Rusty Bienvenue has been dealing with questions of construction, engineering, raw materials, donation, insurance and grant applications for seven years. He never thought he would have to seek advice on flood protection, navigate complicated insurance channels, or search for the best acoustician he could find.
Like much of the downtown area, the building was flooded by Hurricane Harvey’s relentless rain, which left 4½ feet of water in the centre’s new home at 900 Commerce. Originally known as the BA Reasoner Building, it was built in 1906, just one block from the historic marker recognizing Allen’s Landing, where the Allen Brothers founded the city of Houston.
AIA Houston and the Architecture Center are separate organizations, but closely related, as AIA Houston has its home in the center. For a decade they had saved up on programs and galas to pay for their $ 1.3 million building and its initial $ 950,000 renovation.
Hurricane Harvey sent them back to the drawing board, had to start over and put in more flood protection, which cost $ 1.6 million. Despite having flood insurance, their settlement with FEMA was only $ 248,000, so they were looking for grants – including some from the Brown and Elkins Foundations and the Downtown Management District – and other donations.
AIA Houston had its own competition to determine which local architectural firm would redesign the space, and Murphy Mears Architects won; Cardno and Walter P Moore took care of the engineering.
Bienvenue and its staff will be moving in at the end of October, and on November 9, the 5,400-square-foot center will launch its first exhibition – by reservation only and in very small groups – Houston 2020 Visions, an exhibition about flooding and resilience and the future of the city. It’s already online at Houston2020Visions.org.
“We own it and believe it could be a model resilience strategy for your floodplain life,” said Bienvenue of the new Houston Architecture Center. “We find it unethical and immoral to give up old buildings if you figure out how to save them.”
On October 24th, the group’s annual homeward journey will be conducted virtually online at AIAHoustonhometour.org. The tour is one of the city’s most prestigious, a juried collection of houses designed by local architects and open to the public.
What: Virtual trip home with videos of 15 home projects by Houston architects
When: October 24th
However, this year’s tour is virtual and includes videos of 15 homes, most of which are local. There are a few country houses and one in Australia, but all represent the work of the Houston architects.
These include a tiny house, some on the small side, and some that are considerably larger and more luxurious. A video of New Hope Housing, an award-winning home for those on very low incomes, is included.
Bienvenue’s tour of the new architecture center still shows some work, but it’s mostly about cleaning up. The concrete floors are sealed and polished, but patches of darker aggregate in the mix show through.
Most in-situ concrete walls remain bare, although some have plaster and some have drywall. One of these is a panel – with drywall at the front and back – installed on a rail that moves through the main showroom.
The new Houston Architecture Center, home of AIA Houston, is located in the BA Reasoner Building, which was built in 1909.
Gary Fountain, Houston Chronicle / contributor
The flood protection – measures that were installed after the initial expansion – includes external steel cladding with sealing, round plugs in the floor that would pop out to relieve the hydrostatic pressure in the event of flooding under the building, and a protective “bathtub” in the middle of the building Main room.
It’s meant to withstand 8 or 9 feet of water so some can go inside to protect the building structure. Bienvenue explained that the pressure of the flood on a watertight building would cause the walls to collapse. Letting in some water causes damage but prevents destruction, he said.
This “bathtub” or “submarine”, as Bienvenue calls it, is a waterproof, bunker-like cube in the middle with flood doors to keep the contents dry and safe. This is where the computers and devices are located so that they are not destroyed by floods.
Most of the centre’s space is devoted to exhibits – a large open space with concrete floors and walls and smaller rails in the ceiling that display panels could hang.
A reception desk near the central “bathtub” has been pushed back to be more welcoming and invite people instead of stopping them at the door. It’s a work of art in itself, a Murphy Mears design with a corten steel envelope made by artist George Sacaris on a wooden base created by Brochsteins, a Houston company known for its fine woodwork and furniture work .
The side meeting room has panels that can be opened or closed to allow for one large room or two smaller rooms. The furniture is built on wheels and is modular so that it can be adapted to the needs of each group.
One of the biggest visual changes is the lack of drywall. The Harvey flood resulted in architects demolishing drywall work everywhere. On their second pass, the drywall was kept to a minimum to make cleaning easier in the event of future floods.
There are also interesting panels on the ceiling, with beveled holes that look like a sky pattern. It’s simply a sheet of plywood painted white with holes cut both to let light through and to maximize acoustics. According to Bienvenue, the panels manage the sound so well that events don’t even require microphones.
The Houston 2020 Visions exhibition will be the next event to be held here. If the coronavirus pandemic has subsided enough, Bienvenue hope AIA and the Architecture Center hope this can be a venue for other groups.
“It was developed for architecture and design and we will define that broadly. We don’t mind if parties and weddings take place here, ”said Bienvenue. “We want the room to be activated.”