This is the first in a series of articles about the sustainability movement in the Southwest. We start with Austin, where Paladino opened its newest office. Our next articles will focus on the state of sustainability in Houston and Dallas.
Paladino and Company opened an office in Austin, Texas last year, adding to offices in Seattle and Washington, DC. Geographically, Austin made a lot of sense as the location of our third branch — we now have a consultant that is only a drive or short flight from any of our projects located all over the country.
Texas is also in the middle of a building boom — Dallas and Houston were among the top three cities for new construction activity in the first half 2013, with Austin at number 15, according to Forbes.
But Austin is more than just a spot on the map or the cranes dotting the skyline. We‘re confident that Austin is the right place to be because, like Seattle, it has a longstanding and deep commitment to sustainability and green building. I earned my Architecture degree from the University of Texas in Austin and am excited to be back to run Paladino’s Austin-based practice, reconnecting with and learning from the incredible sustainability legacy this city has created.
Home Of the Original Green Building Program
Today, LEED is undoubtedly the best-known third party verified green building certification in the U.S., if not the world — but it wasn’t the first. Austin Energy, the city’s municipal utility provider began the country’s first green building certification program in 1990, serving as a model for the LEED rating system, as well as for other city programs including Portland, Denver and Scottsdale.
According to Austin Energy, today one third of all single-family homes and apartments built in Austin are Green Building-rated homes. Most of the new commercial and multifamily buildings downtown and in large-scale developments are Green Building-rated.
In 2012, Austin Energy announced that since the inception of the program, more than 53.6 million kWh of electricity and 65.8 million gallons of water had been saved, and 120,698 tons of construction waste diverted from landfills.
Barton Springs Sparks a Movement
If there is a single environmental issue that unites the hearts and minds of Austinites, it is arguably the water quality of Barton Springs, a set of four natural water springs fed by the Edwards Aquifer. In the 1920s, the City dammed the springs to create a large swimming area with sidewalks and a bathhouse, known as Barton Springs Pool. The water from the springs is a pleasant temperature year round and the pool is popular gathering place for Austin residents — it has even been called “the soul of the city.”
The fragile Barton Creek watershed is vulnerable to pollutants from road and lawn runoff and sewage, which can force the City to shut down the springs pool due to contamination or excessive algae growth. As more and more upstream development encroached upon the springs, residents became concerned about water quality and periodic closures of the springs.
In 1990, a group of citizens formed the Save Our Springs Coalition to fight a massive development proposal for the Barton Creek watershed, and prevailed after rallying over 1,000 people to speak in defense of the aquifer during a legendary all-night city council meeting.
The group is still active today as the Save Our Springs Alliance, and continues to work to protect the aquifer and the springs. Despite their landmark success, the conditions of the springs continue to dominate Austin’s environmental news whenever there is a closure. In 1993, it was discovered that the salamanders calling the pool home occurred nowhere else in the world, and, in 1997, the species was put on the federal List of Threatened and Endangered Species. The City changed its maintenance and cleaning practices to minimize harm to the salamander and established aquatic plants to improve its habitat.
Thankfully, Austin residents and the Barton Springs Salamander can swim together safely without harm to both species, and now 10% of the Pool admission fees go to a fund to protect and research the salamander.
Lady Bird Johnson’s Legacy
Former First Lady Johnson’s environmental legacy is deeply intertwined with the City of Austin’s sustainability history and its continued leadership.
Lady Bird Johnson, who was raised in East Texas and attended college at the University of Texas in Austin, is known as the “Environmental First Lady” for her commitment to the conservation of natural resources, which served as a catalyst for the environmental movement of the 1960s. She strongly believed that the beautification of our cities was linked closely with Americans’ health, safety and mental well-being.
The First Lady worked hard to secure passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which restricted highway billboard advertising, removed junkyards and encouraged the planting of wildflowers.
After leaving Washington, she returned to Austin and focused her efforts on Texas. In the early 1970s she led the Town Lake Beautification Project to revitalize Austin’s riverfront. The project resulted in the development of hiking and biking trails along the banks of the Colorado River that are a cherished and heavily used asset today.
Recognizing both the beauty and environmental impact of native plants, Lady Bird founded the National Wildflower Research Center on her 70th birthday. It is the nation’s first nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and re-introduction of native plants, trees and wildflowers into landscapes.
Renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1994 when it expanded to a larger location, today the center encompasses 272 acres, displays more than 700 native species and hosts a range of educational offerings for children and adults.
The Center is also a partner in the Sustainable Sites Initiative, alongside the American Society of Landscape Architects and the United States Botanic Gardens, committed to creating voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance practices.
Austin Today and Tomorrow
The city is under immense pressure to grow and yet protect its unique features, culture, and environment from being “anyplace USA.” You can’t read two sentences in the local newspaper without coming to the understanding that the city is grappling with conflicting viewpoints.
Local voices have come to expect Austin to show forward thinking with regard to urban planning that works with what makes Austin great, instead of finding ways to remove the old for the new. Recent projects have respected this sensibility. Among noteworthy developments is the Seaholm project that saves Austin’s historical power plant, creates a new urban park, and brings more residences to downtown. It’s a win-win mentality that shows what is possible when Austinites collaborate.
We at Paladino are excited to be part of the Austin of tomorrow that promises to become even a greater and more sustainable city. We look forward to the journey!
Brad Pease, AIA, LEED® AP BD+C is Director of the firm’s Signature Buildings Practice located in Austin