If someone asked you to guess the location of W Hotels’ new location and told you it was part of a mixed-use project that encompasses a night club and luxury condos, all of which combine to form the largest mixed-occupancy venture in the region to achieve LEED certification, you would probably guess California or New York or maybe Washington. But you would be wrong. It’s in Texas. In Austin, specifically—arguably the state’s most culturally diverse city. The project is known as Block 21, and its architect, Andersson-Wise Architects, also calls the city home.
Located in Austin’s Central Business District, the LEED Silver Block 21 is a one-million-square-foot building that houses 251 guest rooms for the W Austin Hotel, 159 luxury residential units as part of the Residences at W Austin, and 2,700 seats for Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, plus restaurants and bars, a spa, and retail and office space.
Opened in 2011, the project has raked in awards for its beautiful design, completed in collaboration with BOKA Powell, but it also has made a substantial splash in regard to sustainability. Block 21 is both the largest Austin Energy Four-Star rated project and, at the time of certification, the largest mixed-use LEED for New Construction-certified building in the state of Texas. The design firm, which principal Arthur Andersson says takes a “pragmatic approach” to sustainability, has employed green technology before, but never on this scale.
Block 21 doesn’t leave much to be desired, environmentally speaking. The urban site, a former parking lot that eventually was deemed a brownfield, was developed with low-impact strategies, and the building features recycled-content, regionally sourced and manufactured, and low-emitting construction materials. Low-flow fixtures have resulted in 30 percent reduced indoor water use compared to code, representing an annual savings of 2.4 million gallons. Such success is never attributable to a single person, but according to Andersson-Wise principal Chris Wise, one woman in particular played a crucial role when it came to performance.
Gail Vittori, codirector of the nearly 40-year-old Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (CMPBS), a nonprofit that specializes in life cycle planning and design, was brought in as a consultant on the project. “Early on, it was clear that Block 21 would raise the bar on green, urban, mixed-use buildings,” says Vittori, who runs CMPBS with husband and architect Pliny Fisk III. “CMPBS’s role was to help establish a vision for the project and to work with the teams in place and the owner to create clear goals around the building’s performance. This is something we’re still working on because it goes beyond the design of the building; it’s about operating green as well.”
Unlike Vittori, for many working on the team, Block 21 was their first LEED project and at just more than a million square feet, it was an undertaking, requiring collaboration every step of the way. Vittori was critical to that process. “Getting Gail involved was the first collaborative step,” Wise says. “She was the go-to sustainable expert, and we were there to listen. When you do a project like this, it takes thousands of people to make it a reality. The design team alone had hundreds of people. You have to be able to listen and know how to collaborate.”
Andersson says the project also was a collaboration with the environment and the “reality of the site.” One block south of Block 21 is Lady Bird Lake, and the site is often hit with breezes traveling all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, which can change the temperature substantially depending on the season and time of day. According to the architect, taking the location and this variability into account did more than benefit the performance of the building—it also inspired the team.
Keep Austin Genuine
Andersson-Wise wanted its approach to the design to unfold organically, but as is the case with any major brand, there were design requirements in place by Starwood Hotels, the company that owns W Hotels. Andersson recalls being handed a three-inch-thick packet of design-style guidelines that in some ways missed the mark for Austin. “Unless you’re from here, you won’t understand that the goal isn’t to be zany just for the sake of it,” he says. “There’s the whole ‘keep Austin weird’ thing, and that’s more about keeping things genuine. Anything that seems contrived or manufactured to look or be interesting won’t go over well.”
Much of what Andersson-Wise did was riff on the requirements the hotel company had in place. Andersson says that there was a lot of talk about the “experience” of going to a W Hotel—that moment when you go from the outside to the inside. Because of this, there was a great deal of importance placed on the hotel’s entrance. “What better way to illustrate the transition from outside to inside than a modern interpretation of nature?” Andersson says of the final concept. “What we did looks modern, but it was inspired by nature. For example, near the entrance of the hotel there’s a screen that dapples light, sort of like a filter. That was inspired by Lady Bird Lake’s running trail, the way the light dappled through the leaves of the cypress trees as you run under them. We thought it was a creative, new way to approach the entrance.”
Given the site’s incredibly humble beginnings as a contaminated brownfield, its transformation to Block 21 is all the more impressive. And it’s one of Andersson-Wise’s proudest achievements. “You always want to leave things better than they were when you came in, and we achieved that,” Andersson says. “Yes, the space is beautiful and glamorous and all of those things. But it’s also simple and smart and makes the most of its natural surroundings. It’s the best of both worlds, and we’re really proud to have been a part of it.”