Sustainable Design: Montrose Market HEB, Houston

Planning for Houston's Montrose Market HEB was not without controversy, but the client and architects found successful ways to engage the community in the design process. Today, almost two years out, the Lake|Flato-designed store is working very well on a variety of levels.

The site design of the Montrose Market HEB allowed for the preservation of trees and green spaces, and the creation of a front plaza, or "town square."
A café looks out onto the plaza and contributes to its activity.
The feel of the place was dramatically enhanced by the incorporation of daylight through roof monitors and solar shaded windows.
View of roof monitors and solar shaded windows
Despite initial concerns over how the store would impact the community, Montrose Market HEB has experienced retail success — and the growth of a customer base with anecdotal fondness for the store.
Montrose Market HEB

Not near the usual high-speed highway or major cross street, the HEB grocery complex that sits on Houston's West Alabama Street had an auspicious if controversial beginning. There was initial criticism of the project stemming from its location on the former site of a beloved but dilapidated apartment complex deep in the city's Montrose neighborhood. The community was also concerned over increased traffic in the area and the possible loss of large trees. So from the beginning, HEB treated the project as an extension of the neighborhood.

In an effort to build community engagement, Lake|Flato Architects, HEB’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Design William Triplett, AIA, and architect of record Selser Schaefer Architects hosted a meeting in a local church in which they presented three schemes to the community and had residents select the final design. The Montrose Market HEB was completed in 2011, and over the course of two years, the store has experienced retail success, something for which the supermarket chain is generally well known, as well as the growth of a customer base with anecdotal fondness for the store.

Importantly, both the community and the HEB brand also now have a high performance big box with LEED NC Silver certification. As an armature for human activity and resource consumption, the grocery store is working very well on a variety of levels.

Community Engagement/Satisfaction 

The Montrose Market HEB is an urban store, and its customer base is about 80% singles and empty nesters. Thus, its use and operations take a different approach than those of a suburban market. The HEB team considers the location a  “customers’ store” – one that strives to create a sense of engagement and ownership through the site- and store-design process, as well as through its ongoing services.

The site design supports the retention of the large trees characteristic of the neighborhood (only three were removed during construction) and the preservation of several green spaces, more than typical parking areas allow. This sustainable site plan, which delivers a temperately cooler site that handles rainwater far better than usual, in turn supports a cornucopia of events: weekend music performances, including those of students from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts; food truck dining; Mother’s Day Out programs; and more.

The energized front plaza, or “town square,” is visually connected with the store’s interior and supports shaded dining. A cafe and a quick stop medical storefront look onto the plaza and contribute to its activity. Even on a cool Friday in March, this area was highly animated with school groups and variety of lunchtime picnickers.

Fit-to-Community Scale 

The design of the corner lot facility needed to respect the main thoroughfare of West Alabama as well as the cross street, Dunlavy, while accomodating parking. However, the parking lot was

 

purposefully placed to the south and not on West Alabama to mirror the neighborhood setbacks and avoid creating a great gap on the street frontage. The West Alabama facade incorporates material in its panels and vegetative screens to embed a smaller scaling, and the design protects and de-emphasizes the loading dock with this screening. In addition, a daylight monitor roof profile and a corner “light beacon tower” energize the skyline along West Alabama while, south of the grocery block, the plaza at the front of the store continues the scale of neighborhood green spaces.

Energy and Resource Use  

HEB is considered progressive in its thinking about facility performance. LEED was a tool from the beginning, and the site, energy, and water targets drove the design team to look to some new tactics — daylight harvesting, LED light fixtures with cut-off lenses as parking lot lighting, and water conserving fixtures — to add to the raft of already well developed HEB initiatives in process power and water loads. As Triplett notes, “LEED was the right thing to do here. HEB facility leaders usually seek a three- to five-year return on investments, but special initiatives will go for longer (four to five years). While the design/operations integrated team sets utility targets for a lower cost of occupancy, it is done without customer sacrifice or discomfort.”  Currently the store is running at 21 percent better than the ASHRAE target.

Indoor Environment Quality/Comfort 

The HEB design team has its operators, vendors, and customers in mind. Shannon Simpson, store manager of the West Alabama HEB since it opened, sees all the advantages of this close working relationship with the design team and continually seeks improvements. The goal of the design is to maintain high performance once it is built. A grocery store is a complex program; as David Lake, FAIA, principal at Lake|Flato notes, “Stores are like labs for merchandising, continually trying new approaches – adjacencies, for example, are key.” But the feel of the place was dramatically enhanced by the incorporation of daylight through roof monitors and solar shaded windows.

Value 

At HEB, the process for design aligns with both operations and store management. Feedback from operations lessons was used to design the Montrose Market HEB and will continue to inform the design process and performance tactics at a new store in being planned in Austin at the Mueller Airport redevelopment. Maintenance costs are high for a food store in general, and higher still with landscape, but it appears to be good investment: customers and partners (the HEB staff) appreciate the site amenities. Are the Montrose Market HEB partners working better? Triplett says that it is tough to compare – they work differently in new and urban stores — but the first-year retention shows some stability and appears to be better than for most stores. With retail grocery competition in the neighborhood, “we are in a very good place,” says Simpson.

 

by: Rives Taylor, FAIA, principal at Gensler in Houston

Talk About It

About 12 months ago: Anonymous

We live around the block from this suburban-spawl-sized monster. It is much too large for the fine-grained inner city neighborhood. It drove out of business a small Fiesta store that was well tuned to the neighborhood (the site will now contain a 500-unit apartment complex). Traffic on our narrow street has increased and the noise from their outdoor band disturbs our evening peace. The W Alabama facade is nothing but sheer concrete, no entrances or any acknowledgement of a neighborhood to be served. They tried to hide/cover it up with vines.

A couple of issues back, CITE (no. 85, Spring 2011) had an article on the grocery store wars in Houston. Most telling was a map that showed accessibility of shopping to city neighborhoods. Even before HEB, we could get to half a dozen groceries in a couple of minutes (see large map, pg. 38). Large areas of the city have no groceries within over a mile radius.

This palette of trellises, wood veneer, and clerestories does not cover up a big urban mistake. We'll keep shopping at Kroger.

About 12 months ago: Jonathan Brown

I haven't been to the site, but after reviewing the aerial, I think the above comments are an interesting perspective. Big box retailers are first and foremost a big box. That box can be carved up and have different materials adorn it, but the fundamental typology remains the same. I think this design makes some positive steps towards addressing some long-time concerns that people have with the big boxes, including breaking it down morphologically, and programming it with different use opportunities etc. However, it is still a big box, it is still surrounded by parking and the plaza space it creates is internal and does not appear to actively engage the community or augment the streetscape or urban edge.

I'd really like to see innovative retailers like HEB rethink the size, scale, inter-connectivity, programming and site planning of their stores in completely revolutionary ways, really push this idea much father, and emerge with an urban concept that transforms an industry.

About 12 months ago: Texas Society of Architects

Thanks to both of you for sharing your thoughts and providing a fuller picture of the story and surrounding controversy.

About 11 months ago: Justin Hegan

I've been to that store a few times...it's well thought out and in a beautiful setting. I'm in the Heights and we'd hoped for an HEB along the same lines on Yale Street. Instead we got a super Walmart which promptly bulldozed all the mature oaks and went the "acres of asphalt" route. It has all the charm of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Retail and big box stores are a fact of life in an urban environment...at least some forethought and community input were involved to make it as nice a setting as possible. On the whole, this project is an asset to the community it serves and was very well done.