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Green Building on Inlands and Islands

Notes from Deborah Snoonian, P.E.


The Austin Convention Center, before the crowds got thick.

Courtesy Austin Convention Center Web Site.

The Nokonah’s lobby.

Looking out over the tree canopy

Courtesy the Nokonah

Dancers kick up their heels at the Broken Spoke, a Texas honky-tonk.

Courtesy Deborah Snoonian

What do you do when you throw a party and twice as many guests as you’d planned for show up? This was the challenge that faced the U.S. Green Building Council in mid-November in Austin, Texas, the site of their first national conference. Christine Ervin, USGBC’s president and CEO, told me that she and the board would have considered 1,500 attendees a smashing success. “And we knew we’d had to work hard to get that many,” she added.

Hard, sure, but they were also targeting an audience ripe to be educated. With the number of U.S. cities mandating or providing incentives for green building steadily on the rise, there had been stirrings within the design community that a national conference was even a bit overdue. When I registered for the conference in June, I got my fourth-choice hotel. By July the 220 exhibit booths had sold out. In late October the Council sent out an apologetic (but not too) e-mail saying registration was closed. Nearly 4,000 people showed up at the Austin Convention Center for four days of keynote speeches, breakout sessions, and training on the green-building rating system LEED.

Nobody could get over the crowds. Long-time colleagues and new acquaintances alike greeted each other the same way: “Can you believe how big this thing is?!” The exhibitors grumbled about too-short exhibit hours and running out of product literature. Those who didn’t score seats at the packed breakout sessions were forced to hover in the doorways or huddle knees-to-chest on the floor (fire-code violations in action, no doubt).

The conference garnered TV coverage on a few local stations—yet this stuff is old news to the building community in Austin, home to the oldest green-building incentive program in the U.S. and of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, whose bellwether, Pliny Fisk, held court gracefully as local host.

To anybody who follows this field, the conference agenda read like a primer, Sustainability 101. But the questions asked during the breakout sessions made it obvious that most of the attendees—who were, by and large, architects—were seeing this material for the first time. It may be that this event marks the beginning of an era when the average designer-on-the-street will have at least a working knowledge of how to make a building that doesn’t demand more of the environment than it can give back.

That’s not to say everybody in Austin was a beginner. I recognized many of the attendees from The Architects’ Environment Summit, an event sponsored by the Design Futures Council in late September on Nantucket Island. About 100 designers and engineers well-versed in sustainable building practices were there, including representatives of firms like HOK and TVS, which invest significant resources in this area. The group was more think-tank than brass-tacks, and two days of discussions about urban planning, design projects, and environmental health were led skillfully by Jim Cramer of the Greenway Group. The summit group is now collaborating to develop new “green” goals for both future projects and the design profession itself. To kick off the meeting, a local historian gave an excellent overview of Nantucket’s fragile ecosystem, which residents are working relentlessly to protect. I’d never been to Nantucket before, but its wood-shingled cottages roughened by sand and salt air were exactly as I’d imagined. The beaches were charming too, especially when families of sea lions poked their heads up through the surf to eye us landlubbers. Manhattan’s an island too, but it felt utterly dark and hemmed-in long after I’d returned from this sanctum sanctorum.


But back to Austin to close, to mention a couple of noteworthy places. One evening I toured The Nokonah, the most expensive high-rise condominium ever built in the Texas capital. San Antonio firm Lake/Flato was involved with the design initially, until the developer insisted on wraparound balconies—a deal-breaker that caused the firm to bow out respectfully, leaving Austin architects Graeber, Simmons & Cowan to finish the job. A quietly handsome tower, the Nokonah sits downtown on the corner of Ninth and Lamar Streets. Units in the northern portion of the building have impressive views of the Texas Capitol and the infamous University of Texas tower. The southern panorama—a Whole Foods supermarket, traffic lights, low-rise retail and commercial buildings—is less ceremonious. The Nokonah’s densely-packed 99 units ranging in size from 700 to over 5,000 square feet make it unique in Austin’s luxury housing market—which has, like too many American cities, gone the way of the McMansion (Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computers, has a sprawling estate at the city’s outer limits which eclipses the Seattle manse of fellow techno-ego Bill Gates by a few hundred square feet; it’s so large that astronauts can surely see it from orbit). If the Nokonah is high-end developer’s work, it’s at least tasteful and well-executed, with top-notch construction quality and superb finishes and fixtures. Former Texas governor Ann Richards owns a condo there, as do other well-heeled, well-connected Austinites, I was told. Was it designed to be sustainable? My tour guide didn’t know.

From the Nokonah’s cool, distant beauty, I went directly to the warm embrace of the Broken Spoke, one of the city’s oldest dance halls. I’d been there twice before in previous visits to Austin. It’s a single-story, barn-like structure with a bar, some tables for eating, a mini-gallery of photographs and other memorabilia, and a dance floor flanked on both sides by tables where you can sit, drink Shiner Bock, and watch couples of all ages cut the rug. Some of the two-steppers have been married happily for years; others are lovers whose shared futures are unknown and unknowable; many just come together a few times in any given evening for a good twirl on the boards, nothing less and nothing more. The owners celebrated the Spoke’s 38th birthday while I was there, and TV crews roamed the place that evening, doing interviews; I told a reporter that the Broken Spoke was really “authentic.” I feel sheepish now about using such a precious term, but I will say this: their customers are loyal to the point of fierceness, and they obviously love the place. The waitstaff love it no less: their eyes twinkle when they serve you, and they look almost apologetic when you tip them, like they know everybody is equally lucky to be enjoying the scene, so why bother making a buck off it? Such fealty gives the Broken Spoke a gravitas beyond being just a really fun place to drink beer and listen to live country music. It’s not just a building, it’s a community—and that makes it one of the most sustainable buildings I know of.