TPWD ‘walks the walk’ by using environmentally friendly building designs.
By Rob McCorkle
When the City of La Porte expressed interest several years ago in purchasing the old bank building on Main Street occupied by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff since the 1970s, the agency jumped at the chance to sell. The flat-topped roof leaked and needed replacing, quarters were cramped, and the poor insulation resulted in monthly summer utility bills that topped $600.
TPWD used $450,000 from the 2009 sale as seed money for design and construction of a new 7,500-square-foot, eco-smart facility located just north of Sheldon Lake in Houston. The building, completed in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 million, serves as the Texas State Parks Region 4 headquarters. It houses offices, storage and a large, state-of-the-art training facility used by TPWD personnel from state parks and other divisions. It even has a shower for TPWD’s first responders to hurricanes and other coastal emergencies.
“It’s so comfortable compared to the old headquarters,” says Justin Rhodes, director of state parks for the Gulf Coast region. “The building has lots of windows that let in plenty of natural light and has an open feel, unlike the traditional cubicles in La Porte. Plus, we love the savings in our monthly utility bills, that now average about $175 a month.”
TPWD regional parks headquarters in Houston.
TPWD received word in late 2012 that the regional facility had earned the state agency’s first-ever Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for its use of a multitude of cost-efficient and energy-saving “green” building features geared to a sustainable future.
The single-story structure features passive design that takes into account sun angles and natural light. Construction materials include insulating concrete forms (ICFs), heat-blocking low-E windows, a radiant barrier in the ceiling that achieves an R-35 rating and a metal roof that reflects heat, says architect Gordon Bohmfalk, head of the planning and design branch of TPWD’s Infrastructure Division.
Bohmfalk says the use of passive design elements and recycled brick, along with the later addition of solar panels to provide an alternative energy source, propelled the project into the gold certification realm. The solar panels, placed on pedestals behind the building, serve to shade picnic tables and walkways as well.
“LEED Gold addresses not only the way you site the building and how much you use recycled construction trash and building materials, but also how you minimize water use and utilize energy-saving features like ICF in the walls, radiant barriers and low-E windows,” Bohmfalk says.
Bohmfalk considers the Sheldon headquarters as the flagship of the agency’s still-developing green building design program, which has begun picking up steam in recent years.
The department first dipped its toes into the waters of green building and sustainability in 2004 when it opened the $7 million World Birding Center headquarters in Mission on more than 700 acres of former agricultural fields. The center, at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, recalls classic agricultural structures of the region and incorporates rainwater collection, passive energy-saving design, low-flow toilets and sustainable building materials. TPWD saw the headquarters project as a prototype for future eco-wise building efforts and as a way to educate the public about the growing importance of water and energy conservation.
Government Canyon State Natural Area.
TPWD revealed its next foray into the world of green construction a year later when the gates of Government Canyon State Natural Area swung open amid the limestone hills of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone just west of San Antonio. The project showcases the award-winning sustainable architectural design of Lake/Flato Architects of San Antonio.
The Government Canyon visitors center design includes a shaded, open-air pavilion and exhibit gallery, as well as an adjacent building insulated with recycled blue-jean material. The structures, built of recycled steel pipe, native limestone and eastern red cedar, feature corrugated metal roofs designed to efficiently funnel rainwater to collection tanks. Solar power pumps the rainwater into two metal cisterns for irrigating the butterfly-friendly landscape and for flushing toilets. Boardwalks made from sustainably harvested timber, leading from the parking lot to the visitors center, allow water to flow unimpeded through the site.
Mission of Conservation
At about that same time, TPWD architects were flexing their alternative energy and green building muscles during a major renovation of Sheldon Lake State Park’s Environmental Learning Center in Houston. Here, for the first time, TPWD employed a holistic approach to development that limited environmental impact, safeguarded water, stressed green building principles and promoted renewable energy through the use of photovoltaic cells, a wind turbine and geothermal energy.
TPWD’s embrace of green building and renewable energy has blossomed into a more comprehensive program in the past two years. The program is designed to reduce the agency’s energy costs and conserve natural resources while educating and inspiring the public to follow its lead.
“Our facilities are most often the first thing people see when visiting a state park, fish hatchery or wildlife management area. As such, they make an important first impression,” TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith says. “Anything we can do to ensure the facilities reflect not only the surrounding landscape but also our conservation mission is an important element of our stewardship of these special places.”
Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Bohmfalk and his staff, visitors to state parks and other TPWD facilities from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle will see that when it comes to energy-saving and green-building initiatives, the state’s lead conservation agency is not only talking the talk, but walking the walk.
“A principle we’ve adopted around here is passive first in design,” Bohmfalk says, “which means you design a building to shade itself from the sun and build a super-insulated envelope. Those are things that don’t involve mechanical systems that you have to operate. Water harvesting and solar power are part of the package. You also have to factor in the psychological aspects of design that create a more productive environment for workers.”
In addition to the precedent-setting Region 4 headquarters, Bohmfalk’s design and planning team is awaiting LEED certification for two recently completed green building projects: the Mack Dick Pavilion at Palo Duro Canyon State Park and a new Coastal Fisheries field office at Port O’Connor.
Mack Dick Pavilion at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
At Palo Duro, the handsome building on the canyon floor includes indoor meeting space and spacious shaded porches, reflecting a passive design that takes advantage of the shade and breezes while avoiding direct sun exposure. All openings are shaded, and a sophisticated mechanical heating and cooling system can be easily adjusted to account for small or large crowds, thus saving energy.
New Coastal Fisheries field office at Port O’Connor.
The Port O’Connor office sits on a peninsula jutting into Matagorda Bay. The need for a tight building site with an orientation that allowed sunlight to penetrate and heat up the interior challenged designers. The building also had to be designed and built to withstand hurricane winds and storm surges. The design team oriented the first floor as dictated by the geography, but turned the upstairs floor (housing office space) so it avoided the east-west exposure. The bottom floor, subject to possible flooding, includes a lobby, boat storage bays and a lab. Recycled materials, site sustainability and water conservation systems make the building a candidate for Silver LEED certification, Bohmfalk says.
At Fort Boggy State Park near Centerville, work is under way on a project that will incorporate a number of sustainable building practices. Plans call for constructing a new cabin (using insulating concrete forms), a camping loop, restrooms, a boardwalk and pavilion, and ultimately a rainwater collection system to supply a small pond.
The design team also has been busy with green building projects at Galveston Island and Sea Rim state parks, which have been undergoing extensive renovations in the wake of damaging storms. Both will include manager’s residences incorporating passive design such as single-sloped roofs and ICF walls.
Here Comes the Sun
Visitors to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department headquarters in Austin can’t see the array of solar panels mounted on the rooftop, but they can witness live renewable energy data being generated by the panels by scanning a set of gauges mounted on the lobby wall. They show the kilowatts currently being produced, how many kWh (kilowatt hours) of power have been generated and the amount of carbon dioxide avoided.
Solar panels on the rooftop of TPWD's Austin headquarters.
The $495,813 Austin headquarters project is one of 25 such solar installations at 17 TPWD facilities across Texas — from Fort Davis to Wichita Falls — and was the first such project completed, in early 2011. More than 400 photovoltaic panels work together to provide up to 92 kilowatts (kW) of power, the most powerful of the TPWD systems. Thanks to the solar installation, the agency is shaving roughly $10,000 annually off its energy costs. Additionally, TPWD has been able to take advantage of one of the best solar incentives in the country. Austin Energy, the city utility, is providing a performance-based incentive that will pay the agency for the solar energy it produces. TPWD expects to earn an additional $10,000 each year for 10 years through this incentive.
The smallest TPWD solar installation is a 5 kW system at Davis Mountains State Park, with most installations at about 20 kW. As an example, Mustang Island State Park in Port Aransas has a 20 kW system that produced 31,920 kilowatt hours of solar power in 2012, resulting in a savings of $2,075 and a reduction of 22.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions. Overall savings to TPWD from solar installations are difficult to predict, according to Bohmfalk, because power generation depends on the amount of sun each site receives.
Funding for the TPWD solar projects came from federal stimulus grants that provided for 80 percent reimbursement of eligible project costs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. TPWD will receive $2.9 million in reimbursements through the State Energy Conservation Office, says Andee Chamberlain, who is energy manager for TPWD’s Infrastructure Division and directs the solar grant program.
“Our solar installations not only generate renewable energy in keeping with the agency mission of protecting and conserving the natural resources of Texas, but also represent a considerable savings to the state parks operations budget,” Chamberlain says. “Typically, it’s best to spend money on energy efficiency measures first and then move on to more expensive renewables, but we decided to break that rule because of the one-time opportunity to obtain federal grant funds.”
TPWD’s executive director sings the praises of the agency’s design team as it continues to look for new ways to save money and support the agency’s core mission of conserving the state’s natural and cultural resources for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
“Our infrastructure team has made great strides in bringing new green building ideas and sustainable technologies to the design and construction of our facilities and surrounding areas,” Smith says. “It is gratifying to see their handiwork, from xeriscaping to rainwater catchment to rooftop solar arrays to the materials they use to construct the buildings themselves.”
Bohmfalk hopes one day to complete a system-wide study of energy use and energy needs to determine economically feasible ways to reduce consumption and conserve precious resources in a growing state. He notes that many TPWD facilities built in the 1960s and 1970s are in dire need of retrofitting to be more energy efficient or should be decommissioned so new environmentally friendly facilities can be built.
“I think some of these new projects are starting to get some real attention because now we have some ammunition that’s specific,” Bohmfalk says. “You can do the math and project the numbers out over the next 30 years and see that it makes sense. You realize it’s not just some fuzzy, feel-good endeavor — it really works.”