Nestled behind a thick layer of trees on Research Forest and Gosling, originally intended by The Woodlands founder George Mitchell to be an area of technology and research, the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) now solely dedicates itself to sustainability challenges and providing research analysis on energy, air and water with the consistent focus of helping organizations thrive while maintaining an environmentally sound strategy.

In 1982, Mitchell founded HARC with a segment of the nonprofit focused on sustainability and environmental themes, a particular passion of the successful oil and gas businessman. Almost twenty years later in 2001, HARC’s entire mission was restructured to look solely at sustainability issues and analysis based on related topics. Lisa Gonzalez, President and CEO of HARC, says, “Everything we do, whether it’s energy or water, we always try to bring in these three perspectives: economy, community and environment.”

HARC approached the development of their new building centered on those three fundamental viewpoints in 2016. The new, ultra environmentally conscious building unlike any structure in the Greater Houston area was a concept its leaders recognized as something exceptional, yet quite attainable. “It aligns with our sustainability goals as a research organization,” says Mustapha Beydoun, Vice President and COO of HARC, “If a nonprofit organization can operate this kind of building, then it’s certainly possible for any sized company to do this.”

With the guidance of architects and engineers from Gensler, CMTA, Walter P Moore and Vogt Engineering, they designed HARC’s new headquarters to be energy-efficient from the slightest detail to large-scale technologies delivering significant impact. To begin with, an ecological assessment was performed on the 3.5-acre site to preserve plant species and animal habitat, which meant only developing on 30% of the total property. No irrigation is necessary on site due to native, water-smart plants which thrive there and bioswales, vegetative areas that filter water and pollutants away from the building while maintaining habitat. The price for their water bill? Minimal. Most homeowners pay more for their residential water bill than this 18,600 square foot commercial space and property.

The only U.S. Green Building Council certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum facility in The Woodlands, HARC has an even greater goal: to become Net Zero Energy in 2019, which means producing more energy than is consumed over the course of the year. Its 250 Texas-manufactured solar panels are helping lead the way as is the geothermal heating and cooling system which uses 37 deep wells underneath the modest parking lot, all without the use of natural gas. “There are a lot of systems operating behind the scenes that make it highly efficient and on the path to Net Zero. We wanted this to be a model for other commercial development projects around the region,” Gonzalez says.

Not only are they fully engaged in conserving energy and water themselves, but information abides through every system and plug outlet. If the coffeemaker or a specific computer is using more than its share of energy, it is investigated and solved with energy-efficiency as top priority.

Dirk Kestner, Director of Sustainable Design at Walter P. Moore and structural engineer for the project, says, “HARC took a holistic approach to the definition of “Net Zero” and looked not only at the impacts associated with operating the building, but also minimized the environmental impacts caused from the materials and processes used to make the building. Very few owners take such a comprehensive approach.”

The interior is just as significant as the structure itself. Ample daylight above the tree line tames the need for much artificial light. Walls of windows display a beautiful nature scene rather than buildings or concrete. As an employee, it would not be unusual to see a grey fox, a bobcat, or a hawk as you go about your day. Minimalistic in design, green-conscious materials are utilized and functional workspaces are evident, such as doors that double as writing boards and adjustable desks for standing or sitting.

The building and its unique “green” attributes have not gone unnoticed. HARC’s headquarters won the prestigious 2017 Urban Land Institute Award which identifies commercial developments that stand out in the greater Houston area. Beating out Moody Gardens for the top nonprofit choice, HARC’s structure hopes to be an educational tool fostering community outreach as well as a model to inspire other organizations to make the same bold, environmentally responsible progress. Cost-effective from design to implementation, HARC strives to keep a comfortable workplace while working toward its Net Zero goal. “It’s not that we’re giving anything up to be this efficient. It’s the exact opposite. We’re enhancing the work environment, and people are happy,” Beydoun says.

“We want it to be a center of community activities, especially those that tie back to Mr. Mitchell’s legacy of sustainability,” says Gonzalez. HARC opens its doors to organizations like The Woodlands Township and Master Naturalist, a welcome place to hold educational community events related to sustainability and the environment. Groups such as Girl Scouts, environmental organizations, builders and others are invited to tour the facility. Referred to as a “living lab,” HARC not only desires to provide their research capabilities, but to inspire more people and organizations to think about the impact they can have in their communities by providing education and real-time information. “The goal was to deliver a building that embodied HARC’s commitment to holistic environmental stewardship and that would serve as a teaching tool,” Kestner says, “I’m very pleased with the outcome.”

With almost 3,000 visitors since its opening, HARC’s goals were never one-sided. Education and outreach along with maintaining a sustainable workplace headed towards Net Zero Energy is the only path that makes sense, “For us it was an important mission. We need to walk the walk,” Gonzalez says.

Article by: Mindy Jones