The Credit Human and Oxbow towers bring old-world principles to contemporary sustainable design.
Clients Silver Ventures and Credit Human Federal Credit Union
Architect Don B McDonald Architects
Architect of Record Kirksey Architecture
Contractor Joeris General Contractors
Real Estate Developer Patrinely Group
Civil Engineer Pape-Dawson
Landscape Architect Rialto Studio
Structural Engineer IMEG
MEP Engineer Glumac
Parking The Parking Advisory Group
Facade Access Lerch Bates
A fundamental question in tower design is: What is the context of a building that hovers 150 feet above its neighbors? Two recently completed buildings in San Antonio’s lower Broadway corridor ask a very different question: Why not focus on the ground plane? The Credit Human building and its connected neighboring tower, Oxbow, sit just off Highway 281, east of the mixed-use historic Pearl Brewery redevelopment. The projects represent a partnership in both business and civic contribution from Silver Ventures, the owner of Pearl, and San Antonio-based credit union Credit Human. Designed by Don B. McDonald Architects in conjunction with Houston-based Kirksey Architecture, the buildings represent the first in a slate of new Class A mixed-use office spaces debuting along this stretch of Broadway Avenue.
If maximizing gross rentable square footage is the central task of successful development, these projects offer a parallel measure of success: meaningful pedestrian space given back to the city. “As architects, we’ve always had deep thoughts about our city. This was our opportunity to act on them,” says Don McDonald, AIA, during a tour of the recently opened buildings. William H. Whyte famously defined the qualities of meaningful urban space in his book and documentary, both titled “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” In short, people want to watch other people and will gather in shaded, public locations to observe and reflect, activating those squares. If you don’t bring the people, emptiness will reign.
An array of plazas, arcades, and parking courts along the north, east, and south sides of the buildings are the projects’ public differentiators, and there are many other smart decisions that may not be immediately evident. First, the elevators in the parking garage do not provide public access to the office towers. For employees, tenants, or guests to reach the elevator lobbies from the garage, they must exit and find their way to dedicated building entries, creating foot traffic along the street. Second, the towers embrace the notion of a fully porous ground floor with dedicated front doors. Although the buildings are not yet fully occupied, the energy of people arriving at work already generates a level of pedestrian traffic atypical of equivalent office developments. The ground level of the southern Credit Human building, with its continuous exterior arcade running along the eastern, southern, and western sides of the building, hearkens back to the kind of intimate, but still public, arcades of great urban corridors — think the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, but in the vein of San Antonio. This trope is inverted in the Oxbow building, located on the northern part of the site, where the public is invited to circulate inside the building, allowing retail to have a direct presence along Broadway.
This section of lower Broadway is entangled in a public debate of road ownership. The city of San Antonio, through its last bond, had begun the process of transforming Broadway into a “complete street” that links downtown to Hildebrand, but the Texas Department of Transportation recently reassumed ownership of this street mid-construction. While the future of the street experience in this area remains unknown, this project understands where it can create impact: by developing civic plazas that are diverse in both their amenities and purpose. “As architects, we viewed the hardscaping with as much purpose as the towers. We wanted to set a high precedent for these developments in San Antonio,” says McDonald.
The southeasterly, heavily paved urban plaza lends itself to diverse urban programming while allowing the entry to Pearl Parkway to remain visible from Broadway. With a calm reflecting pond, its sister plaza to the north clearly considers respite and seating as its goal. The northernmost vehicular parking lot cleverly disguised as a pedestrian plaza (so much so that one can often find an unoccupied parking space) best articulates the designers’ focus on the power of hardscape.
These projects stand in intentional contrast to their foil: curtain-walled expressive forms that often prioritize how light strikes and sweeps around their forms. In this way, the Credit Human and Oxbow projects create an opportunity for discourse around style, ornament, and articulation. The southern 12-story Credit Human building is organized in a classical tripartite base-shaft-crown model. The storefront system is cleverly detailed: Thick pressure plate caps with extra deep reveals and applied muttons of a smaller scale speak to the power of proportion, elevating an otherwise ubiquitous storefront assembly. Extra-tall cast-stone wall bases, heavily corbeled brick veneer, Roman arches, and custom concrete tiles unabashedly draw from historical references. Master builder Heinrich Portscheller’s 19th-century buildings in Roma that fused Old World building knowledge with vernacular Mexican construction were cited by McDonald as a chief influence.
More restrained and muted, the Oxbow’s facade offers a tasteful interpretation of warehouse vernaculars taken vertically. This facade quietly but skillfully weaves exposed concrete slab edges, square mullioned storefront openings, and large-format metal panels to achieve a calming effect. Like the adjacent Pearl Brewery redevelopment, the connection to the site’s history of manufacturing is celebrated thoughtfully. These two projects’ skins are reminders of the strength of thoughtful proportions, fine detailing, and even whimsy. These outcomes are evidence of the design team’s sensitivity and confidence in their belief that these things matter.
Delightful moments throughout the buildings are generated by contributions from local artists: 2022 TxA Artisan Award winner Diana Kersey’s ceramic tilework, William Carrington’s bronze interpretations of nature, Isaac Maxwell’s copper light fixtures, Curt Graetzel’s rustic stone urns and fountain, and metal sculptures by Robert De Leon and Roy Bellows, along with contributions from ceramics artist Ryan Takaba and stone sculptor Matthew Johnson. These moments that celebrate local craft are tied together with thoughtful masonry selections that include buff brick common to San Antonio and the iconic, regionally produced D’Hanis brick.
A discussion of these buildings would be incomplete without acknowledging both visible and invisible investments in sustainability and healthy work environments. The one-megawatt roof-mounted solar panels offset 40 percent of the buildings’ predicted energy use and are stated to be the largest solar installation on an office building in the United States. A series of 152 geothermal wells and 35 heat recovery units tie into a 900-ton hybrid geothermal/water variable refrigerant flow pump system that allows for passive temperature regulation with only two cooling towers instead of the expected six. This, coupled with the exterior wall assemblies common to the post-2018 International Building Code, predicts a 96 percent reduction in energy use compared to a building of similar use and size. In terms of water usage, the project’s draw from the local utility is 97 percent less than typical office buildings through greywater capture and reuse for irrigation, boasting 100,000 gallons of onsite water storage below grade and 20,000 gallons above ground, as well as the clever reuse of an old brewery tank for water capture.
At the time of publishing, the Kirksey-designed Credit Human interior has opened for business, and construction on the Oxbow is nearly complete. The Credit Human interior spaces exhibit many of the best practices of office design, including a heavily amenitized workspace environment in the service of wellness. An elevated lobby opens directly onto the shaded roof deck that links the two buildings. An eight-floor-high interconnecting stair provides a strong internal connection that allows its employees to traverse vertically without entering a fire stair. The presence of cafes on every other floor along with diversified meeting rooms allows for modern business practices to be celebrated. Many of these commitments to sustainability and occupant wellness are the result of an intensive 10-month programming process.
Perhaps the greatest provocation of this project is its challenge to other developers: Prioritize human experience, sustainability, place, and health and wellness right alongside capitalization rates, floor area ratio, lease depth, and maximized square footage. Ultimately, these projects are a demonstration of positive outcomes when an owner and design team commit to and embrace their civic opportunity to leave a site better than they found it, with a building that is of its place and that could exist in no other location.
Federico Cavazos, AIA, is an associate and project designer with LPA Design Studios in San Antonio.