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Houston Filmmakers and Actors: New building stands out amidst the Texas Medical Center's sterile architecture

Sunday, January 09, 2005

New building stands out amidst the Texas Medical Center's sterile architecture

Jan. 8, 2005, 7:09PM
New building stands out amidst the Texas Medical Center's sterile architecture
By CLIFFORD PUGH
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


Quick: Name a stunning work of architecture in the Texas Medical Center.

Don't be surprised if nothing much comes to mind.

The Medical Center has a history of tearing down significant buildings, such as the Shamrock Hotel, and putting up a hodgepodge of oversized institutional structures devoid of personality.

Of course, one might argue that the primary purpose of the renowned medical complex of hospitals, research and education institutions located about five miles south of downtown Houston is to save lives, not to create innovative, striking buildings.

Is it possible to do both?

Bruce Webb, professor at the University of Houston's Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, believes so -- although it's not easy.

"Most people's complaint about going to medical facilities is that they lack feeling," he said. "They seem to be facilities without compassion.

"(But) it's a hard thing (to push for good design) when everyone is angling for money and someone is using the argument that a particular material should be used because it's easy to clean germs off of."

The tug-of-war between good architecture and the bottom line makes the new University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Nursing and Student Community Center special.

In a sea of bland and downright inhospitable buildings, the $58 million structure, which opened to classes in August, is a jewel. It's visually appealing and friendly to the environment and the students who use it.

It's no wonder the building is winning design awards and attracting university administrators from across the country and around the world who are curious about its energy-saving features and starkly modern design.

At last, it seems a Texas Medical Center building has gotten it right, architecturally.

It all began with an idea
From the building's conception in the mid-1990s, UTHSC administrators John Poretto and Brian Yeoman, with the support of former president M. David Low, touted a novel idea: Since the university is in the business of promoting good health, shouldn't the building be healthy, too?

In 1996, UT officials sponsored an international design competition. The winner, Patkau Architects of Vancouver, British Columbia, came up with a design that met the high standards of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

Four years later, the project, stalled on the drawing board, was nearly scuttled after the Canadian architects and UT parted ways over costs and design changes.

Two firms were brought in to redesign the building. Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell Architects of Kansas City is a pioneer in sustainable design; its Deramus Education Pavilion at that city's zoo won an Earth Day award from the American Institute of Architects.

San Antonio's Lake/Flato Architects won the prestigious AIA Firm of the Year award in 2003. Its trademark, reflected in several Texas Hill Country residences and such commercial structures as the SBC Center in San Antonio, is designing buildings that blend in with the Texas landscape.

After winning the commission, the new design team, led by BNIM principal architect Steve McDowell and Lake/Flato co-founder David Lake, met for a brainstorming session.

The project site -- a sliver of land between the UT School of Public Health and tiny Grant Fay Park, at the intersection of Holcombe and Bertner -- presented the first challenge. Putting a large building on such a small site was "like threading a needle," said former UTHSC campus architect Rives Taylor.

To maximize space, the design team came up with the idea of a "stacked" community center, with six floors of offices, classrooms and research laboratories above two floors of student-friendly facilities, including a large lounge, cafeteria, auditorium and bookstore.

The eight-story building takes up most of the lot but doesn't overwhelm the surroundings, unlike the Taj Mahal-like new M.D. Anderson Ambulatory Clinical Building across the street.

Ingenious and sustainable materials
Lake/Flato took the lead in designing the exterior, composed almost entirely of recycled materials. Bricks from a 19th-century warehouse in San Antonio, wood siding made of sinker cypress hauled from the bottom of the Mississippi River, panels of recycled aluminum and columns made of Flyash (a recycled byproduct of coal-burning) fit together on the Holcombe Avenue side of the building like a giant Erector set.

The Bertner facade is wrapped in perforated, corrugated metal, with window cutouts peeking through like sleepy eyes. It faces west, so in the afternoon, the sun casts the silver metal facade with a golden hue.

Inverted L-shaped steel rods on the roof, which are intended to one day hold a photovoltaic system providing solar energy, lend a sculptural feeling to the building and add a playful note to the neighborhood.

The team from BNIM concentrated on interior design, and here the building shines. Most stairways, elevators and toilets are on the west side of the building, leaving the east side open to Grant Fay Park. Nearly the entire back of the building is windowed, allowing a view of the trees in the small park — yes, there are trees in the Medical Center — from just about anyplace inside.

Bringing the outside in
Natural light also floods the front of the building, via thousands of tiny holes in the corrugated metal. Even the core of the building — normally the darkest part of a structure — gets a lot of natural light, thanks to two large atriums.

Natural light even tumbles into the three major stairwells. Two covered outdoor stairwells and one inside stairwell that is open to the windowed exterior and to the building are so inviting that students often walk up or down a couple of floors rather than wait for an elevator.

"It's amazing that you can take the stairs and see sunlight and you don't feel you're in any danger," said Kim Nuñez, a 39-year-old nursing student. "Throughout the building, we can be inside and feel like it's outside."

Adjustable louvers, tensile fabric and heat sensors on the windows gauge how much light to let into the building, helping control heating and air-conditioning costs. Energy-saving features such as sensors that turn on restroom lights when someone enters also are expected to reduce costs.

In designing an energy-friendly building, however, the design team didn't forget the main mission of creating a first-rate, modern nursing school. The building contains 23 classrooms with the latest technical equipment, computer labs and a nursing-skills lab with 32 beds and robotic figures to practice on.

A few kinks to be massaged
Some bugs remain to be worked out. With ductwork under the floors instead of in the ceilings, the occupant of each work space can control temperature by opening or closing a duct, but complaints persist that the building is too chilly.

A much-touted system using recycled water also has left some users cold. Rainwater is captured in five 25,000-gallon tanks on the roof and is used in toilets and for irrigating the surrounding landscape. Some have complained of toilets that spout water on users and sinks whose water never warms up.

But such grousing seems a bit nitpicky. From top to bottom, the building is a tribute to good planning and execution. A lot of thought went into how to make an institutional building more welcoming.

Balconies are landscaped with native Texas plants and provide spectacular views. In many places, windows can open to let in fresh air. Orange sofas in the student lounge have no armrests, so students can stretch out for a nap. They can get into the building with a card at any hour.

On a wintry December day before final exams, several students camped in the lounge even though classes were not in session.

"It's a good place to study," said John Garcia, a 23-year-old junior nursing student who was prepping for final exams with fellow student Michael Vo, 25.

Such sentiments convince planners that the building will serve as a good recruiting tool.

"It's not just the quality of resources and the quality of education. It's the feeling of a place that is so very important in recruiting and retention," Taylor said. "This is about making a place that people want to be — a place that teaches by the way it is built."

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