Lessons by the Sea

On calm days, winds on the Texas coast ruffle the drifts of palmetto, muhly, and smooth-skinned cord grasses that lace the dunes and marshes bordering the Gulf. But each summer, hurricane season poses a distinct risk. Galveston, site of the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. — the 1900 Galveston Hurricane — has borne the brunt of such storms again and again. The most recent was 2008’s Hurricane Ike, which caused more than $50 billion worth of damage to the town and other nearby communities. Sea Scout Base Galveston, a nonprofit marine and maritime educational center completed in September 2014, was designed to take advantage of the gentle breezes, while also withstanding punishing gale-force winds. The site is anchored by a bustling, six-story, 70,000-sf building that includes dormitories, administrative offices, and more. The primary metaphor for the design of the structure was “a ship in dry dock, a boat that does not go out to sea,” says architect Dan Shipley, FAIA. 

Designed by Shipley Architects with Randall-Porterfield Architects of Galveston, the $40 million facility sits on 1,000 feet of waterfront, overlooking Offats Bayou and Moody Gardens across the way. Sea Scout Base hosts 80 to 140 visitors for week-long camps; it also partners with Houston Independent School District’s STEM programs and is open to the public on varying weekdays for community workshops. 

Shipley and his team sought to create a facility, now in the process of becoming LEED certified, that would be directly relevant to the educational mission of the Sea Scouts (effectively the nautical version of Boy Scouts). “This building and campus are teaching tools,” says Bob Randall, AIA, project architect. “They teach kids how to play and how to take care of their playground.” Randall, who has lived on the island for 40 years and has designed many public projects along the Texas coast, has a passion for the sort of ecological stewardship evidenced throughout the entire site. The master plan, for instance, includes 10,000 square feet of wetland restoration to remediate damage to a portion of shoreline previously buttressed with wooden jetty walls. The site and building design reflect concerns for the environment in other ways as well. Thirteen percent of the electrical load for the facility comes from solar panels. Onsite water management is facilitated by roof collection and permeable pavement, as well as four cisterns, which are 12’ in diameter x 28’ tall. Located aboveground as a teaching tool, these cisterns collect up to 84,000 gallons of rainwater quickly and efficiently: A February 2015 one-day, five-inch rainstorm filled all of the tanks on site.

The design of the main building, Doolin Hall — named in honor of Sea Scout Base’s major benefactors, Charles and Rosemary Doolin — is informed by the certainty of the next big storm. To anchor the 14,000-sf foundation, 600 auger-cast piers were drilled 82 feet deep, a technique that is part of the region’s vernacular, borrowed from Galveston’s oil industry; the earth itself becomes the formwork as the slurry flows from the rising drill bit. The roof is constructed to withstand wind uplifts of up to 150 lbs per square foot, while the windows can handle uplifts of up to 90 lbs per square foot in the most extreme conditions. The open-air ground floor sits five feet below the base flood elevation and is designed with every expectation of flooding. “We see the building as getting wet,” says Shipley. 

Materials for the structure, many of which meet 100-year floodplain and windstorm requirements, were selected for their resiliency in the face of extreme conditions. Concrete load-bearing columns at Doolin Hall are interspaced with walls constructed of ICF — insulated concrete forms — and covered in stucco. Exterior doors to the bunkrooms, made of fiberglass, are hung from heavy-duty hinges. Exposed wood details are made of ipe, which stands up well to salt spray and moisture. A custom fiberglass louver system, punctuated by ipe-framed portals, wraps the building’s breezeways. Interior spaces, constructed to withstand hard use by the campers who regularly roll through, are similarly durable. Spare and Spartan dorm rooms are carefully sized for bunk beds and the basic necessities. Rolling barn doors, constructed of oiled planks on wood tracks, separate bedroom from bathroom in each pair of rooms.

The chunky, robust detailing of Doolin Hall reflects both the need to withstand hurricanes and the ethos of the beach town in which the building resides, a place where tankers glide past sunbathers, and off-shore drilling platforms are easily visible from party decks. Three stairways are constructed of hot-dipped galvanized steel framing and wrapped in corrugated, perforated stainless steel panels.

Utilitarianism aside, enjoyment and beauty also have their place at the Sea Scout Base: The south staircase, which rises to the sixth floor, is topped by an observation deck that offers expansive bay views by day and acts as a shadowy open-air “lighthouse” by night. The sills of the ipe portals of the breezeway are gently angled, not only to repel water, but also to invite passersby to stay awhile, rest their arms, and enjoy the vista.    

Beyond Doolin Hall, Sea Scout Base has a minimum of conditioned space. From the minute learners arrive, most of their time is spent in the open coastal breeze. The site includes an outdoor classroom for lectures on navigation and rope-tying; a sail-drying pavilion; an outdoor chapel; a pool for recreation, swimming tests, and scuba certification; and an extraordinary floating marina housing boats of all sizes, including a 110-ft, two-story floating classroom ship. Scouts use the boats to sail out from the campus for overnight trips to Freeport and Port Aransas 30 miles away, or to the “Flower Gardens” coral reef 100 miles away. 

Like the ever-morphing landscape in which it’s situated, the Sea Scouts facility, says Shipley, is meant to “change over time.” The Sea Scout Base will continue to add programs and partnerships, teaching a generation of Texans and youths from around the country about marine science and the environment. In exposing these learners to the wild and fragile coastal ecosystem, the educational nonprofit fulfills a critical mission while also serving  as a campus designed for maximum fun. 

Erika Huddleston is a Texas artist who explores natural systems in  public parks. She has a master’s in landscape architecture from The University of Texas at Austin.

Originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Texas Architect.