Category Archives: Texas Study Tour

Texas Study Tour: 2-11 January

Advanced Earthen Construction Technologies

Lawrence Jetter of AECB demonstrating a compression machine.

Location: 11595 S US Highway 181 San Antonio, TX 78223
Description: Founded in 1989 by Lawrence Jetter, Advanced Earthen Construction Technologies (AECT) manufactures equipment for the earthen construction industry. It specializes in portable compressed earth block machines, which are designed and built in-house.
Company was founded with the intention of re-establishing compressed earth block & adobe as the primary building material used around the world.
CEBs can be used to structurally support buildings up to two stories without supplemental bracing.
Soil has an insulation R-value that is unmatched by all other conventional building materials, although the system may not account for all of the qualitative benefits of CEBs.
Self-contained nature of the machines is intended to increase logistic and economic efficiency.
Earth block machines come in three separate sizes: 2001A, 3000, and 5000.
According to AECT’s website, the average rate of block per hour for each machine are: 5000 – 800-960 blocks, 3500 – 480-500 blocks, 2001A – 290-300 blocks.
Machines run on standard diesel engines, which are fully compatible with biodiesel.
The US military recently purchased portable compression machines from AECT, with the intention of developing an alternative to tent deployment.
Company adapts to the needs of its customers, responding to feedback regarding construction methods, curing times, and structural issues.
Conclusion: Mr. Jetter was perhaps the most engaging speaker with whom we had the opportunity to meet during the tour, and his passion for his industry was palpable. So, too, was his criticism of architects and engineers who have failed to embrace earthen construction technologies more widely. The problem, I would argue, is more one of awareness than conservatism (resistance to change). There does seem to be a stigma attached to earthen construction, however, which companies such as AECT are tirelessly working to dispel with their high quality products.

Lake|Flato Architects

Desert House in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by Lake|Flato Architects.

Location: 311 3rd St San Antonio, TX 78205
Description: Established in 1984, Lake|Flato is a commercial, residential, and prefab architecture firm that emphasizes sustainable design in projects that conserve resources and integrate seamlessly into the natural environment. Based in San Antonio, the firm has gained national recognition for its unique approach to designing for place.
Medium size firm with ~50 in-house designers.
Although Lake|Flato began with residential, the firm now serves commercial and public clients, as well.
In-house sustainability coordinator is consulting in the pre-planning phases of every project.
Post-occupancy sustainability monitors provides design feedback, which can be effectively utilized for future projects and revisions.
Assessments are derived from live web monitoring system, eMonitor, in addition to qualitative feedback from client.
By integrated sustainable principles into every step of the design process, the finished product is more organically sustainable than might otherwise be achieved.
Prefabricated housing division aims to produce houses that are modern, environmentally friendly, and economical.
Conclusion: We were treated with something more than a tour with Lake|Flato; rather, we were enveloped by their company culture, which was marked by a number of sustainable characteristics. A significant portion of the employees commute to work via bicycle, and they advocate for a cycling culture in the San Antonio area. The office itself is an example of adaptive reuse, converting an old car dealership into a remarkably intimate studio space. We also had the opportunity to meet with the firm’s in-house sustainability consultant, who was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about her work. I found Lake|Flato’s approach to sustainability to be very refreshing, and I would hope their model is being adopted by firms throughout the industry and beyond.

Build San Antonio Green

Build San Antonio Green front office.

Location: 118 Broadway St San Antonio, TX 78205
Description: Build San Antonio Green (BSAG) is San Antonio’s residential Green Building Program, developed specifically for San Antonio. In official partnership of several government and stakeholder organizations, the program operates as a fully autonomous non-profit organization. Similar to other green building programs, there are multiple levels of certification, based on conventional construction trends and the requirements of municipal building code. As the organization deals exclusively with residential construction in the San Antonio area, checklists include numerous hyper-local and site specific criteria. A diverse range of clients includes design/build architecture firms to large-scale home builders, including KB Homes. The program seems readily adaptable to other markets, and one would hope that a similarly blended global and local building code will be adopted in major urban areas throughout the United States.

Slow Food South Texas

Slow Food community garden at Lamar Elementary School.

Location: 201 Parland Pl San Antonio, TX 78209
Description: Slow Food South Texas is San Antonio’s local chapter of the international Slow Food movement. Found and current chapter president, Susan Rigg, met with us at Lamar Elementary School’s community garden, sponsored by the organization. She explained to us that her primary motivation for starting the local chapter was to disseminate knowledge about urban agriculture and gardening. However, Slow Food South Texas differs from other organizations in that it is “culinarily driven.” That is, edible plants are selected to be grown and harvested for the purpose of cooking. As a consequence, volunteers (both adults and children) learn about seasonality and the growth cycles of staple crops—essential knowledge that has been lost in recent generations. The phrase “community garden” is often synonymous will neglect and disrepair, but through integration of the garden into school curricula, encouraging parent involvement, and emphasizing the culinary arts, Slow Food South Texas has revivified the concept into a more sustainable social venture.

Palo Alto College

Location: 1400 W Villaret Blvd San Antonio, TX 78224
Description: Palo Alto Community College is a member school of the Alamo Community College District, which serves the greater San Antonio area. Our cohort had the opportunity to meet with Professor Stephen Colley, who develops certificate programs for the continuing education division of the college. The courses are designed to provide vocational and trade skills to pupils, all from various disciplines in the field of sustainability. In some cases, these programs cater to the needs of the job market, as has been the case with natural gas exploration and hydraulic fracturing, as well technological developments in residential and commercial construction. What is perhaps most inspiring about the programs is that they are open to all interested parties, irrespective of their educational background. Such offerings are essential to improving public awareness and education, as well as vocational “green collar” jobs, in the name of sustainability.

FKuR Bioplastics

Location: 921 W New Hope Dr Cedar Park, TX 78613
Description: FKuR Kunststoff GmbH is a German corporation specializing in the production of biodegradable plastics primarily made from natural resources. In concert with the Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT, Oberhausen, FKuR has developed a number of plant-based alternatives to the traditionally petrochemical based plastics used more widely throughout the world.
All products are either derived from renewable resources or are biodegradable.
Bioplastics can be converted using conventional plastics processing machines and methods such as injection moulding, extrusion, co-extrusion, thermoforming, blow moulding, injection blow moulding, lamination, extrusion coating, sheet extrusion, profile extrusion.
Most feedstock sources are also high produces of ethanol, such as maize, sugar, and palm.
Trade-off of compatibility vs. biodegradability must often be negotiated.
Most bioplastics carry a slight premium over their comparable petrochemical based plastics. For this reason, high-end retailers have been the first to adopt.
Intensive lobbying efforts from all corners of the plastics industry for competitive advantage.
FKuR argues that plastics are essential, and that bioplastics provide an environmentally responsible solution.
Conclusion: Our visit to FKuR provided unique insight into an industry that is often derided for its environmental irresponsibility: plastics. A skeptic might be inclined the question the extent to which the prefix bio-, in the case of plastics, truly equates to a more sustainable lifecycle. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that FKuR’s standards are quite stringent, requiring all products to be either plant-based or biodegradable. My chief concern, however, was with the “plant-based” descriptor, which may occasionally indicate rather unsustainable sourcing. Unfortunately, many of the feedstocks most conducive to bioplastics production are also used for ethanol and food production. While I applaud FKuR’s industry leadership and innovation, it will be interesting to see what alternative feedstock sources are discovered in the coming years.

Sustainable Food Center

Sustainable Food Center

Location: 1106 Clayton Ln Austin, TX 78723
Description: Founded in 1993, the Sustainable Food Center is a multi-faceted non-profit organization that advocates a healthy local food system. The extent of their mission is elucidated on their website, which states: “SFC creates opportunities for individuals to make healthy food choices and to participate in a vibrant local food system. Through organic food gardening, relationships with area farmers, interactive cooking classes and nutrition education, children and adults have increased access to locally grown food and are empowered to improve the long-term health of Central Texans and our environment.”
Launched Austin Farmers’ Market in 2003, which today has locations in Downtown, Sunset Valley, and The Triangle.
Provides grants and volunteer support to community and school gardens.
Advocates for organic gardening, and aggregates resources appropriate for such efforts in the Central Texas region.
Works to improve the quality and sourcing of cafeteria foods (school & work).
Operates the Happy Kitchen, a theory-based cooking and nutrition education program that “aids individuals and institutions in making lasting dietary and bahavioral changes.”
Partners with local schools to incorporate food systems education into the curriculum.
Conclusion: The Sustainable Food Center is an example of a non-profit organization whose impact is as broad as its scope. As one of the oldest organizations with whom we met, it was clear that the breadth of infrastructure and purpose has developed slowly over time, growing with its surrounding community (and its needs). The Happy Kitchen program, for example, arose from the need to educate communities on the importance of healthy eating; that nutritious meals need not come at a premium. I would curious to see how well the initiative of SFC would scale to the state or even federal level, as most of them seem readily adaptable to food systems of any size.