A few years ago, a field and a line of oak trees was the only visual relief amid a swath of surface parking lots next to Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. Even the nearby addition of Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros baseball team, and the Toyota Center arena and entertainment facility in the early 2000s could not enliven the forlorn parcel wedged in the high-profile spot. “Walking from the convention center to the central business district was like walking across the surface of the moon,” recalls Guy Hagstette, president of the Discovery Green Conservancy.

When the landowners of the field decided to sell in 2004, former Houston mayor Bill White forged a public-private partnership to acquire the site and combine it with city-owned land. The goal was to create an ambitious 12-acre park called Discovery Green that would serve the entire city. Hagstette’s Discovery Green Conservancy was formed as a nonprofit organization to develop and operate the park. In all, the $125 million project includes a range of park amenities, art, and gardens; a café, a restaurant, and a park administration building; and a 600-space underground parking garage.

A Houston park demands shade, so an existing row of trees on site was saved and supplemented with trees transplanted from a nearby site that was being redeveloped into multifamily residences. Landscape architects Hargreaves Associates in San Francisco and Houston-based architects PageSoutherlandPage collaborated on the site plan to place buildings adjacent to the trees.

The conservancy planned to draw the community to Discovery Green with abundant programming, which posed a challenge to the creation of a green oasis. “Intensive programming usually equates to a lot of paved space,” explains Mary Margaret Jones, senior principal at Hargreaves Associates, “so we concentrated all the major activities on the spine of a tree-lined promenade, which allowed us to keep green spaces in the outlying areas.”

As plans evolved, the partnership decided to shape the park into a model for green practices. The park as a whole is LEED certified. The designers placed the Grove restaurant, the Lake House café, and the administration building (all of which achieved individual LEED Gold certifications) along the site’s north-south axis to take advantage of optimal shade and capture maximum daylight.

For protection from Houston’s blazing sun, the architects added deep, shady porches on the buildings’ south sides. The buildings themselves act as shading elements on the north façades and the roof lines slope up to let light in. Atop the Grove, a vegetated roof offers insulation, a reduced heat island, and herbs that are used in the kitchen.

The restaurant has a series of patios, decks, and terraces, and the café has an extensive outdoor dining space. Lawrence Speck, principal of PageSoutherlandPage, oriented the buildings to benefit from the southeast prevailing breezes in order to create passive ventilation. “Wherever we could make outdoor space, we did,” says Speck. “These environmentally treated spaces maximize the amount of time the buildings can go without air conditioning, which is extremely important in a hot, humid climate.”

Passive strategies are combined with renewable energy features. The café and administration buildings’ porches sport two photovoltaic arrays comprising a total of 256 solar panels that provide a combined power generation of 49.9 kW, enough to supply roughly 8 percent of the park’s total energy needs. (The solar panels’ generation rates can be tracked online at my.sre3.com/discoverygreen.) In addition, solar hot water panels on the café’s roof provide hot water to serve the two buildings.

Discovery Green’s replacement of the surface parking with the underground garage significantly reduces the site’s heat island effect. Another positive urban design element took shape over the parking garage entry. The team covered the slope above the descending concrete ramp with earth and grass so that it now provides casual seating space for performances on a nearby stage. The green roof is both functional and aesthetically pleasing, and the stairwell that emerges from the garage is composed of long, thin art pieces.

Groundwater from the underground parking structure is collected in a drainage system that pumps it into the park’s lake rather than the city’s stormwater system or sewage drain. There, natural agitation and plants biofiltrate the groundwater to clean it, minimizing the need to purchase potable water to replenish the lake.

Another consideration in site planning was Houston’s location in the Central Flyway—a migratory route for numerous birds between Canada and Mexico. Jones says a mosaic of native plants and gardens supports the diversity of bird species on their journey from north to south (and vice versa), and that the habitat also draws butterflies.

The park attracts economic activity as well. Convention center bookings increased by 18 percent in 2008, the year the park opened, and three projects are under way adjacent to Discovery Green: a 347-unit residential high-rise, a 262-room hotel, and an 800,000-square-foot office building that was fully leased during construction.

The park also is a hit socially, despite initial fears that a park located in a business-centric locale wouldn’t entice families and local community groups. On the contrary, more than 400 events now are held on site each year, from Pilates classes and bicycle repair workshops to farmers’ markets, organic gardening classes, lunchtime concerts, and arts exhibitions.

“The project shows how the public and private sectors can work as a team to really get it right,” asserts Hagstette. “Each partner contributed what it does best, and we are all proud of the results.”

KJ Fields writes about sustainability and architecture from Portland, Ore.

Green team

Architect, commissioner, LEED consultant, MEP engineer: John Cryer III, Lawrence W. Speck, Jeff Bricker, Robert Owens, Aaron Jones, Marcus Martinez, Joanna Yaghooti, Jonathan Vaughan, George Logan, Cyril Unger, Mike Huszka and Bill Chalmers, PageSoutherlandPage, pspaec.com

Client: Guy Hagstette, Discovery Green Conservancy, discoverygreen.com

Environmental consultant: Timothy Crump, TGE Resources, tgeresources.com

General contractor: Julia Odell, Miner-Dederick Construction, minerdederick.com

Interior designer, the Grove: Candice Schiller, Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group, schiller-delgrande.com

Landscape architect: Lauren Griffith, Lauren Griffith Associates, laurengriffithassociates.com

Prime firm, park planner, landscape architect: Mary Margaret Jones, Hargreaves Associates, hargreaves.com

Site /garage electrical engineer: Larry Hunt, Hunt & Hunt Engineering Corp., hhecorp.com

Structural engineer: Jamison Smith, Walter P Moore, walterpmoore.com; Elaine Rogers, Henderson & Rogers, hr-structural.com

Materials and Sources

Art, the Grove: Eduardo Ortiz

Bar, the Grove: 3Form, 3-form.com

Carpet: J&J/Invision, jj-invision.com

Ceilings: Armstrong, armstrong.com; Acoustical Concepts, aciceiling.com

Flooring: Daltile, daltile.com

Glass: Ranger Specialized Glass, rangerglass.com

Insulation: Firestone Building Products; Certainteed Corp., certainteed.com

Interior walls: Elgin Butler Co., elginbutler.com

Lamps, the Grove: Lighting Unlimited, lulighting.com

Masonry, concrete, and stone: St. Joe Brick Works, stjoebrickworks.com

Metal: Berger Iron Works, bergeriw.com

Millwork, the Grove tabletops: Joshtom Millwork, joshtommillwork.com

Paints and finishes, the Grove: Sherwin Williams, sherwin-williams.com

Pavers: Dreyfus Construction Co., dreyfusconstruction.com

Photovoltaics: BP, bp.com

Roofing: Alcoa, alcoa.com; Gulf Star Roofing and Sheet Metal, gulfstar.com

Room Divider, the Grove: Janus et Cie, janusetcie.com

Seating, the Grove: Max Design; Janus et Cie; Crate and Barrel, crateandbarrel.com; Kartell, kartell.com; Artisan Upholstery; Design Within Reach, dwr.com

Signage: Neon Electric, neonelectric.net

Site and landscape products: Landscape Forms, landscapeforms.com; Surface America, surfaceamerica.com; Fences Unlimited, unlimitedfences.com; American Rubber Technologies, americanrubber.com

Structural systems: Standley Steel

Tables, the Grove: Joshtom Millwork, Chrome

Umbrellas, the Grove: Janus et Cie; Ralph Lauren, ralphlauren.com

Upholstery, the Grove: Place Textiles, placetextiles.com

Window treatments, the Grove: MechoShade, mechoshade.com