Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
A green oasis of quiet in an urban environment, the HARC campus exemplifies the power of sustainable site design and restorative landscaping. Surrounded by a forested curtain of trees and native vegetation, the HARC building is sequestered against the noise and sight of traffic on Gosling Road, a busy thoroughfare just a stone’s throw away. Animals and insects go about their daily business, reported by chirping birds, woodpeckers, and butterflies visiting the blooming native plants. Designed to preserve biodiversity, the campus is surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature. In keeping with the HARC mission of ‘helping people thrive and nature flourish’, the campus embodies balanced integration of the natural and built environment, proving that site development can be enhanced with sustainable site design techniques.
In order to minimize loss of existing native stands of mixed pine and hardwood a habitat assessment was performed on HARC’s three and a half acre forested site prior to construction. The survey identified 54 plant species including natives such as Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), St. Andrews Cross (Hypericum hypericoides), and Farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum). HARC worked to protect 70% of the property by identifying areas with the highest biodiversity, excluding these from clearing for site development. The second-story full length windows provide copious natural lighting and views of the conserved upper canopy of the forested property. Some of the standing dead trees - known as snags - were kept for habitat value and nesting sites. Where clearing was deemed necessary, restorative landscaping after construction imbued the site with native trees, shrubs, and grasses. These well-adapted plantings are tolerant of natural variations in rainfall without irrigation, reducing utility costs and demand on potable water supplies. Over time, the disturbed areas revegetated in this manner will continue to weave themselves seamlessly into the surrounding native landscape it was designed to emulate. Because of this, one may witness a flock of cedar waxwings foraging for yaupon berries, an armadillo rummaging for breakfast in the landscape beds, a fox slinking back to its den after a night hunt, or a bobcat on the prowl.
Applying these principles of ‘green infrastructure’ design contributed to the US Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification that HARC will celebrate this month. In addition to maintaining habitat for native wildlife, the site design also incorporated Low Impact Development (LID) features such as bioswales that convey stormwater and reduce silt and pollutants leaving the site, thereby cleaning the water that ultimately reaches nearby Panther Branch Creek. A landscaped island in the curbless parking lot was planted with native prairie species, allowing rainwater to freely flow into vegetated areas on all sides. These features function to mitigate the effects of site disturbance that invariably accompany development, while providing many other benefits. In addition to pleasing aesthetics the preservation of tree canopy supports air quality and provides shade to reduce energy consumption. Restoring disturbed areas with native vegetation discourages establishment of weeds and other non-native vegetation and invasive plant species. The proliferation of invasive species is a significant problem in our region and elsewhere. Development practices that respect the native environment are an effective measure to combat the spread of invasives that threaten and displace native species in our coastal ecosystems.
Once wholly cloaked in primal forest and freshwater wetlands, the East Texas Piney Woods ecosystem of Montgomery County still maintains vestiges of biodiverse ecological communities. These natural systems require thousands of years to develop, maturing as they persist through periods of stability and disorganization with amazing adaptive capacity. Yet despite this natural resilience these habitats are degraded as development increasingly fragments and separates forest and wetland patches. Within a relatively short period of time thousands of years of adaptation can succumb to the destructive effects of outmoded development practices that clear most of the existing native vegetation. Such practices are increasingly understood to diminish critical ecosystem services provided by wetlands, forests, and prairies that function to naturally mitigate flooding and improve water quality. These vital ecosystems facilitate infiltration, evapotranspiration, and gradual release of reduced volumes of stormwater runoff. The utility of these natural ecosystems mitigate flood damages caused by storm events while also removing pollutants to help protect our precious water resources. The loss of habitat in Montgomery County from 1996 to 2010 (65,944 acres of forest land and 6,642 acres of wetlands) equates to lost water storage capacity of more than 2 billion gallons. This reduction in storage capacity means that flood flows are increased, as is the potential for devastating property damage.
The HARC campus represents an ongoing experiment as the restorative landscape matures to increasingly reflect natural process and surrounding habitat. Science and experience will reinforce what we already know about the benefits of innovative site development practices. Along with incorporation of green infrastructure for stormwater management, these practices demonstrate the many benefits of sustainable site design that can and should be applied across the Greater Houston Region. At HARC we believe that development can be sustainably advanced with a thoughtful approach that focuses on conservation and restoration to preserve environmental and cultural values, ‘helping people thrive and nature flourish’.
Learn more about invasive species that threaten Texas coastal ecosystems and how to combat them at The Quiet Invasion: a guide to the invasive species of the Galveston Bay area.
Learn more about HARC’s LEED Platinum headquarters at Building a Legacy: George P. Mitchell and The Houston Advanced Research Center.
For ideas on low-maintenance, water-saving native landscaping for your home, explore HARC’s Native Plant list.