A Game Changer for Houston Streets

Design Workshop

Houston, Texas
By Ingrid Spencer
August 05, 2014
Photo © Dale Horchner/Design Workshop

What began as a mundane plan to make standard improvements and install a 60-inch storm water pipe below Bagby Street, a 12-block planned commuter thoroughfare in Houston’s Midtown district, has become a model for balancing automobile needs with “livable center” elements that promote walkability, community, environmentalism, and private redevelopment. In a city with a famous 7-mile air-conditioned, underground mall, this project brings Houston back to street level.

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The City of Houston and the Midtown Redevelopment Agency (MRA) hired landscape architecture and urban design firm, Design Workshop, for the task. After a traffic impact analysis it was clear that here was a chance to shift the focus from moving cars to creating a pedestrian friendly corridor that could help Houston, a city with an ozone nonattainment classification from the EPA (meaning an area that does not meet the national ambient air quality standards for ozone pollution levels), take a step toward improving its air-quality standards. “What we saw here was a dilemma and a great opportunity,” says Design Workshop principal Steven Spears, “Walkable streets and moving cars don’t play well with each other, but we were tearing up the street anyway, and the MRA believed that meeting the status quo was not acceptable.”

With the support of the City and the MRA, the team adopted a strategy based on a detailed context-sensitive analysis that identified the essential systems needed for easy auto, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian mobility. The analysis framework looked at heat island effect, land use, demographics, crosswalk distances, irrigation, on-street parking, and human comfort, including light, sound, and wind analysis, historic and cultural patterns, walking distances, and tree health.

The resulting 12 blocks were reduced from four to two traffic lanes with periodic lane turns. The new plan transformed sidewalks by creating a human-scaled mix of natural and designed elements, with each block unique yet inter-connected by like materials, that include paved sidewalks, sculptural steel bike racks, and Ipe wood and concrete seating, and tree surrounds that encourage lingering and gathering. Thirty percent of rainwater is captured in nine rainwater gardens along the 12 block expanse that feature a proprietary blend of dirt specific to that purpose, along with drought resistant plantings. Historic live oaks were given better room to flourish, and those and other native trees will provide shade for 88 percent of sidewalks when mature.

LED lighting lines the street, with bright, modern signs revealing some of the science of the sustainability achieved. “People want to know that they are part of a community that is doing good for the environment,” says Spears. Facts to be touted include information about the fly ash concrete that was used throughout the project, resulting in an avoidance of 300 tons of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere. “That’s the equivalent of the carbon emitted from 12,500 automobile miles per year for 125 years,” says Spears. Each rain garden includes a monitoring well that has reported the removal of 85 percent of total suspended solids, 75 percent of bacteria, 73 percent of phosphorus, and 93 of percent oil and grease before leaving the rain gardens.

Local businesses that complained about the nearly four-year effort are grumbling no more, as people throng the area, and new restaurants, retail, and residential mixed-use developments continue to appear. As the first Greenroads certified endeavor in Texas and its highest scoring project to date, Bagby Street ignited a noteworthy change in Houston’s urban policy, marked by Mayor Annise Parker’s announcement at the ribbon cutting to issue a Complete Streets’ executive order. (A planning and design process put forth by the National Complete Streets Coalition to make roads more safe and accessible for all users.) “As Houston works to improve our environment and quality of life, it is vital to rethink our streets,” says Laura Spanjiam, director of Houston’s office of sustainability. While Bagby is a more rigorous example, other cities have adopted Complete Streets policies including Chicago, Baltimore, San Antonio, San Diego, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and New Orleans. And more municipalities continue to join the fray—Design Workshop is now working on a project to similarly transform numerous blocks in the Chinatown District of Washington DC.


Students Help with Green Home in New Caney

Posted in the Houston Chronicle on 11-12-2013. The original article can be found here.

A new home for green building is being constructed in Montgomery County.

The U.S. Green Building Council's Piney Woods chapter has joined with New Caney Independent School District to build a demonstration house, crafted from used shipping containers.

Students from the district's vocational training program will work alongside architects and contractors focused on sustainability to earn real world experience in the construction industry.

Once the project is complete, the public will be welcome to visit the energy-efficient - and cost effective - model home for ideas and inspiration.

Piney Woods chapter

Sergio Grado, owner of GradCo Structures & Homes, LLC a construction company specializing in "green construction," is leading the effort.

Nationally recognized as a "Graduate Master Builder" and "Certified Green Professional," Grado describes himself as a second-generation builder with decades of experience in the industry.

Grado had been attending meetings of the Gulf Coast chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council - but soon felt that there should be a group closer to home.

"I thought there needed to be a presence in Montgomery County," he said.

In 2010, Grado joined forces with Paul Vanderwal, a local architect focused on sustainability and Michael Martin, partner of law firm Martin & Stillwell, LLP, to organize the Piney Woods chapter.

"Our focus is to advocate and educate about sustainability," Grado said.

Still, the group lacked a home base.

"We came to the realization that we needed something that would say, 'The Piney Woods chapter is here,' " Grado said.

He decided that a showcase for sustainable development would be a perfect way to introduce the group to the community - and to create a place for the interchange of ideas on green building.

A shipping container home

Grado fell in love with a design by Costa Rican architect Benjamin Garcia Saxe.

He contacted Saxe after reading an article about his shipping container home.

"I asked if he would be willing to sell me the rights to build the design," Grado recalled.

Finding a place to build the project was more of a challenge.

Grado searched for community partners for two years.

"We could build it, we just needed a place to put it," Grado said. "We just wanted raw open land, and we would take care of the rest. I really didn't think it would be as much of a challenge as it was."

Earlier plans to move forward with Lone Star College and the city of Conroe fell through at the last minute.

"I was really pretty disillusioned," Grado said. "At that point, I was close to giving up."

Finally, he connected with the New Caney school district.

"Then, I guess luck struck," Grado said. "I went to a meeting and started presenting the project. Their eyes lit up. They saw the potential."

A win-win situation

Gary Yancey, director of Career and Technical Education at New Caney ISD, said the project will be a prime opportunity for students to practice carpentry and welding skills.

"We'd been looking for a project for a couple of years," Yancey said.

"This looks like a project that will benefit our students.

"The kids can take what they learn in the shop and get real world experience."

He said that the district chose a location that will be easily accessible to the public.

"I think this will be a win-win for both groups," Yancey said. "We're going to try to get everybody involved."

The Piney Woods USGBC Branch will pay for the project materials.

The group's members will also serve as mentors to the students.

"The building kids will do framing, drywall and electrical," Yancey said.

The students in welding classes will be able to join the shipping containers and cut openings in the metal walls where needed.

Construction is slated to start this month.

Bigger, better things

When completed, the demonstration home will showcase energy efficiency, recycling, water management and the use of readily available green products.

The home will be constructed out of two 40-foot cube shipping containers that are no longer suited for shipping cargo.

The building will be designed to function totally "off the grid," meaning that it will not rely on public utility services for power or water.

There will be solar panels for electricity, a composting toilet, a rainwater capture system and a thermal dynamic water heater.

The Piney Woods branch will seek LEED for Homes certification for the project.

Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design is a program that provides third-party verification of green buildings.

"We want to show what the possibilities are," Grado said.

The demonstration home will also serve as the office for the Piney Woods Branch in Montgomery County, and it will be open to the general public.

Grado hopes the building will inspire others in Montgomery County to make their homes green.

He said the home will also be cost-effective to build - and he hopes that nonprofit organizations focused on the demand for affordable housing will take advantage of the model.

"We're going to build it green, and it's going to be the start of bigger and better things," he said.

"The thing that excites me most is the potential this has."

New Caney ISD Students Building Super-Modern Home

Posted in the East Montgomery County Observer on 09-27-2013. The original article can be found here.

The Piney Woods United States Green Building Council (USGBC) Branch of Montgomery County has entered into a partnership with New Caney ISD to build a “green” demonstration home from used shipping containers. It will be the first of its kind built in the country.

When completed, the fully functioning demonstration home will showcase to the public the most energy efficient, affordable home features available, including energy efficiency, recycling, water management, and use of readily available green products.

The layout includes two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and a family room with closets for storage. Constructed of two 40-foot cube shipping containers no longer suited for shipping cargo, the demonstration home will be designed to function totally “off the grid,” meaning that it will not rely on public utility services for power or water.

New Caney ISD has a notableCareer and Technical Education (CTE) program. The Building Trades and Welding Technology CTE programs will be involved in the project.

Students in these programs will have the opportunity to improve their skills in carpentry and welding while working on the home. The Piney Woods USGBC Branch will pay for the project materials. The labor to construct the container home will be provided by the students, with branch members serving as mentors.

“We are excited about the opportunity to provide a real world project that will give the students hands-on experience,” said Gary Yancey, Director of Career & Technical Education of New Caney ISD.

He noted that the project would offer students an opportunity to apply the skills learned in the classroom.

The Piney Woods USGBC branch will seek LEED for Homes certification for the project. Upon completion, the building is planned to serve as the office for the Piney Woods Branch in Montgomery County, and be open to the general public.

The Piney Woods USGBC Branch members consist of engineers, architects, builders, indoor air-quality specialist, landscapers, builders, and retired veterans practicing sustainable building methods. It is an extension of the Texas Gulf Coast United States Green Building Council Chapter, from which the group derives a 501-C3 nonprofit status.

For more information on how to join the local chapter of the USGBC and become a joint member of the Houston Chapter and the Piney Woods Branch, contact the USGBC Central office at 281-506-3867 or

Membership allows residents to participate in the project.

Piney Woods launches Branch Home: It's a container!

Read Here to learn how we are building the mission in The Woodlands