Bit by Bit

To tackle what has become an almost 15-year master plan for the National Butterfly Center in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA, started off by dividing the 100-acre site into 22-sf parcels. This inclination toward modular design has informed everything about the site. “It’s almost a mini-Jeffersonian plan,” said Joseph, “except instead of six miles it’s 22 ft.” The pixelized landscape, she explained, has enabled the North American Butterfly Association to “conquer the site over time in bite-sized pieces as they raise money.”

New York-based Joseph began working with Jeffrey Glassberg, founder of the Association, on the organization’s South Texas headquarters in 2002. Located in the city of Mission, the Welcome Pavilion was designed to play up local materials while also creating a striking contrast with the grounds. Dallas-based Studio Outside Landscape Architecture built on Joseph’s 22-sf grid to develop a comprehensive landscape for the site, and the capital campaign for the second phase of the grounds is set to start in January 2015. 

Located along the Rio Grande River, the grounds include 30 acres of buildable land and 70 acres of Texas savannah, which will be left in its native state. According to Jane Scott, the secretary-treasurer of the Association, the organization opted for small, low-impact buildings on the flat landscape. “There are no hills, and we didn’t want to take the focus away from the land,” she said.

“Everything was designed to be simply assembled and readily available,” Joseph explained. “We tried to create a building that was of a more residential scale, so using local materials was part of the concept.”

The 4,400-sf Welcome Pavilion opened in October 2010 and has set the material palate and aesthetic vibe for the project. “Since it’s the first building,” said Joseph, “the idea was to make it as multipurpose and flexible as possible, while providing private and public spaces,” including an office, a café, bathrooms, a conference room, a gift shop, and an open area for exhibit and meeting space.

Designing the building more on the scale of a house than a commercial structure allowed for the use of local crews accustomed to residential construction — a budget-friendly move that expedited the process. “We hired a local general contractor who could manage this with his own small team and crew,” said Joseph. Building costs ran just $130 per square foot, with a budget of $750,000 for the building and an additional $250,000 for site work and parking. A 4-by-16-in cement block, imported from just across the border in Mexico and finished bright white thanks to the marble dust from a nearby quarry, covers the

pavilion’s exterior. Aligning the blocks vertically, “we pushed and pulled it from the surface,” explained Joseph, “to give texture, scale, and shadow in the strong sun.” 

Other design elements respond to the harsh South Texas environment, as well. The white roof’s high albedo helps to cool the facility, and a recessed cornice of galvanized aluminum sparkles in the sun. There are no windows on the south side of the building, and the configuration of doors and halls allows for easy passive cooling.

Exterior landscape walls define areas outside the building, where a series of planted trees provides shade. Studio Outside designed butterfly-watching gardens in contained and open areas around the pavilion, bridging the transition between man-made and natural. 

Inside, the 12-ft timber ceilings feature 12-in joists, “which gives a look and patina we liked,” said Joseph. “We rotated the joists in every module, one against another, so you get an interplay, a checkerboard pattern.” With an easy-to-clean interior of simple concrete floors and polycarbonate walls, “they can pretty much hose down the place,” explained Joseph. “It can be very dusty and dirty in South Texas.”

In colorful contrast to the dry landscape, every indoor surface is painted bright yellow-green. “It’s called ‘limelight’,” said Joseph, “and in different lighting conditions it can look very green or very yellow, but it always seems to make the landscape outside look a little better.”

Hearkening back to the bright white brick of the building’s exterior, all furniture inside is white. A curving, modular system of clear-plastic-topped desks is fabricated locally and each is five ft long. “You can fit the pieces together to make any kind of a curve you want,” said Scott. “They’re attractive as well as incredibly useful” for retail and exhibition display, and for use during events.

Sticking to Joseph’s 22-sf grid “offers a very flexible base,” said Scott. Future projects may include a series of outbuildings — from a separate exhibit hall and a library space to an educational building — connected by a winding garden pathway. “Our goal is to maintain or reconstruct native plant habitats and provide for the butterflies,” Scott said. “But we also want to educate visitors about wildlife, and for that you need buildings.” 

Miriam Sitz is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

Originally published in the January/February 2015 issue of Texas Architect.