Bercy Chen Studio
Location: 1111 E 11th St Austin, TX 78702
Description: Bercy Chen Studio LP is an architecture & urban planning firm founded in 2001 by partners Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen, both graduates of the University of Texas at Austin. The company has design/build capabilities, which allows for comprehensive sustainability auditing at each step in the production stream.
+ Firm has received numerous awards/honors for its sustainable design, including the Green Good Design Award (2009), Asian American Resource Center Competition (2006), and Urban Reserve Competition (2005).
+ Collaborates with both the public and private sectors.
+ Specializes in adaptable roof systems, including “conventional” green roof systems.
+ Designed and built numerous mixed-use projects.
+ Inspired by indigenous solutions to environmental problems.
+ Developed a proprietary planted-roof system, which more seamlessly integrates a water-barrier membrane.
+ Is a registered photovoltaic contractor with Austin Energy (i.e., installs solar panels in-house).
Conclusion: The first of the architecture firms with whom we met, Bercy Chen revealed the extent to which such organizations are integrating the principles of sustainability into each step of the design process. Ideally, such a workflow results in a final product with more organic cohesion; sustainability is woven into the project, rather than supplemented as an afterthought. Consequently, it’s difficult to extricate individual elements of sustainability from a self-evidence design philosophy. Should this not be the new paradigm, or could it perhaps prove detrimental to broader efforts of raising awareness?
Location: P.O. Box 704, Austin, TX 78767
Description: TreeFolks is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization based in Austin, Texas. According to its website, it “grows the urban forest of Central Texas through tree planting, education and community partnerships.” It provides classes and workshops to educate the public at-large on the importance of tree stewardship, particularly in the urban environment.
+ Has planted tens of thousands of trees since its founding in 1989.
+ Targets specific areas of need, including schools, retirement homes, housing projects, public medians, residential right of ways, community gardens, parks, preserves, and green belts.
+ Operates a staff of four, led by Executive Director April Rose (with whom we met).
+ Emphasizes the importance of planting native trees which are adapted to the climate of Central Texas.
+ Through the CommuniTrees project, TreeFolks issues grants to volunteer projects in local communities.
+ The NeighborWoods project attempts to reinvigorate communities at the hyperlocal level, while also reducing the urban heat island effect.
Conclusion: Advocating for the preservation and propagation of trees in the urban environment is certainly not a new concept, nor is it one that is particularly controversial. TreeFolks is, however, much more than an advocacy organization, promoting its cause through a handful of clever and innovative programs. The NeighborWoods project, which targets at-risk communities through the solicitation of tree stewardship pledges, perfectly embodies the tenets of social and environmental sustainability.
Location: 721 Barton Springs Rd Austin, TX 78704
Description: Austin Energy is the public utility providing electricity to a 421 square mile area that includes the City of Austin and surrounding communities in Travis and Williamson countries. In 1991, the company launched the nation’s first green building program, which is still in operation after 20 years. Since its inception, it has rated almost 10,000 homes, and claims to have saved over 53.6 million kilowatt hours of electricity.
+ Assists in planning and administering Austin’s Climate Protection Plan.
+ Aims to achieve an 800MwH reduction in electricity consumption by 2020, based on projected growth.
+ No rate increase has been instituted since 1994.
+ Incentives for small/medium business customers who are able to reduce their consumption.
+ High consumers are charged more per kilowatt hour, rather than less (as is typical in most markets).
+ Performs an energy audit upon sale of all residential and commercial property.
+ Austin is one of the few cities that requires an energy audit for buildings from all sectors.
+ Green Building arm acts not merely as a rating agency, but also as a consultancy.
+ Ratings began with residential, but are now applicable to multifamily and commercial, as well.
Conclusion: While it might at first seem unusual for a city’s green building initiative to be maintained by its electricity provider, Austin Energy’s depth of infrastructure proves particularly conducive to these purposes. Rather uniquely, it has the capacity to monitor energy usage at all stages, from production to consumption. Coordination with the city’s code compliance department means that it is able to quickly translate its initiatives into law, resulting in a more reactive/dynamic market.
Ronald McDonald House Charities of Austin
Location: 1315 Barbara Jordan Blvd Austin, TX 78723
Description: The Ronald McDonald House has been in operation in the Austin area since 1985, providing lodging and support services to families of critically ill and injured children. It continues this mission in its newest facility, the Healthy House for Healthy Children, completed in 2007 as part of the Mueller Development.
+ Certified LEED Platinum by the USGBC in 2008.
+ 30 suites available to families of the critically ill and injured children.
+ Situated on a site previously classified as a Brownfield.
+ Features a Green Roof system that reflects heat and reduces the urban heat island effect.
+ Controlled reflectivity of building materials and diffuse lighting reduces light pollution.
+ Xeriscape and native landscaping reduces the amount of water needed for irrigation.
+ 54 photovoltaic solar panels provide clean energy to the campus.
+ Majority of building materials produced or procured within a 500 mile radius of site.
+ Low VOC materials used throughout the construction and ongoing maintenance of facilities.
+ Low flow and high efficiency water fixtures reduce water consumption by up to 30%.
Conclusion: The Ronald McDonald House Charities of Austin & Central Texas campus provides valuable insight into the benefits of sustainable design to a non-profit organization. While the initial construction of the facility may have been at a slight premium over a conventional (and less sustainable) design, the long-term operational cost savings compensate handsomely. Apart from the “green design” element of the site tour, however, I was struck by the numerous examples of social sustainability. The home cultivates a unique sense of community among its temporary residents, promoting social interdependence and psychological wellness. It was also apparent that the House actively engages with its surrounding community, raising awareness through action, rather than advertisement. Indeed, it was these social aspects that I found to be the most enlightening, although it’s also wonderful to see non-profits leading charge for operational efficiency and innovation.
Location: 4477 S Lamar Blvd Austin, TX 78745
Description: Self-described as a “smart home improvement store,” TreeHouse is a big-box retailer serving environmentally conscious customers in the Austin area. It claims to have the widest selection of non-toxic and “smart” products in Central Texas.
+ Retail location occupies 25,000 square feet in the West Gate Shopping Center.
+ Products divided into 17 different categories, from Outdoor Living to Air Quality.
+ Education stations in each department help customers to make more informed (and conscientious) purchases.
+ TreeHouse’s “Product Filter” is used to screen all available goods in the store, based on four criteria: health, performance, sustainability, and corporate responsibility.
+ The “Idea Center” provide further opportunities for demonstration products and the sustainable concepts behind their design.
+ Unusual for a home improvement store, TreeHouse also has a cafe serving Fair Trade & organic Progress Coffee.
Conclusion: At first glance, it is easy to view TreeHouse with a healthy dose of skepticism—not for the claims made of their products, but rather for the long-term sustainability of their business model. Paradoxically, the same reasons that the store is especially inviting (open spaces, diverse/niche products, and gratuitous signage/displays) may prove to be the same reasons it struggles to achieve profitability. On the other hand, the owners may be rewarded for their ambition, having managed to adapt the familiar (and unsustainable) big-box model into a smart living store—attracting the casual/curious shopper at an unprecedented scale.
Location: 1127 Perry Rd Austin, TX 78721
Description: Sol Austin is a sustainable community of Net Zero energy homes in East Austin. Designed by KRDB Architects and built by Beck-Reit and Sons, the development attempts to balance financial and environmental responsibility, while fostering a sense of “micro-community” for its residents.
+ Distinctly modern homes are designed with passive efficiency in mind, such as open floor plans, high ceilings, windows, natural lighting, and insulation.
+ Centrally located only 3.3 miles from the city’s downtown.
+ All homes rated 4 to 5 stars by Austin Energy’s Green Building Program.
+ 100% electric and are Net Zero capable, having the potential to produce as much energy as they consume.
+ Prices start at $190,000, for homes ranging from 1000 to 1800 square feet.
+ Cost premium of 15-18% for standard construction.
+ Community emphasizes “site stewardship,” with a community park, sub-grade bio-filtration, joint access drives, quality outdoor spaces, and varied street setbacks.
+ Many mature trees on the site were preserved, and 150 live oak saplings were replanted.
Conclusion: Beyond providing multiple examples of Net Zero home design, Sol Austin also serves as a model for sustainable development. It’s modest ecological footprint is perhaps the ideal for future neighborhood development in the United States, encouraging the efficient use of space and resources. It would be interesting to see a project similar to Sol Austin that caters to a more traditional American residential design aesthetic, which could prove more accessible to the average homebuyer.
Location: 110 W Elizabeth St Austin, TX 78704
Description: Open since 1990 in Austin, Eco-Wise is a building and living supply store, specializing in “non-toxic Earth-friendly” products. Its showroom is split into two portions: one for building/construction and one for home/living goods, targeting a broad demographic of environmentally conscious customers.
+ Significant portion of the showroom dedicated to green flooring and countertops.
+ All wood products come from sustainably harvested or reclaimed sources.
+ Bamboo constitutes much of the “new growth” based product, along with natural oils from maize, flax, and linseed.
+ Countertops produced from magma, recycled paper & glass.
+ Supplies local companies such as Whole Foods with sustainable materials.
+ Section of the store dedicated to children’s green awareness and education programs.
+ Healthier living section features household products made from sustainable and non-toxic materials, such as clay, wool, bamboo, and organic cotton.
Conclusion: Eco-Wise is a store with a very distinct identity, perhaps reflective of its surrounding community and Austin at-large. It’s employees are clearly knowledgeable and dedicated to the “greater good,” of which their business plays an essential part. Unfortunately, this attitude may prove slightly intimidating or off-putting to the casual (or curious) consumer. Eco-Wise is not, nor does it aim to be, merely a green alternative to Lowe’s or Home Depot. Rather, it intends to be a local purveyor of Earth-friendly products, perhaps sharing some knowledge along the way.