How Green Is My Building?

Campus architect Taylor blames this defunct design on the team's failure to work together.
Deron Neblett

Four years ago, officials at the University of Texas Health Science Center trumpeted their determination to construct a unique nursing and biomedical sciences building in the Texas Medical Center. They vowed it would be a showcase for "stewarding resources, doing no harm, benefiting others in the present and future, and respecting the environment."

"We cannot profess to be genuine in our aims for health and well-being if we provide services in facilities that are unhealthy and economically wasteful," declared their manifesto. "Those are the kinds of disconnects that reflect poorly on all of us, and those for which we should have no tolerance."

Fast-forward to last month: The second of two architectural firms chosen to build the dream "green" building quit after it became apparent the project design was hopelessly over budget. That left the Health Science Center leadership -- already convulsed by staff layoffs, a $20 million budget shortfall and the abrupt resignation of chief executive Dr. M. David Low -- belatedly auditioning new candidates for the project. Estimates of spending on the aborted preliminary work range from the nearly $300,000 cited by HSC officials to more than $1 million by outside architectural sources.

In 1996 HSC sponsored an international competition that resulted in the selection of a husband-and-wife-owned design firm, Patkau of Vancouver, British Columbia. The firm is a leader in the field of "sustainable" architecture, which emphasizes energy conservation, recyclable building materials and designs for user-friendly interaction between buildings and surrounding natural spaces. Patkau submitted a preliminary design for the site on Holcombe Boulevard between the School of Public Health and Grant Fay Park. Plans included enough environmental bells and whistles to make a friend of the earth swoon.

On the roof would be a retention pool to harvest cool winter rains for irrigation during dry months. To take advantage of "fresh, outdoor air," windows that could open would be installed wherever possible. Natural light would penetrate every part of the building. But to avoid being cooked by summer sun, the flat roof would be topped by a parasol of solar panels and motorized louvers to shade the walls.

To make all these elements work, special consultants were required to work out mechanical, electrical and plumbing details. UT hired Ove Arup of San Francisco to handle the engineering design, while local firm Watkins Hamilton Ross was brought on board as the Texas-registered executive architect.

In their design narrative, John and Patricia Patkau explained that large buildings in Houston "respond to summer heat and humidity in much the same way that astronauts protect themselves from the alien environment of outer space through the creation of a completely sealed and mechanically supported space suit….While there is clearly a reason for this simple but extreme measure, it is also clear that Houston's climate, though extreme, is not alien to human life."

However, the building the Patkaus wanted to construct in Houston just might be alien to the budgetary life of the project. Partially financed by a surcharge on medical students, the UT Board of Regents approved the project at $40.1 million. Yet from the beginning, the Patkaus seemed to be designing for a $57 million to $60 million building. The team supervising the project, including current Health Sciences Center CEO John Porretto, Assistant VP Brian Yeoman and campus architect Rives Taylor, were oddly reluctant to put on the brakes. It was as if everyone was hoping that $20 million might fall from the sky into a budgetary retention pond.

Watkins Hamilton Ross joined the team in 1998, and firm principal David Watkins says the problem was apparent from day one.

"There was a failure to find a way to mesh the goals of the project with the budget realities," says Watkins. He notes that cost estimates by both his firm and UT's Office for Facilities Planning and Construction consistently indicated 40 to 60 percent overruns.

By the beginning of the year, tensions had reached the breaking point between Patkau and Health Science Center officials. The pressure was on to rework the design to bring down costs. According to Porretto, the changes would not have eliminated the environmental aspects of the structure, only some of the frills.

"We could not afford that," claims Porretto. "We did not feel comfortable spending money for aesthetics or design signatures of an architectural firm that wouldn't add anything to the academic, maintenance and operation of this building from a long-term perspective."

Campus architect Taylor blames the problems on Patkau and Watkins Hamilton's failure to work together. Porretto adds that continuing disputes between the two over fees and project share resulted in "too much collateral damage."

Neither John Patkau nor Watkins recalls any significant disputes between the firms over fees or control. "We did have disagreements over the design," allows Watkins. He believes that the Patkaus, "like a lot of designers, were clinging to things they should have given up sooner."

After it became apparent that a complete redesign was necessary to meet the budget, Patkau resigned in January.

John Patkau rejects Porretto's claim that the issue with the building was aesthetics rather than core environmental values. He says his firm's specialty is designing projects that combine aesthetics with sustainable architecture, and it became clear that the concept lacked support.

"We withdrew because we basically came to the conclusion that there wasn't an opportunity for us to contribute in a significant way to the project," Patkau says guardedly. "As a result, we felt the project didn't need our involvement."

After Patkau bailed, Health Science Center officials asked Watkins Hamilton to submit a proposal in six weeks for a complete redesign. When the firm requested a meeting with UT officials, it was first met with silence. Then Porretto sent a letter last month instructing the firm to hire a new design architect and to shuffle members of the existing team. At that point, Watkins says, his firm followed Patkau out the door.

"It was not an easy decision at all for us to resign from that project," says the architect. "We felt very strongly about the importance of the building and its goals. In many ways it became a situation where the perfect was the enemy of the good. There was an unwillingness [by UT] to compromise, to face the realities of the budget."

Kirby Keahey, a co-principal with Watkins and the former project manager, says this is his first resignation in 30 years of work with UT. He hopes the resignation "brings someone to their senses that you have to make some decisions that respond to the budget you have." He adds, "You're not going to get everything for Christmas that you want." According to Keahey, several alternate scenarios suggested by his firm would have preserved the environmental aspects that the UT officials insisted on having in the project.

With the two firms gone, two new teams, including San Antonio-based architects, are under consideration. The latest building designer will be announced next month.

"The lesson we learned was that from day one we should have been harder on the team," Taylor says of the earlier problems. "Perhaps we might be more skeptical in the future -- saying, 'Help us understand more quickly; don't lead us down a path, because time is money.' "

UT's Yeoman acknowledges that the twists and turns of the four-year-old project have not exactly put his management team in the best light. He believes folks should withhold judgment till they see the final product, if and when it joins the medical center skyline.

"This is exactly and precisely about persisting," says the facilities planner. "It may not be about talent. We may not be the most talented project management team in the city of Houston or the state of Texas, but what we are is persistent and absolutely dedicated to the principles we have tried to share with you."

Memo to the UT Board of Regents: Before replaying this architectural comedy, why not fly a business prof down from Austin to give the Health Science Center crew some crash courses on the principles of sustainable budget management?

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