LEED Gold Mixed-Use Community Planned for Houston Suburb

WaterLights District is a  $700 million, 155-acre master planned community in Pearland, Texas designed for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification. Groundbreaking is slated for April 2009, with first deliveries scheduled for April 2010.MHN Associate Editor Erika Schnitzer talks to David Goswick, executive director, Historic Real Estate Inc., a private real estate investment and development company, and Steve Biegel, CEO, Matrix Spencer Architects, the project’s master planner about the site’s sustainable features, green building trends in Texas, and how the economy is affecting development.Overall site size: 155-acre development featuring up to 1,400 residential units, retail, office space, two hotels and up to 5,900 parking spaces.MHN: How is the project being financed? Goswick: It’s a combination of equity and debt. We have a bank loan, which was secured 18 months ago, by Amegy Bank. We are doing the majority of work through private equity. Given today’s financial market, it’s difficult to predict on the debt side. We are approached by groups interested both in the entire development and in pieces of it. We’re not having difficulty identifying equity. We haven’t pursued debt in the past six months, but we will once the handcuffs are taken off the banks.MHN: Describe some of the development’s green features. Biegel: We have established LEED Gold as our target and have registered the project with USGBC. We believe we can get to 42 points total. In order to make the project as sustainable and green as possible—and because there are so many buildings—we approach this as a campus, and the first step in our sustainability goal is to include as much green infrastructure as we can. We start with how much sustainability we can build into the site itself before we even get to building design. It will be easier for the architects of the future to achieve the LEED Gold designation because so many points will be in the ground and infrastructure.For building one, we will be trapping the grease and oils from restaurants and chemically treating them with organisms to break down saturated fats and recover oils for fuel from the kitchens. That means the water leaving the kitchen will be trapped and filtered, and grease will stay behind and be recycled for fuel. For offices and residential, the first thing we are doing is recycling the greywater. We have two types of green roofs. The first is the reflective roof, a combination of light-colored and light-gauge reflective metal roofing to reflect the heat. One of our largest concerns is air conditioning, so reflecting heat reduces the air conditioning load. The truly green roofs we employ will be vegetated roofs for people to reach and maintain. We are minimizing the number of hard walls on the interiors, so they are very open loft-style floor plans. That helps with our heating and cooling demand, because there is less ductwork and air mixes more readily. The emergency lighting and night lighting for pathways in stair towers and public areas will be photovoltaic, so those will be low-intensity LEDs powered by photovoltaic storage. MHN: Explain the green trend in Texas. Where is it headed?Biegel: The momentum with sustainable design effort is growing all over Texas. I think Texas has its own challenges because of the humid and hot climate here—it’s the reverse of designing in New York City and Chicago. Our primary concern is reducing energy demand for cooling, and that means using shade to a larger extent to reduce the solar load that comes in on these buildings. We need to create cooling zones throughout the development. 
MHN: What were your aesthetic and functional design objectives?Biegel: We are in design right now. I believe that the residential buildings will take on two distinctive personalities. The street side is similar to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., where you have the quaintness of the residential street, but the backside of the building is facing the water and park. That is a very contemporary—mostly glass—personality to take advantage of the views. There is an openness of the plan that comes from resource conservation and a deliberate intention to have two personalities: a street personality and a water personality. That gives a hint of the people who want to rent or buy here. They’re people who want the mixed-use street-level retail, loft-style living. MHN: Who is the target demographic?Goswick: We will have an assortment of residences—luxury apartments to condo lofts for sale. The uniqueness of the market is that it’s very diverse. There are scientists, doctors, medical technicians and researchers coming from all over the world, and because of that, these are people who aren’t really looking for a traditional single-family home to rent or buy.Biegel: This is one of the first developments—the only one that I know of—that is approaching LEED certification on a campus design standpoint. Most developments are specific to particular buildings and sites. This is why we have taken the approach that we have to begin the sustainable design effort right from the first shovel of dirt, and be specific from everything that follows. We are fortunate that we are close to Rice University and Texas Medical Center, because we have a clientele for residential units and office space that are well educated and who understand energy conservation. I think these are people who would want to be residents at Waterlights because it will truly be a sustainable campus.MHN: How is the downturn in the economy affecting development?Biegel: There are many challenges ahead. The economy is one, but the Waterlights property is so well located between Houston and Galveston on the major North-South corridor and is in close proximity to the Medical Center. Because of the sustainable features and the mixed-use components, it will probably be one of the most popular developments and investment opportunities going forward. The challenge is to get going and make it happen as quickly as possible. Most of the dollars are from foreign investments and we are getting pressure to make it real.Goswick: People ask, “Why are we dong this now?” The development is seven miles from Texas Medical Center, and there is $8 billion worth of construction at the Medical Center now and 35,000 new jobs. The attraction of Texas Medical Center is that it is the world’s largest medical center by a factor of three. It currently employs over 100,000 people and five-and-a-half million visitors come annually to the medical center. The Waterlights district is located in the market area that is home to most employees already, and we are the gateway to where a lot of the employees live right now. The predictable job growth is one of the reasons we are master planning this. Given today’s market conditions, there is a real barrier to competition. We are 12 to 24 months ahead of the future competition, and when debt is turned loose, we should get better rates. Construction bids are coming in significantly lower, so in many ways it’s the perfect storm. These market conditions are unprecedented and horrible, but in a strange way they have probably helped us. When you look at the U.S., Texas continues to be the leader in job growth and retention. When you look at Texas, the Houston market is the healthiest of all the markets. When you look at Houston, with oil declining in price, you have to look at where the jobs are at a submarket standpoint and we are at the heart of that market.