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Shangri La Botanical Gardens

Orange, Texas

Finding Shangri La: Outdoor classrooms, exhibition space, and public buildings make up this campus in a southeast Texas cypress swamp.

By Aleksandr Bierig

In 34 years of teaching science around Orange, Texas, Michael Hoke saw a generation of students less and less connected to nature. “How many kids, nowadays, have a chance to go and eat something out of a garden?” he wondered. After George H. W. Bush presented him with the presidential award for excellence in science teaching in 1990, Hoke put his prize money toward fundraising for a nature education program. He wanted to bring his students to an area of cypress swamp near Orange, conserved for many years by its owner, the Stark Foundation.

Shangri-La Botanical Gardens. Orange, Texas
Photo © Hester + Hardaway
Shangri-La Botanical Gardens. Orange, Texas

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LOCATION: Orange, Texas (Sabine River watershed)

GROSS SQUARE FOOTAGE: 17,600 ft2 (1,640 m2)

COST: not available

COMPLETED: April 2008

ANNUAL PURCHASED ENERGY USED (based on simulation): 18 kBtu/ft2 (204 MJ / m2), 65% reduction from base case

ANNUAL CARBON FOOTPRINT (predicted): 6 lbs. CO2 /

ft2 (28 kg CO2 / m2)

PROGRAM: Orientation center, nature discovery center lab & pavilion, outpost classrooms, boat house

NC Version 2 Platinum

OWNER: The Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation
ARCHITECT: Lake|Flato Architects
LANDSCAPE: Jeffrey Carbo Landscape Architects, MESA Design Group
ENGINEERS: R.L. Goodson, Philip Beard (structural); Henderson Engineers (MEP); Laserna Consulting Engineers (electrical); Brandon J. Monceaux Consulting Engineers (civil); Science Engineering (geotechnical)
ENVIRONMENTAL CONSULTANT: Earthly Ideas (LEED consultant); Meridian Energy Systems (solar)
LIGHTING: Archillume Lighting Design
ACOUSTICAL: Dickensheets Design Associates

CURTAINWALL: Berger Iron Works
CONCRETE: Gould Concrete
WOOD: Vintage Materials Supply Company
WINDOWS: PPG Industries
DOORS: University Building Products
FLASHING: Vincent Roofing
FLOORING: McCoy Specialty Products

The foundation’s creator, timber-industrialist Lutcher Stark, had cultivated a picturesque promenade garden on part of the 252-acre site in the 1940s, after reading Lost Horizon, the book that conjured an unblemished monastery in Tibet called “Shangri-La.”

Stark named his gardens after that idyllic vision, but a difficult freeze in the mid 1950s, followed by his death in 1965, meant the area was left alone for a number of decades, unintentionally preserved as one of the best natural habitats near this southeast Texas town. Hoke began bringing students to the swamp in 1995, and, around 2000, the program’s success inspired the Stark Foundation to propose the creation of a permanent education center, along with a restoration of the historical gardens.

“When we started this project, we didn’t know the word LEED. We just said we want the buildings to be as earth-friendly as possible,” says Hoke. The foundation first went to Louisiana Landscape Architect Jeffrey Carbo for help restoring the Shangri- La gardens. Carbo collaborated with a larger firm, Mesa Design, which had previously worked with Lake | Flato, and suggested that the San Antonio-based architecture firm take on the campus buildings. The order of the arrangement landscape preceding architecture foreshadowed how the buildings would be conceived.

Bob Harris, FAIA, partner-in-charge on the project, describes this process: “It was an example of how not to think of architecture as an imposition, but to think of the site and natural surroundings as the point of departure.” A number of innovative sustainable strategies emerged from this mindset. All of the classroom pavilions, set in the swamp, were constructed with helical piers as foundations—an iterative process of placing small piers at 6-foot increments, one leading to the next. This allowed the piers to be placed without disturbing the swamp with excessively heavy machinery. Piers also provided clearance for the pavilions above the flood plane of the bayou.

Lake | Flato reused abandoned greenhouses on site and saved brick from nearby warehouse buildings for the site’s new structures. Salvaged timber was repurposed for fences and siding, reclaimed asphalt for the parking lot, and recycled plastic—the equivalent of 1.1 million milk jugs—was used to construct the boardwalks that traverse the swamp. Overall, 79 percent of construction waste was diverted from the landfill, and the buildings were constructed on previously developed land, leaving the habitat as undisturbed as possible.

Water and energy were other central considerations in the planning of Shangri-La. Nine cisterns (a total capacity of 33,200 gallons) collect rooftop rainwater, which is used for irrigation and toilets, reducing water use 77 percent over baseline figures. In this extremely hot and humid area, nearly half the buildings are open to the elements, using only shading and ventilation. The jury cited this openness to climate, as well as the use of photovoltaic cells at each of the remote classrooms, as integral to the campus’s energy-saving strategy, which reduced use by two-thirds against the average.

In 2005, the landfall of Hurricane Rita provided another remarkable opportunity for environmental adaptation. After the hurricane decimated the forest and the nascent construction site, Hoke worked with state officials to clear the site of a thick layer of dead trees that were choking out new growth. Moving as quickly as possible, a team with mobile saw mills salvaged much of the felled wood for use. Lake | Flato quickly changed material specifications, using the felled trees in the buildings themselves, turning a disaster into an opportunity.

Hoke followed with an ambitious program to replant the forest with native Longleaf Pines, which had been subsumed by the faster-growing, invasive Loblolly Pines. He estimates that he and his team planted 17,000 trees and “Mother Nature probably planted another 50,000.” After the building opened in late 2007, it was hit yet again by Hurricane Ike, which, while less severe than Rita, still required a huge amount of rebuilding due to widespread flooding. The center has been open again since early this year, with a staff of eight teachers and busloads of schoolchildren arriving daily.

Those visitors are treated to an envi-ronment that separates inside from out as little as possible. Since students are inside hermetic classrooms most of the year, it was part of Hoke’s intention to immerse students in the natural world: “Kids come out here and have an experience,” he says. “Going into a cypress swamp on an electric boat is a pretty neat thing.” That experience is amplified by the buildings: on-site classrooms, outdoor circulation space that floats above the water, and a series of repurposed greenhouses all seem to grow out of the forest, at peace with (and a piece of) the land that surrounds it.

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This article appeared in the July 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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