if they were developed under a more unified zoning system. As such, the automobile is Houston’s preferred mode of transportation with 72 percent of its residents driving alone to work using the metropolitan area’s 739 miles of highways.
Although Houston’s absence of zoning regulations reflects a tendency toward municipal self-reliance (a version of Texas’s often caricatured libertarianism), it is precisely this autonomy that has supported the City of Houston’s continued growth and vitality while legitimizing the roles that economic innovation and environmental consciousness play in articulating a sustainable vision for the city in the 21st century. In other words, Houston has power—power it can choose to use to green itself.
“There is an emerging recognition that Houston has the building blocks to be one of the most innovative, livable, equitable, and sustainable places in the nation,” says Houston mayor Annise Parker. “We are working to expand our leadership from oil and gas alone to sustainable industries focused on renewable energy, energy efficiency, green buildings, electric cars—the list goes on.”
Of Houstonians now prefer living in mixed-use areas
LEED buildings in Houston
Houston’s growth can’t be attributed to one single factor, but the recession-proof reliability of some of the strongest industries in the city—from health care to oil and gas to aeronautics—has been a major component for fueling regional job creation and economic stamina. Unemployment remained low in Houston through the recession and became one of the city’s brightest selling points, encouraging job-seekers to relocate to the city (Houston issued nearly 74,000 single-family home construction permits between 2010 and 2013), likewise contributing to changing attitudes regarding the way the growing urban population relates to itself and the environment.
These changing attitudes are reflected in research data from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which has been measuring economic and demographic transformations in Houston for the past 32 years. As of 2013, more than 50 percent of those surveyed preferred living in areas of mixed development versus single-family residential areas. This is up from 47 percent in 2007, and according to Houston’s sustainability director Laura Spanjian, who left the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in 2010 for the position, this is suggestive of a more comprehensive sea change. “Over the past five years especially, there has been a lot of focus not only on the economy, but quality-of-life issues as well,” she says. “There has been a concerted effort to make our city more sustainable and more attractive. People want more than just a job—they want to work for an innovative company in a green building and live close to where they work, eat, shop, and play.”
One development that favors urban walkability and community over more traditional suburban ideals can be found in Houston Heights, a historical residential district roughly ten minutes northwest of downtown Houston. Designed and built by Shade House Development, a husband-and-wife-owned team founded in Houston in 2005, Row on 25th is a nine-building row-house project that first broke ground in 2010, with the final two homes being completed this past spring. By pairing a streamlined, repeating architectural style in the homes with a heavy emphasis on connectivity, Row on 25th is representative of Houston’s evolving urbanism. “Every time we come out of a recession, the environment is different,” says Shade House co-owner Matt Ford. “People keep evolving, things keep changing. There are a lot of new people coming to Houston, and they come with their ideas. They see these pocket neighborhoods, these neighborhoods are affordable, and you get a critical mass of people thinking in a new way. It changes markets.”
The various green strategies of Row on 25th—foam insulation, natural landscaping, high-efficiency HVAC, reclaimed wooden flooring—further complement these evolving ideals. Ford, a long-time Houston Heights resident, sees a lot of homes being built in Greek Revivalist and Creole architectural styles and sought instead to build something forward-thinking that both respected the neighborhood and emphasized the optimism of changing lifestyle attitudes. “I think there was some trepidation when we were starting this project, but there was also a lot of confidence that we had made the right move,” Ford says.
With Row on 25th complete, Shade House is currently breaking ground on a similar development across the street, reinforcing the need and receptivity of intentionally planned residential micro-communities within Houston’s greater developmental context. In turn, this tendency leads to higher population concentration and a transformed market and creates interest for projects and programs that cater to these new population densities, such as the Houston Drives Electric and Houston B-cycle (bike-share) programs. The electric-car program is a municipal and public “electric vehicle readiness initiative” that brought 40 electric and plug-in vehicles to the city fleet and has saved 35,000 gallons of fuel annually. B-cycle stationed 200 bikes and 21 service kiosks in downtown Houston and its adjacent neighborhoods. “Our population is getting younger and more diverse,” Spanjian says. “Young people want to live close to where they work, and they want alternative transportation options, including more rail, BRT (bus rapid transit), and biking trails. The city is responding with 38 miles of rail to open in 2014, a just announced new BRT line, the launch of Houston bike share, and the passage of the Bayou Greenway, which will add 300 miles of new trails.”
Aside from some of these community- and transit-oriented sustainable programs, it is Houston’s building-related efforts that perhaps best emphasize the city’s relationships with its business partners and the way these relationships, in turn, allow the city to articulate the benefits of sustainability. The City of Houston has adopted a Green Building Resolution, which sets a target of LEED Silver certification for all new construction and retrofit projects. Thus far, the city has completed 20 LEED-certified projects, with eight more on the way. Houston is also a community partner in the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, committing 30 million square feet to reach a 20-percent energy reduction by 2020. Houston has already dedicated $60 million to energy efficiency by helping its 297 city facilities achieve energy-use reductions of 30 percent and saving more than 22 million kilowatt-hours per year.
Houston also has launched the Houston Green Office Challenge. This program orients more than 400 program participants to benefit from Houston’s Energy Efficiency Incentive Program while inviting building owners and managers to educate and improve their collective environmental performance. Presently, Houston ranks seventh on the EPA’s list of Energy Star-rated buildings (175) and fifth on the USGBC’s list of LEED-certified buildings (207), eight of which are LEED Platinum certified, including the new BG Group Place tower, completed in 2011, a project that represents Houston’s future as a denser, more vertical city.
At 46 stories, BG Group Place is the tallest building constructed in Houston in 23 years, and it capitalizes on proximity to transit options, such as Houston’s nascent Metro light-rail system, to support its sustainable cause. Designed by Pickard Chilton architects, the building draws its name from its lead tenant, BG Group, a British multinational oil and gas company. The lead developer of the tower is Hines Development, which also is headquartered in Houston and began planning BG Group Place in 2006. Hines looked at a group of underused buildings in the downtown business district as a prime opportunity to create an office center that was simultaneously iconic, sustainable, and accessible. “Houston, as a city, seems to be tending toward sustainability,” says Adam Rose, the general property manager from Hines Development at BG Group Place. “We understand that when we build a tower in Houston, or in any community, we are leaving a legacy. We hope that each will be an example of the best in all of us and certainly sustainable.”
BG Group Place’s most apparent sustainable features are also its most architectural. Described by some locals as “The Notch,” the tower features a five-story, 16,000-square-foot sky garden that begins on the 39th floor and cuts into the vertical form. Horizontal glass and aluminum sunshades flank the curved north and south façades of the building, reducing solar gain, and vertical shades on the west face reduce evening glare. A condensation-recovery system reduces building water demands, and floor-to-ceiling glass on all floors brings daylight to the tower’s interior spaces, the ground levels of which create nearly 12,000 square feet of mixed-use space, accenting the tower’s intended place-making function.
BG Group Place is connected to a Metro light-rail station—its most providential element. Construction on the 7.5-mile light-rail system began in 1991 after nearly 20 years of debate and was officially opened in 2004. Now, it currently has 38 miles of expansion under way, further supporting the city’s efforts toward increased urbanization and density.
Historically, Houston has been a healthy city due partly to the strength of its seated industries and partly to civic autonomy and self-reliance. Its economic strength, especially after the 2008 recession, has served to attract a younger and more diverse population that is, in turn, creating a market open to further public and private innovations. As evidenced by the work of private entities such as Shade House and Hines and the guidance of the City of Houston, the key is to look ahead for success, rather than trying to recreate what has worked in the past. “What will keep Houston on the trajectory upward is that we’re not just focused on what has made us strong in the past,” Spanjian says. “We’re focused on what is going to make us strong in the future.”