A Living Building in North Texas

Fifteen miles outside Decatur is an unassuming, low-slung pavilion with sloped gable roofs. With its simple material palette and geometries, the building recedes into the flat terrain and swaying grasses, subtly but deliberately connecting visitors with the landscape. Windows facilitate the connection: A meeting room’s smaller apertures are cut low to accommodate seated viewers, while kitchen windows invite visitors to stand at the counter. A generous gathering space opens to a courtyard with a large live oak tree on the east; on the west, a porch takes advantage of an expansive view of the prairie. 

The Betty and Clint Josey Pavilion is the newest education center of the Dixon Water Foundation, which supports, promotes, and educates the public about water conservation in Texas through ecologically sound land management. On its ranches, the Foundation’s grazing techniques create resilient landscapes by encouraging vigorous plant growth and enhancing soil quality, allowing rainwater to replenish aquifers and rivers. In contrast to modern ranching techniques that tend to diminish biodiversity and degrade soil quality, these methods of land management restore health to local ecosystems. 

The Josey Pavilion was designed to achieve Living Building Challenge certification, developed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) to promote environmentally responsible building design. Going beyond other building certification systems, the LBC requires the built environment not only to do no harm to its natural environment, but to improve its health, through seven performance categories, or “Petals.” The certification was a natural fit for the Dixon Water Foundation’s new pavilion. Robert Potts, president and CEO of the foundation, notes, “On our ranches, we use cattle to restore the land and create healthier watersheds. A Living Building brings those goals to life in another way.” 

LBC certification embodies the foundation’s mission and helps it reach a wider audience; the Josey Pavilion is expected to be the first certified Living Building in Texas. Through attention to the siting of the structure, its energy and water use, material selection, indoor environmental quality, and other metrics, an LBC building must demonstrate throughout a one-year period that it meets performance criteria. October 2015 marks the end of the Josey Pavilion’s performance year. 

Project architect Tenna Florian, AIA, identifies the pavilion’s siting as an important determinant of its environmental performance and visitor experience. The Foundation had a conservation easement of 1.8 acres on the ranch, a fairly limited buildable area containing two significant live oak trees. The design team chose to place the building around one of the trees, forming a protected courtyard. The program elements sit under two equal roof volumes that pull apart to accommodate a large, shared gutter. The kitchen, restrooms, and “herbarium,” which houses resource materials and functions as a smaller meeting room, are arranged along the northern edge of the courtyard. A flexible, open gathering space defines the southern structure. The configuration takes advantage of summer breezes from the southeast to cool the courtyard, which is protected from northwest winter winds by solid building elements and slatted doors. Low cupolas contribute daylight to interior spaces and enhance the effects of natural ventilation by increasing airflow. The building relies purely on these passive strategies for both heating and cooling.

The walls supporting the roof over the gathering space open completely to the outdoors in milder weather: On the north and south 

facades, wood slat doors open to the sides, while glass doors, protected by large overhangs on the east and west facades, pivot open, connecting the interior to the live oak courtyard and the prairie. Ceiling fans boost the cooling effects of natural breezes. In colder months, the slat doors close against winds; their openness factor is between 30 and 40 percent, emulating the wind-blocking effect of a tree canopy. 

The same ethic that drives the overall design, with its strong connection to ground plane and grasslands, led the architects, just like early ranchers, to source materials locally and treat waste as a resource. A low-energy-use profile, smart siting, and no air conditioning, combined with a Solar PV array, mean the building is predicted to use less energy than it consumes on an annual basis. Rainwater is harvested from all roofs and collected in a 13,000-gallon steel tank, or displayed prominently at the entrance to the pavilion in a concrete basin. This rainwater provides all non-potable uses on the site; an existing well drawing from the aquifer directly below the site provides all potable water. Wastewater is funneled to an on-site wastewater treatment system, or constructed wetland, which cleans the water before returning it to the landscape to filter through the ground to water the prairie and replenish the aquifer. The system eliminates the typical groundwater pollution problems associated with septic systems found in this soil type.

Reclaimed sinker longleaf pine siding, as well as framing members and steel plate connectors, are left untreated and allowed to rust and age over time, protected by generous overhangs. This decision was as much about minimizing short-term maintenance as it was about satisfying requirements of the LBC, which prohibits a list of harmful toxins including those found in anti-corrosion coatings and concrete additives. 

For Florian, the building would hardly be different had it not been designed to meet LBC requirements. Its siting, geometries, and material palette would have been the same, and responsible water use and treatment would have been a priority. She emphasizes that the biggest hurdle in the design of this project was the process of creating highly proscriptive architectural specifications to avoid chemicals prohibited by the LBC. (The Declare List, administered by the International Living Future Institute, offers tremendous help to design teams selecting compliant building materials.)

The LBC aims to “recognize the need for beauty as a precursor to caring enough to preserve, conserve, and serve the greater good.” Beauty, difficult to measure, is the aspect of the built environment we find the most rewarding, and the one that makes us want to spend time in a place over and over again. The fact that one of the foundation staff has moved her office into the herbarium at the pavilion, foregoing air conditioning in the process, delights Florian. Corey Squire, who assisted with much of the documentation for the LBC, notes, “There is a difference between appreciating nature and respecting nature. The Living Building Challenge and the Josey Pavilion do both.”

Margaret Sledge, AIA, is an architect at Lake|Flato Architects in San Antonio. (She did not work on this project.)

Originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of Texas Architect.