Two UT projects hint at a future for Austin’s development

The University of Texas School of Architecture celebrates many of its faculty-student projects with posters along the fourth-floor hallway of the West Campus Building.

The posters for the Solar Decathlon 2015 and the Sustainable Places Project hang side-by-side, just across from Allan Shearer’s office.

Their placement is almost certainly random; the two projects don’t have much to do with each other. Yet these two initiatives could help reshape the way Austin contemplates development in the years to come.

At face value, both seek practical solutions to some of the region’s most intractable development issues – environment, density, transportation, affordability.

On a more fundamental level, though, the projects address those challenges in ways that align individual and neighborhood-centric interests with broader city-wide and regional development goals.

“You can’t scare people into action,” said Shearer, co-director of the school’s Center for Sustainable Development. “You can scare them, but you have to also show them something better.”

Last month, Shearer helped lead a South by Southwest Interactive panel that featured UT projects designed to help Austin-area residents visualize better solutions to the area’s development problems. That included Digital Austin, an effort to create a 3D map of the city that details everything from natural topography, to infrastructure, to neighborhood air pollution.

The effort stems in part from work led by Bob Paterson, a UT professor who focuses on land use and planning issues. As part of the Sustainable Places Project, Paterson and his team employed a new 3D mapping program called City Engine to model and simulate the development that would arise along a proposed rail corridor in Austin.

While Austin voters rejected the rail proposal last year, the work done by Paterson and his colleagues hints at how City Engine could allow residents and officials to visualize new developments and how they might affect anything from traffic congestion, to utility usage, to local noise levels.

“It shows not just what is made,” he said, “but how it works.”

Paterson would like to see the program become more seamless with 2D maps and data feeds. And like any software rendering 3D graphics, more detail and data requires more computing power. But talk to him and Nathan Brigmon, who worked together on the Project Connect urban rail modeling, and some interesting possibilities emerge.

Imagine, for example, a City Hall debate about the impact of a new high-rise. A 3D simulation of the development is up on the screen, and as council members or the public ask “What if?” questions, the staff could plug the factors into the program and show the most likely results in real time. Add virtual reality with an Oculus Rift headset, and you could take people into the simulation itself.

“People are afraid of the unknown,” said Brigmon, now an analyst at Civic Analytics, a local economic development firm. “This is making it known.”

Of Austin, for Austin

A few floors up from poster-lined hallway in the West Campus building, a group of professors and students discuss canopy materials and pore over structural elements for a radical new home design. A building away, some of their teammates dig into construction, landscaping and logistical details.

This is the latest generation of the NexusHaus team, a multiyear initiative that has involved more than 120 students and professors from UT and Technische Universität Münchenwork in Germany.

Over the past few years, the team has designed and, as of last week, started to construct a small, modular, solar-powered home that will serve as a prototype house for the Alley Flat Initiative in Austin. The design could eventually morph into easily producible, secondary housing units for properties in and around Austin’s urban core.

If all goes to plan, the homes would consume zero-net energy, capture and recycle water supplies, promote sustainable food production and help accommodate Austin’s rapid population growth.

In essence, the NexusHaus team is trying to design density in a way that doesn’t tax existing infrastructure or alter neighborhood character.

“The competition has evolved from being who can make a solar-powered house to who can produce the most holistic, sustainable, net-zero energy house that’s also affordable and environmentally friendly,” said Charlie Upshaw, a team captain and doctoral candidate at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering.

The finished prototype will compete this October in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon contest, where judges will award points based on energy production and efficiency, but also on affordability, design and consumer appeal.

NexusHaus set out to bring all of that together in a way that fits onto Austin’s own flavor of development debates.

“In Austin, they say we’re against two things – one of them is density, the other is sprawl,” said Michael Garrison, an architecture professor at UT.

The NexusHaus designs give the house a zero net-energy profile, and an elaborate water capture and processing system would require very little water and wastewater capacity. As such, Garrison said, it can be dropped in inner-city neighborhoods “without having to go back and completely redo the infrastructure.”

In its current design, two small modular housing units are tied together with a patio, an aquaculture garden to process water and produce food, and a greenhouse section that can double as a movie theater.

As is, the 850-square-foot prototype home would run somewhere around $300,000, Garrison said, but that could drop by as much as $50,000 with volume production and by removing some of the amenities.

Previous Alley Flat studies have identified 7,000 potential lots in East Austin, and 42,000 approved lots around the city.

“I think we can all agree Austin sort of wants to preserve its identity, to preserve the character of the neighborhoods,” said Ryan McKeeman, a NexusHaus project manager in the graduate architecture program.

The Alley Flat zoning ordinance would open space for NexusHaus and similar designs, McKeeman said, and do so without radically altering the infrastructure or neighborhood feel.

“We saw that as a really nice opportunity for this to be ‘of Austin,’” he said. “We’re here to make it a little more dense, but without you feeling it too much.”

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