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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A new home for HARC: Continuing George Mitchell’s sustainability legacy

HARC's New Building

A new, LEED-certified, green building to continue the mission of sustainability

Planning is well along for a new, LEED-certified, green building that will serve as HARC’s headquarters as the organization pursues its sustainability-focused mission of “helping people thrive and nature flourish.”

With the new building’s host of nature-protecting and energy-saving features, HARC’s leaders say it closely accords with Mitchell’s commitment to the concept of sustainability.

HARC won’t be going very far at all when it moves into the new building in 2016 – just around the corner from the campus in The Woodlands that the institution has occupied since 1987 when the campus was built by the late oilman-developer-philanthropist George Mitchell.

Fundraising to support the new building’s construction – and thereby help carry on Mitchell’s sustainability legacy – recently got under way.

Mitchell conceived The Woodlands as a master-planned community, developed in an environmentally-conscious manner that would leave untouched much of the dense forest on the land where he created it, 30 miles north of downtown Houston.

With the new building’s host of nature-protecting and energy-saving features, HARC’s leaders say it closely accords with Mitchell’s commitment to the concept of sustainability.

A new building for a focused mission

Mitchell, who died in 2013 at age 94, founded HARC in 1982 as the Houston Advanced Research Center – originally, a not-for-profit university consortium – serving as a technology incubator to link basic research findings with market applications.

In 2001, HARC restructured itself to focus on sustainable development, one of Mitchell’s abiding personal concerns over several decades. Since then, the resulting organization has worked to illuminate and solve difficult issues in the areas of air quality, clean energy, and water quality and supply.

Following this institutional reformatting, HARC sold its 100-acre property on Research Forest Drive to the multi-campus Lone Star College System for use as its system office. HARC has continued to maintain its headquarters on the site, leasing one of its original buildings from the college.

The tighter focus on sustainability issues means HARC simply doesn’t need as much space as Mitchell’s original plan for the organization called for, said Jim Lester, HARC’s president and CEO.

“The original buildings were appropriate for a last-century university rather than a 21st-Century sustainability organization,” Lester said.

The decision to move into a new home, he said, “is an opportunity for us, in the reinvented form of HARC, to get into a green building and to put ourselves someplace where we can be recognized as a separate entity from Lone Star College.”

The new building will be on Gosling Road, occupying a site that HARC owns adjacent to the Lone Star College property.

Lisa Gonzalez, HARC’s vice president and chief operating officer, stressed that the upcoming move into a new headquarters means the organization will remain true both to its Woodlands roots and to its much broader mission that Mitchell also established – serving the entire Houston metropolitan region and areas beyond Houston.

Collaborative planning

Gensler, an architecture, design, planning and consulting firm that operates globally and stresses sustainability principles in its work, was chosen to design the new building.

HARC’s compatibility with Gensler is illustrated by the fact that both organizations are deeply involved in research – HARC conducts research on varied sustainability issues and Gensler intensively researches how its clients’ employees interact in their workspace, Lester said.

Another fortunate aspect of the HARC-Gensler relationship is that Rives Taylor, an architect leading Gensler’s work on the project, was formerly affiliated with HARC’s green building program.

“It’s nice to be working with somebody you’ve known for a long time,” Lester said.

Planning the new building has been highly collaborative, with HARC’s leaders and staff members meeting with Gensler representatives and others in a number of sessions to discuss everything from the layout of workspaces in the new building to the different operational systems it will include, Gonzalez said.

The result is a design that’s in sync with HARC’s character, combining spaces for multi-disciplinary teams to work together as well as “focus spaces” for more solitary tasks, she said.

The new building will have a stronger connection to the broader community, as well, with more meeting space that other local nonprofits can use.

Reflecting HARC’s mission

The sustainability-attuned building design strongly reflects HARC’s sustainability mission, Lester said.

Two considerations were paramount in the planning process – protection of the wooded site’s natural characteristics and limitation of energy consumption, he said.

Final details related to those points have not all been determined – the building design is still a work in progress – but major decisions have been made.

An ecologist surveyed the property, for example, to identify areas that had the greatest ecological value that should be off-limits to development, Lester said.

Besides using those findings to limit the footprint of the building and parking lot, HARC has also been working with planners to minimize impacts elsewhere during site-preparation and construction, he added.

As a result, about half of the site – 1.8 acres out of 3.5 acres – will be left in a forested state.

In addition, “continuous discussion” is being devoted to minimizing energy and water use – the “life-cycle impacts” of the new building’s ongoing operations, Lester said.

“We’ve gone to great extents with mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors and think this will be an extremely energy-efficient building,” he said.

In addition, the new building’s roof will be constructed so it can accommodate the possible later installation of solar panels to produce electricity. Their potential addition will pose challenges related to a key aspect of the site plan – the structure will be surrounded by 60-foot tall pine trees.

A new, green building, in itself, closely aligns with HARC’s mission, and the facility is also being designed so it can also be a powerful “teaching tool” to demonstrate how sustainability principles can be incorporated in other commercial structures, Gonzalez said.

For example, plans call for a kiosk where HARC employees and visitors can view information produced by constant monitoring of electricity use in the building by lighting, air conditioning and plug-in devices.

The hoped-for result, Lester said, will be a continuous display of data that influences people’s behavior so they make decisions about how to reduce electricity consumption.

Flexibility for the future

The new building has been planned not just to provide a workplace for all of HARC’s current 38 employees, but with a high degree of flexibility that can accommodate about 15 additional staff members, if they should be hired, as well as possible collaborators from partner organizations.

An engine lab has been designed, for instance, along with workstations for visiting engineers working on cleaner-engine technologies, while a new chemistry lab can offer space for HARC’s work on air and water issues.

HARC’s board has approved a request of $2.5 million for the new building from the organization’s endowment, the Endowment for Regional Sustainability Science, which Mitchell established in 2005 to ensure HARC would be a perpetual organization.

Construction costs in general have been rising in the Houston region’s booming economy in recent months, just as the planning for the new building was starting and progressing.

As a result, it now appears the project’s total cost will be about $6.5 million to $7 million dollars, meaning HARC must raise $3.5 million to $4.5 million in a just-beginning capital campaign that will also solicit financial support for HARC’s programs, Lester said.

“The building’s price has risen, and not without reason, but we’ve tried to keep it down,” he said.

The current planning and construction timetable calls for groundbreaking for the new building around the first of March next year, with a tentative move-in date for HARC’s staff about a year later, in the spring of 2016.