Beyond the Box

For the 83 proud residents of Paisano Green, El Paso’s first net zero, LEED Platinum-certified low-income senior housing community, the 59,787-sf development is home. But to the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso (HACEP), the city itself, and architecture firm Workshop8, in Boulder, Colo., the project has been a fortunate experiment that has changed laws and lives, providing a shining example of sustainable business practices from an unlikely, dusty border town setting.

Stimulus package funds made available to housing authorities across the country in 2009 presented the initial opportunity. Gerald Cichon, HACEP’s CEO, had long hoped to do something special for the senior housing stock in his city and saw this as an opening not to miss. “Our mission has always been safe, clean, affordable housing,” he said, “but I saw this grant as a chance to put El Paso on the map for sustainability.” Cichon enlisted help from two design professionals: architect and The University of Texas at Austin lecturer Francois Levy, AIA, and architect and University of California Berkeley Department of Architecture professor Robert Herman, FAIA. Together, they created a request for proposals with extensive requirements. “We couldn’t limit ourselves to only looking at firms in Texas for this, but Texas firms did have a leg up, since we had to find people who would understand the specific needs of our climate and geography,” said Cichon about why they decided to open the competition nationally.

The leg up for Texas firms notwithstanding, it was a collaborative group of design professionals calling themselves Workshop8, in Boulder, Colo., who won. All with day jobs at various firms or running their own small practices, the friends were struggling to find challenging, creative work during the recession. “It was a core group of five of us, plus another architect, an energy modeler, and a few others,” said Workshop8 principal J. V. de Sousa. “We wanted to experiment with a competition to see if we could work together.” Turns out they could. After coming together specifically for this project, Workshop8 has gone on to do multiple projects across the country, including but not limited to sustainable low-income housing. “We don’t want to only be known as the ‘net zero low-income housing guys,’” said de Sousa, while admitting that Paisano Green was a great stepping-off point as well as an education for the team. 

Despite having no experience drafting legislation, de Sousa participated in changing the law, since El Paso’s publicly held utility company had recently eliminated its net meter rate, and without it, the project could never achieve net zero. In place now is legislation that allows only for a very specific entity (almost exactly Paisano Green) to have a net meter rate. Although it was a triumphant feat, the law was written very specifically for the Paisano Green project in order to avoid establishing a precedent for future similar projects. If another commercial property in El Paso wanted to establish a net meter rate, it would have to fight a similar fight. “I don’t blame the utility company,” said de Sousa. “They were extremely helpful and accommodating, once they understood what we were doing. They have to be very careful with these types of things, to make sure distribution of energy is as stable as it can be.”

Even without its backstory, the project stands alone as an elegant, modern, sustainable development. Once a small derelict housing project on a 4.2-acre site surrounded by a truck customs inspection station and the border crossing to Ciudad Juarez to the west, a six-lane road and the El Paso Zoo to the north, the County Coliseum concert venue to the east, and a wastewater treatment plant to the southeast, the development has become an icon for the city. Two 

spinning wind turbines mark the entrance to the facility, leading to a first-floor community center and administration offices topped by the “jewel box” — an outdoor patio surrounded by colorful, recycled acrylic panels shaped to evoke windblown grass. Through the community center, residents proceed to a lush, efficiently irrigated “Tapestry Garden” flanked by four three-story “flats” to the west and a linear two-story building to the east. A steel structure canopy wall clad with colored perforated metal panels inset with a series of LED lights becomes, at night, a light show easily seen from nearby Scenic Drive. The canopy connects all four flats with stairs and walkways, while the panels shelter the western facade from weather and the constant noise from the customs station. The canopy also provides a setting for solar panels on its upper beams. Those panels add to the total 165-kilowatt array, which is distributed atop most of the project’s flat roof surfaces. The sustainable features are more than solar bling, however. The building envelope construction was tight, with R-26 walls containing a hybridized system of insulation and no thermal bridging. Windows were carefully chosen, sized, and placed for maximum efficiency, with overhangs and rainscreens used for shading. Recycled, recyclable, low-maintenance, or locally sourced materials were used throughout. Instead of wood for stairs and railings, a durable, low-maintenance plastic lumber made from recycled wood fiber and polymer was used. 

When it came to outdoor sustainability, some LEED mandates had to give. “One size does not fit all,” said de Sousa about a LEED Platinum requirement for shading needs outdoors that just wouldn’t work for this climate. Known as “The Sun City,” El Paso gets some 302 days of perpetual bright sun per year. “The requirement calls for shading of hardscape areas, which is usually accomplished with trees,” said Aaron Nelson, LEED consultant and sustainability coordinator for the project. “For this project, it just wouldn’t be sustainable in this dry, hot climate to have that many trees to water.” After much review of the project, the U.S. Green Building Council agreed to change the requirement for this specific project, and the team proceeded, going above and beyond most other LEED requirements. Splurges on such high-end systems as air-to-heat exchange water heaters were made with long-term efficiency in mind, a way of thinking that extended to energy recovery ventilator units, high efficiency fixtures and appliances, ultra low-flow plumbing fixtures, and LED lighting.

With a total construction cost of approximately $15 million, the project wasn’t cheap, and educating residents to be stewards of their environment has been a process. But the project works, and the accolades are already coming in, with a 2012 Citation Award for Built Architecture from AIA Colorado and a 2013 National Award of Merit for Program Innovation in Project Design from the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. As residents compete to see who can use the least energy each month, Cichon continues to host interested visitors from housing authorities across the country. Also, nearby Fort Bliss, the nation’s largest army post, has expressed interest in going net zero and is taking to heart all the lessons learned by Paisano Green. “The U.S. military is taking notice,” says Cichon, “So yes, we’re proud.”

Ingrid Spencer is co-founder of Creek Show, planned for Waller Creek in Austin, and a contributing editor to Architectural Record. 

Published in Texas Architect January/February 2014.