500 Chicon, the headquarters of the Texas Society of Architects, has won a Preservation Award for Sustainability from Preservation Austin. According to Preservation Austin: “This juried program celebrates the hard work and visionary approaches of those preserving Austin’s unique architectural, cultural, and environmental heritage. It is the only such awards program for locals, by locals.” Nine projects in total were honored. The jury consisted of Melissa Barry, vice president of planning for the Downtown Austin Alliance; Rebecca Borchers, former executive director of the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission; Rebekah Dobrasko, historic preservation specialist for the Texas Department of Transportation; Richard Ryan, architect emeritus; and Lauren Vienne, operations & grants manager for the Texas Historical Foundation.
500 Chicon was recognized for its 2016 renovation focused on making the building into a more suitable home for TxA. As the building began its life as a 1920s oil warehouse, occasional updates have been necessary to keep the office comfortable, functional, and sustainable.
For the most recent renovation, interior storm windows were added to provide better insulation. Instead of replacing the windows entirely with modern, efficient windows, the storm windows create an insulated air pocket between the historic steel windows and the new glass.
The un-insulated roof was a major source of air leaks. The roof was replaced and insulation was added. A shade awning on the south side of the building blocks the sun from the wall and windows, rather than adding insulation to the historic masonry wall or covering up the masonry.
A challenging space to condition effectively, with its largely open interior volume and high ceilings, the building also has a new, energy efficient air-conditioning system. The system is sophisticated, allowing for the control of temperature in a multitude of very small zones within the space. Displacement air is used to minimize the loss of conditioned air to the basement or the mezzanine, pressurizing the interior volume with neutral air so the conditioned air stays where the people are.
Another important concern was providing sound remediation in an open building where, previously, no conversation was private. Sing panels were installed in two columns down the building, while still allowing for sight of the open, beamed ceiling in the center of the space.
Certainly, the renovation of the building has had its challenges. Constructed as an industrial building, it was built to broader tolerances. Many things are out of plumb and out of square, which made tasks like trying to put rectangular windows in trapezoidal window openings a challenge. The lower level has very low ceiling heights and clearances. Using the VRF mechanical system, we were able to distribute cooling and heating throughout the building in small pipes rather than large ducts so it didn’t encroach on the available head height.
An excellent example of employing both modern technology and tried-and-true methods together, the renovation of 500 Chicon can be an example for other buildings that need to be both preserved and modernized. The project combines different technologies to improve the usability of the structure. Low-tech solutions can be just as effective as expensive, high-tech solutions when used in a smart way.
500 Chicon is one of the remaining pieces of an industrial East Austin that is disappearing. By converting the former oil warehouse into an office space, we are preserving an original piece of the neighborhood while adapting it to the needs of a modern business. Surrounded by rising condo buildings and next to the future site of a six-story luxury hotel, 500 Chicon exists as a pocket of original character in a rapidly changing neighborhood, a reminder of a time when even a warehouse was built with solid materials and was valued for its permanence and the function it served.
The Preservation Austin award will be presented at a ceremony to be held at the Driskill Hotel on Friday, October 28.