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Austin: A Pioneer and Model for the Green Building Movement

Nov 13th, 2017

According to data compiled by ListShack, Austin is the most sustainable large city in the United States. Other ratings rank Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle above the Texas capital, but Austin is never far behind. Regardless of the ranking methodology you find most sound, there’s no denying ATX’s trailblazing role in environmentally responsible, resource-efficient construction. Let’s explore Austin’s enduring green building contributions, vanguard redevelopment projects, and recent green building initiatives.

Birth of a movement

During the early 1970s, Austin’s city planners backed the construction of a controversial nuclear power plant. They justified their support on the grounds that the plant was necessary for meeting Austin’s growing power needs. Impassioned Austin residents challenged this assertion, arousing public resistance that thwarted the project and spawned Austin’s green building movement.

Evolution of Austin’s green building industry

Following the pivotal power plant dispute, sustainable designer Pliny Fisk III founded the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (CMPBS). The non-profit research and education organization specializes in life cycle planning and design. CMPBS is also responsible for devising a system that measures how materials used in construction affect energy use.

Inspired by CMPBS’s work, Austin created the nation’s first green building program in The Austin Energy Green Building (AEGB) program‘s purpose is to encourage and support sustainable design and construction efforts. Its first major contribution was a five-star rating system, used to distinguish architects, developers, and projects that merely meet Austin Energy Code requirements from those who exceed them. The AEGB earned international acclaim after winning an award at the United Nation’s Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The program and its rating system went on to influence Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), today’s international standard for green building certification.

The AEGB’s national and international reverberations are points of pride for eco-conscious Austinites. The program and its initiatives have also made a profound impact on their home turf. This is exemplified in Mueller, a sustainably-planned “urban village” developed on 700 acres of former Mueller Regional Airport land.

Mueller Urban Village

Three miles north of downtown Austin, Mueller is fast becoming one of Austin’s most livable neighborhoods. The mixed-use community is also one of Austin’s greenest. More than 20% of Mueller’s total land area is designated parkland or green space. Mueller Lake Park, whose namesake lake collects stormwater runoff, is a highlight. By the time Mueller is fully developed, it will be home to 15,000 freshly planted trees. And every building in the urban village is certified LEED-Gold or higher, including AMLI at Mueller.

Mueller’s residential population and workforce are expected to peak at just under 15,000. Mueller’s largest employer, Dell Children’s Medical Center, is strategically located at the heart of the neighborhood. Its medical facilities comprise the world’s first LEED platinum-certified hospital.

If not for two relics, Mueller would be unrecognizable as the site of a former airport. Just west of Mueller Lake, the historic Browning Hangar hosts the Mueller Farmers Market every Saturday from 10am to 2pm. A retired air traffic control tower, fenced off and preserved as a reminder of Mueller’s past, is the other relic.

Defunct power plant converted into downtown Austin EcoDistrict 

When 1950s-era steam power plant Seaholm was decommissioned in 1989, its downtown Austin grounds were designated a brownfield site. Too contaminated for use, the site spent more than a decade as an industrial wasteland. In 2005, a large-scale cleanup and redevelopment project got underway. Today, the site of the defunct power plant is a certified EcoDistrict. When current construction plans are complete, 10,000 Austinites will call Seaholm EcoDistrict home.

Its transformation from contaminated wasteland to high-density, pedestrian-friendly development makes Seaholm EcoDistrict another paragon of sustainable revitalization. At its center is an idyllic courtyard, designed to host live music and other community-oriented events. Other sustainable highlights include a small forest, public art works, electric car charging stations, and a solar-powered park bench with USB charging ports and grounded outlets. Seaholm’s sustainably designed buildings are home to several new shops, restaurants, offices, and condominiums. More are on the way. On Saturday, October 29, Austin’s LEED Platinum-designed new Central Library opened in the EcoDistrict.

Before long, the Seaholm EcoDistrict will also lay claim to Austin’s tallest building. The Independent, a condominium high-rise nearly two years in progress, will reach a height of 685 feet. Its reign as Austin’s tallest building may be short-lived. But the Independent will remain a prominent skyline fixture, much as Seaholm will remain a shining example of green building. Overlooking the shores of Lady Bird Lake, Seaholm EcoDistrict is ten minutes’ walk from AMLI’s downtown Austin apartment rentals.

Recent initiatives, future goals

In 2013, Austin’s City Council approved a community climate plan pledging to make Austin carbon-neutral by 2050. Two years later, Austin adopted a standard that all new homes must satisfy a net-zero capable rating. This means new homes must produce at least as much electricity as they consume. Another boon for Austin’s green building movement came with the AEGB’s inaugural Austin Green Awards in 2016. The awards recognize outstanding accomplishments in sustainable design and inspiration. If you thought green building was a big deal in Austin, just wait.

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