Design for Life: Austin: Green and Red-Hot

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Gail Vittori and Pliny Fisk are green-building trailblazers who develop cutting-edge, eco-friendly housing solutions at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, established in 1975.
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Every December the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center hosts a "Luminations" community celebration.

Austin, Texas, isn’t just home to great food and music; it’s also a hotbed of green living. So when Design~Build~Live, an Austin sustainable learning center, invited me to give some presentations, I jumped on it. During the days between my talks on natural remodeling and life-centered design, DBL members took me on a whirlwind tour of some favorite spots.

I immediately felt at home at my hotel, Habitat Suites. Live plants grew in every room, lamps had compact fluorescent bulbs–and Natural Home graced the coffee table. Strolling the grounds, I enjoyed edible landscaping, herb spirals, native plants, rainwater barrels, photovoltaic panels, and a swimming pool treated with salt, not chlorine. The buffet featured fresh, healthy options and herbal tea. I was in heaven.

Go Native with Abandon

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center–279 acres supporting 650 species of Texas native plants–was a top-priority visit. Regional vernacular styles came alive in buildings made of local stone, fountains and pools fed by rainwater, a stone aqueduct, and a dramatic lookout tower. We strolled from the entry courtyard to a shady woodland garden, then toured 23 theme gardens showcasing everything from medicinal herbs to deer-resistant plants. A ramble through the Homeowner Inspiration Gardens and butterfly garden led out along trails through expansive meadows and woodlands. I could have spent days there.

If you can’t get there in person, check out the Center’s website for images, articles, a national native plant database (including pictures) and information on topics from fire ecology to green roofs to seed saving.

Green Homes Come Alive

The first U.S. city to institute a green building program, Austin bursts with stellar green dwellings. I enjoyed the divergent scales of two such houses: the Kanak and Stanley homes.

Valerie Kanak decided her 1,136-square-foot house was too big, but she liked her tree-lined neighborhood near a light-rail stop. She built an 800-square-foot home at the back of her lot and rented out the front house. Valerie’s house incorporates reclaimed materials, including siding from Texas-native Janis Joplin’s former home. The home’s single-room width makes natural lighting and ventilation a breeze, and a central stairwell sweeps hot air up and out. A porch on the west side provides a shady respite.

Across town, architects Lars and Lauren Stanley are growing an urban homestead on two acres, with a food garden courtyard at its heart. Lars and Lauren’s superinsulated home is built out of wheat-straw Structural Insulated Panels and powered by a photovoltaic array. It stays cool thanks to the local prairie grasses that grow on the roof and age-old Texas cooling techniques such as paddle fans, salvaged operable windows and a thermal chimney. The Stanleys capture rainwater, reuse graywater in the landscape, and irrigate the living roof with air-conditioner condensate. They envision becoming “a link in a chain of productive urban green spaces that demonstrate new paradigms for survival.”

The Ultimate Urban Infill

Moving the municipal airport outside of town freed up more than 700 acres in central Austin. Now the former tarmac is home to Mueller, a walkable, mixed-use urban village filled with homes, stores and nature preserves. 

Mueller’s preserved historic structures–a classic hangar and ’60s-Jetson-style control tower–are its most immediately striking visual characteristics. But the beautiful buildings are surrounded by the even more striking 140 acres of greenspace, filled with stormwater treatment ponds, parks and trails. Trees line every walkway and open areas are restored natural prairie.

Dwellings run from apartments to custom homes, with affordable housing units throughout. Some smaller homes cluster around shared courtyards; the innovative “Mueller Houses” look like large custom homes–but they hold four to six smartly designed individual dwellings. Front porches, neighborhood parks and car-free access to the town center encourage community. I wanted to move right in.

Reduce, Reuse, Rebuild if Necessary

To fuel all of this touring, we stopped at the East Side Café. What a treat to dine overlooking the garden where much of my meal grew! I enjoyed Watermelon and Cactus Fruit Soup, followed by Elaine’s Blue Plate Special: an enchilada with local Betsy Ross grass-fed beef and a salad of cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes fresh from the garden.

Then we visited Eco-Wise, “Your Earth-Friendly-Everything Store,” opened in 1990 by Jim and Amy Holland. Jim’s creative ideas are as valuable as the products offered there: Make drawer pulls from construction waste using nontoxic Gorilla Glue; on a balcony, use planters and vine trellises to create outdoor green space; renters can buy cork flooring and efficient appliances, and take them to their next home.

Finally, we headed for Hill Country, where Melanie and Mark McAfee have been running the nation’s only certified organic event facility since they purchased the historic Barr Mansion in 1981. If I were getting married in Texas, this would be the place. The McAfees’ dedication to sustainability shows in their organic cuisine, edible landscaping, zero-waste policy, and use of green materials in restoring the mansion and constructing their Artisan Ballroom–which had been a breathtaking timber-frame structure with earthen plasters, a thatched roof and a dreamy interior filled with plants, draped fabrics, and hundreds of twinkle lights. I’m glad I’d seen the ballroom previously, because we showed up days after lightning burned it to the ground. The McAfees have engaged Gayle Borst to help re-create an even greener ballroom–with a metal roof to replace the thatch that caught fire.

The Pot that Max Built

After days of teaching and touring, I kicked back at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, casually known as Max’s Pot. For decades, the center’s founders, Pliny Fisk and Gail Vittori, have been at the forefront of ecological building. They co-developed this country’s first green building program and now spearhead projects as diverse as housing displaced Haitians and greening hospitals.

I was delighted to see some of Pliny and Gail’s renowned work in person: the Advanced Green Builder Demonstration Home, showcasing adaptable, efficient, lifecycle-based construction (and recently named one of Architect magazine’s top U.S. green buildings since 1980); the Solar Decathlon building, “a flexible, modular open building system that changes with the occupants’ needs”; and the Haiti GroForm shelters, developed in response to the earthquake in Haiti.

Sitting back in my sling chair on the Max’s Pot patio, I was surrounded by lush greenery and inspiring projects. I listened to the cicadas and evening birds, smelled the wild-caught salmon cooking on the mesquite grill, took a deep breath and gave thanks for Gail, Pliny, and all the amazing people I’d met in Austin.