• Situated on a site dominated by impervious cover, the project made sustainability measures a priority with a PV array and water collection system. - photo by Matt Neimann

Fifth + Tillery transforms an East Austin industrial lot into a sustainable commercial space.

Location Austin
Clients CIM Group, 3423 Holdings
Architect Gensler
Contractor RM Chiapas
MEP Engineer Arete
Structural Engineer MJ Structures
Electrical Engineer Lloyd Engineering
Landscape Architect Campbell Landscape Architecture

Adaptive reuse enables architects to recycle space itself. Such a feat is critical in a rapidly expanding city like Austin, where ongoing urban development has put land at a premium. Completed in August of 2020, Fifth + Tillery reimagines an industrial lot as a dynamic indoor/outdoor office space, reintroducing flora to the site via its central courtyard. The project expands upon the role of a traditional office building by embracing the tenets of sustainability, well-being, and community as the foundation of its design. 

Located at its namesake intersection in the Govalle neighborhood of East Austin, Fifth + Tillery marks the transition from a residential area to an industrial district. Surrounded by a bus depot, a tree-laden community art and wellness space, a row of single-family homes, and an elementary school, its context provides a cross-section of life in Govalle. Inspiration from these contrasting surroundings helped Gensler breathe life back into this site by “weaving the greenery of the neighborhood into the footprint of a building with a decidedly industrial aesthetic,” according to lead architect Michael Waddell. The lot was originally occupied by a single-story warehouse containing a wood shop and makerspace. While the warehouse was removed due to structural challenges, its original foundation remains. Waddell, an Austin native, describes the significance of this building typology: “Many of the warehouses along Fifth and in the nearby area housed — and still house — artist studios and creative spaces. There was a wonderful sense of discovery finding and seeing all the amazing work happening in the area.” In keeping with the site’s history of use, the intended clients of Fifth + Tillery are innovative companies who will continue the tradition of creative collaboration. “We wanted to bring that spirit into the project,” Waddell continues. “Our hope is the types of communities that formed within those studios will also occur within Fifth + Tillery.”  

The three-story office building offers 188,912 sf of interior and exterior collaborative workspace. Executed in a minimalist arrangement of mass timber layered over industrial materials, it is intended to be viewed by its users as a “backdrop” rather than an object. Douglas fir glulams were shipped from the northwest, but the remaining materials were locally sourced to reduce costs and minimize carbon footprint. The building’s economical and high-performance rainscreen system is composed of custom metal panels manufactured in Austin. Due to the project’s focus on user experience and wellness, the elevators are deemphasized in its design. Instead, a large social stair and elevated walkways promote active design. Each of the building’s three levels provides a unique spatial experience, encouraging occupants to explore naturally. This diversity of outdoor experience — from an intimate courtyard to terraces with skyline views — draws users into common spaces, cultivating an environment of social connectivity. 

Floor-to-ceiling windows looking into the courtyard integrate these flexible exterior spaces with equally adaptable interior offices. Each office has its own exterior door, promoting cross-company interaction through shared use of outdoor areas. Currently, the offices are unoccupied and remain open-plan, but there is potential for further subdivision and the installation of additional doors, if necessary. Each bay in the U-shaped structure is 80 feet deep, providing optimal daylight throughout the space and minimizing the need for artificial lighting. Punched windows on the east and west facades balance daylight with heat gain, while floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side grant occupants views of the lush greenery beyond. On the south side of the building, the bays were left double height with the goal of leasing the spaces for restaurant or retail functions. According to the architects, turning Fifth + Tillery into a multiuse project avoids the “one and done” design approach and enables project adaptability and longevity. 

The heart of Fifth + Tillery is its central courtyard. Upon entry, the courtyard transports visitors into a serene environment worlds away from the neighboring urban bustle. The entry plaza acts as the building’s lobby, granting access to a series of outdoor multitenant corridors. A secondary entrance from the east provides direct access to the rear of the courtyard. Oriented to catch Austin’s predominant southeast breeze and organized around a water feature, this essential inner piece of the project employs passive cooling strategies to combat the Texas heat. A fountain at the north end of the courtyard feeds a continuous runnel that terminates in a second fountain located in the entry plaza. The white noise generated by the water feature further distances the courtyard from the sounds of urban activity. Mexican sycamores and bald cypress trees shade the courtyard, while a diverse riparian plant palette complements the water feature in its imitation of the native Texan landscape. Leftover glulams were repurposed in the courtyard as benches, connecting the materiality of the building with the landscape design. 

Restricted to the footprint of the site’s original warehouse, Fifth + Tillery was designed to maximize the project’s sustainable impact. Given the proximity of the site to the Boggy Creek watershed, water conservation and stormwater management were prioritized to counteract the exorbitantly high percentage of impervious cover present on the site prior to its redesign. A trio of existing cisterns was restored and put back into use for rainwater collection. The courtyard serves an essential role in water collection, with approximately half of the roof’s water runoff falling into the courtyard rain garden. A system of condensate recapture further supplements irrigation and provides water for the fountains, enabling the water feature to remain operational even during Austin’s strict summertime water regulations. 

Other sustainability efforts happen out of sight, as is the case with the PV array installed on much of the building’s approximately 60,000-sf roof. A desire to visibly express the project’s use of solar power led to the design of a PV trellis, which extends beyond the roof to shade the entry plaza. The form and position of trellis components were determined by calculating the optimal spacing of the panels such that they did not shade each other. The use of solar energy helps offset the operating costs of the building. The roof itself is finished with TPO roofing to reduce heat absorption and energy consumption. 

Fifth + Tillery is well situated in anticipation of future development. The main entrance on the south side of the building is oriented toward the location of a planned light rail station on Fifth Street. Although the pandemic initially prevented the project from becoming the neighborhood gathering place it was intended to be, the community has slowly begun to use the space for its own purposes. The organization Art Bra Austin recently produced a performance piece using the building as an interactive setting to raise money for the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Austin. There are also plans for the the AIA Austin Leadership Collective to use the space for an upcoming event. The project’s architects envision future uses for the social stair and entry plaza to include small-scale concerts and public talks. Gensler is hoping to collaborate with the community in the future to design a mural for the building’s eastern facade, presenting another opportunity for Fifth + Tillery to connect with the identity of its neighborhood. “Being both a native Austinite and member of the local community has shaped my design perspective to not only think about how a project can serve the goals of the client and future occupants, but also how it can serve the broader community,” Waddell explains.

In turning a traditional office building inside out and emphasizing exterior spaces, Fifth + Tillery has the potential to become much more than a commercial structure. “The base function of the project is to create a great place for people to work — with daylighting, fresh air, and views of greenery from every space. Beyond that, we sought to create a building that facilitates interaction between the tenants and opportunities to engage the broader community,” says Waddell. The architects hope that Fifth + Tillery’s capacity for creative collaboration will extend to benefit its neighborhood, but more time must pass before it is understood how the project is accepted among members of the community. 

Abigail Thomas is an undergraduate student at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.

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