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Sustainability in the Summer Sun: An Austin Experience

Thursday, July 27, 2023 12:07 PM | Kevin Brock (Administrator)

By Jeremy Sigmon, LEED AP

It was 95 degrees outside, but USGBC Texas’s Central Region was cool inside Standard Proof Whiskey on Rainey Street.  Food, drink, and camaraderie were key in preparing for what came next: a Green Buildings, Boats, and Bats tour. I had planned a paddleboarding tour of Ladybird Lake to see Austin’s sustainable infrastructure (and bats!) from the water – and was committed to keeping everyone healthy and well with enough drinking water, life vests, and a green building buddy system. It worked.

As the sun began its descent, 30 building industry professionals marched a few hundred yards down the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail to a boat ramp to load up on seven giant paddleboards for the most unique event of the year.  At four gathering points in the middle of Ladybird Lake facing parts of downtown Austin, attendees were presented with facts, figures, and stories about nearly 30 examples of green design, development, and construction.  The end of the floating tour included a presentation about the Congress Avenue Bridge bats - America’s most popular bats and the world’s largest urban bat colony. The furry and friendly flying mammals put on quite a show, narrated by our guides in warm water flotation and thick algae circumnavigation: Boats & Bats Kayak & Paddleboard Tours.

Many thanks to Pfluger Architects for sponsoring the event and to Lisa Storer for co-leading the tour with me and filling in the gaps.  There’s so much to see and talk about within the viewshed of Town Lake that we just might have to host another tour!

Check out the event flier and tour map .  Here are a few highlights from each stop of the tour:

Tour Stop #1:

In this 30th anniversary year of USGBC, we’re proud to point to the extent that sustainability practice has infiltrated our industry, our buildings, and our city.  In fact, many foundational green building concepts and even building labeling itself  has its roots here in Austin.

Did you know that there are 360+ LEED certifications across 63 million square feet of commercial and multifamily real estate in Austin? Or that there are 600+ LEED for Homes certifications, 430+ Energy Star certified buildings, and nearly 20,000 Austin Energy Green Building rated projects?

During the first stop on the tour, we looked at several nearby LEED-certified multifamily projects, talked about Austin’s South Central Waterfront Initiative, and highlighted Festival Beach Food Forest – an oasis for all in our downtown.

Tour Stop #2:

Rounding the bend and approaching downtown, we shared some of the sustainability past and future of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, including its planned expansion.  Lisa pointed out the outlet of Waller Creek, a critical piece of new flood management, water quality, and pedestrian greenspace infrastructure facilitated by the Waterloo Greenway.  She also pointed out the site of the planned light rail and pedestrian bridge at Trinity Street called for by Project Connect, to be implemented by Austin Transit Partnership.

From this vantage point we could see new buildings rising on Rainey Street and Red River, including Austin’s soon-to-be tallest (allegedly “supertall”) building that, like all other high-rise construction downtown, will implement green building practices, and often certify to LEED, as a community benefit in exchange for a zoning variance for increased development density (see Austin’s Downtown Density Bonus Program).

Tour Stop #3:

From this vantage point, we could see the heart of the downtown lakefront, featuring the decorated ENERGY STAR and LEED achievements of 98 San Jacinto, which recertified to LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) Gold in 2022 under LEED v4.1, as well as Austin’s iconic Frost Bank Tower also recertifying to LEED-EB v4.1 Gold in 2022.

Notably, I learned and shared that the commanding view of the Texas Capitol is flanked by two high-performing red-brown towers on either side of Congress Avenue Bridge.  On the left, 100 Congress earned LEED-EB v2009 Gold in 2014.  On the right, 111 Congress first certified in 2011 and recertified to LEED-EBv2009 at the Certified level in 2017, includes a LEED for Commercial Interiors certification as well as several ENERGY STAR certifications.

Tour Stop #4:

Carrying on towards the setting sun and the South First bridge, the tour continued with several  standout projects on the north and south shores.

On the north/downtown side, Austin City Hall remains an early landmark project for the city, earning LEED NC v2.0 Gold in 2006.  Twelve years later, Austin Central Library earned its LEED for New Construction v2009 Platinum certification – the city’s first.  In between these two civic structures is the unique, sail-like building at Block 185 which earned LEED for Core & Shell (LEED-CS) v4 Platinum earlier this year.  Board member Andrew Clements also shared some of the historic preservation history of the Buford Fire Tower.

On the south shore, we pointed out Austin’s smartest building, RiverSouth, which earned LEED-CS v4 Gold this year.  Near RiverSouth now sits the world’s first 3-D printed performance pavilion.  Nearer to the lake is the Fannie Davis Town Lake Gazebo which commemorates the role Austin women played in realizing a vision for public spaces and infrastructure around what is now called Ladybird Lake.

Concluding the green buildings and infrastructure part of our tour, Jessica Molter from tour sponsor Pfluger Architects (thank you!) shared the history of the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.  The bridge connects the Butler trails and honors local architect James D. Pfluger, who designed some of the hike-and-bike trails.

Tour Stop #5:

Just after sunset, our group was given a spectacular show.  Austin’s unique and impressive bat colony provides a cogent reminder that, with good design and management, we can coexist with nature and nurture the natural systems that nurture us.  This fitting conclusion underscores the value of the green building work we do here in Central Texas and that the USGBC community has been doing now for 30 years!

After the bat viewing, and far enough away from the bridge colony, I piloted something fun: the world’s first floating PowerStack pole, which served as a bright light for the paddle back to land.

Thanks again to Pfluger Architects for sponsoring and to Lisa Storer for being a great co-leader of our first (annual?) floating tour of Austin’s green buildings and infrastructure!

Learn more about Austin’s green buildings and sustainable infrastructure with the following resources:

  1. USGBC’s Green Building Information Gateway - Austin, TX
  2. AIA / Austin Energy Green Building Guide to Austin Architecture
  3. Austin Energy Green Building
  4. Data.AustinTexas.Gov - Green Buildings Project Map
  5. Austin Green Gems map

USGBC Texas Chapter is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. 1801 Royal Lane, Suite 400, Dallas, TX 75229

Contact us at chapter@usgbctexas.org or at 214-571-9244

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