Soflo Office Studios
South Of The Alamo: In South Flores, an up-and-coming area bordering downtown San Antonio, a former factory on a Brownfield gets a face-lift from the architects for their own offices
Few who saw the original Soflo Office Studios Building site, located in the up-and-coming South Flores, or SoFlo neighborhood, responded with much enthusiasm—the more common reaction was disbelief. “Most people would say, ‘Oh, my God,’” reveals Mike McGlone, AIA, principal at Alamo Architects. “That’s what we said too,” he adds with a laugh. The brownfield property was originally owned by a family business that built truck trailers, but more recently had been used as a junkyard. “There was scrap piled everywhere,” says Mickey Conrad, AIA, principal at O’Neill Conrad Oppelt (OCO) Architects. Where most people saw trash, Conrad saw treasure. “The buildings had good bones,” he explains. What’s more, the site was located in SoFlo, just a half-mile south of downtown San Antonio. At about $350,000 to purchase the old junkyard, the price was right.
Based on what you have seen and read about this project, how would you grade it? Use the stars below to indicate your assessment, five stars being the highest rating.
Conrad had been eyeing the property for a couple of years, but it was too big for OCO alone. When Conrad learned that Alamo was looking to relocate, though, he grabbed the opportunity. The principals of the two firms, former classmates at the University of Texas at Austin, formed a limited partnership and bought the property. That partnership now leases space back to both firms. Alamo occupies the 10,700-square-foot larger building, which was originally built in the late 1940s. OCO’s building, at 5,200 square feet, was added in the late 1950s. The firms share a small storage shed and two courtyards.
Alamo and OCO designed their own interior spaces but collaborated on the exteriors and the site. The firms agreed on a bohemian vision, according to Conrad, and the buildings complement one another through a cohesive, if motley, aesthetic. “Everybody I bring over here is in awe,” says Conrad, who attributes the magic of the project to “having the guts to leave things exposed. Most people would try to cover it up, paint it, hide it. We thought, ‘It is what it is—leave it be.’ ” The teams maintained 87 percent of the buildings’ structures and shells. They also found new uses for all those heaps of junk: Sixteen percent of the materials used in the renovation, measured by value, was salvaged.
In Alamo’s office, longleaf pine that originally served as the decking on service mezzanines became cladding for a new interior storage loft. Steel clerestory frames were reglazed with translucent panels—after an asbestos-containing glazing compound had been removed—and turned into guardrails on the stairway and atop the loft. The pitted concrete floor was polished and left exposed in most areas. In OCO’s office, overhead bay doors were reused as interior-finish panels. “They are old sheet metal with a great rusted patina,” says Conrad. An old ship’s ladder provides access to a new loft that runs down the center of the building. The ladder’s yellow and turquoise paint—vestiges of past uses—inspired color choices throughout the space. Structural steel has been left exposed, and the original corrugated metal roof remains as decking underneath insulation and a new metal roof.
The firms also embellished the site with existing remnants. “As we did archeology on the property, we kept finding things,” says Root Design Company’s Barry Landry, who designed the project’s landscape. More clerestory frames were used as fencing, and extra sheet-metal doors were turned into columns for a courtyard entry gate. Rusty turbine vents cap the columns, and a large culvert now holds a koi pond. Found concrete pieces became both stepping-stones for pathways and a fence that runs along one border of the property. “We even sent the landscape architect down the street to ‘liberate’ some additional concrete,” says Jerry Lammers, principal at Alamo.
The firms used crushed granite in place of paving, allowing all rainwater to soak into the ground on-site. Vegetated areas feature mostly native species that require little water. Close to the southern courtyard’s pond, however, Landry designed an oasis with “almost jungly, tropical plants.” In the lawn areas, he used zoysia, a grass that needs trimming only a couple of times each year. “When it’s not cut, it develops a beautiful wave feature,” says Landry. “When the wind blows, it makes a lovely rustling sound.” It’s also soft enough for bare feet.
A 6,500-gallon cistern collects Alamo’s air-conditioner condensate as well as rainwater from half its roof. This cistern supplies water for the pond and much of the irrigation needs. McGlone describes San Antonio’s climate as “drought interrupted by periodic flooding,” making it difficult to rely exclusively on rainwater for irrigation. Adding a second cistern might have allowed for the elimination of potable water for irrigation, but it would have cost thousands of dollars and two parking spaces, a trade the firms have so far found unjustified. Even so, the project uses 80 percent less potable water for irrigation than a project with conventional plantings and irrigation. In addition, both offices use faucet aerators and urinals that flush with just 0.5 gallons, contributing to an overall 32 percent reduction in potable water use.
The firms designed for energy efficiency as well. The use of daylighting in the largely open interiors is the most significant efficiency strategy. Alamo’s rectangular building is oriented along an east-west axis, and a continuous clerestory runs along the ridge of the gable roof. This building was well suited to daylighting, but the team added overhangs in some areas to prevent overheating and glare. OCO’s building, however, also rectangular, is oriented along a north-south axis. In response, the team built a trellis from salvaged steel pieces and covered it with wisteria vines that filter the western light. Shades provide additional protection when needed.
Operable windows for natural ventilation contributed another important strategy. San Antonio’s winters are mild enough that opening the windows makes sense for almost half of the year, according to Brian Ulrich, PE, of DBR Engineering Consultants, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineer for the project. Both teams also reskinned their building walls with corrugated Galvalume and batt insulation, dramatically improving their energy performance. As for the mechanical systems, the teams opted for familiarity and simplicity. Ulrich says that the small budget limited their options. “We didn’t go to great lengths to create the world’s most efficient systems,” he says, “but we took the best common-sense approach to keeping the buildings comfortable.” Energy modeling projects a 19 percent reduction in energy use and a 12 percent reduction in energy costs, compared with a similar project in minimal compliance with ASHRAE 90.1-2004.
This was the first LEED project for most members of the project team, including all the architects. Both firms had been wanting to move toward green design, however. “What better project than your own to get your feet wet?” says Nicki Mellado, LEED coordinator for Alamo, adding that they learned a lot in the process.
Misunderstandings over calculation protocols cost them a few points, for example. “If we could do it all over again, we would push harder,” she says, but the team is still thrilled with the project’s Silver rating. McGlone is especially excited to use their experiences to energize San Antonio’s green building movement, which has been slow to take off. “Now we can show the community, ‘Look, we did this, and you can do it too,’ ” he says.
share: more »