A nature immersion camp in the Texas Hill Country offers lessons on water conservation and environmental stewardship.
Project Campsite at Shield Ranch
Owner Shield Ranch Foundation
Owner’s Representative Benz Resource Group
Construction Manager/General Contractor Hill & Wilkinson
Civil Engineer WGI
Sustainability Consultant Regenerative Environmental Design
Structural Engineer AEC Engineering
M/P On-Site Power Engineer Positive Energy
Electrical Engineer EEA Consulting Engineers
Water Specialist Venhuizen Water Works
Fire Protection Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates
Accessibility Review Altura Solutions
Signage and Wayfinding Consultant Asterisk
Landscape Architect Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
At the end of a hot June day, down a dusty ranch road in the Hill Country, a bunch of sixth graders sprawl on picnic tables under the cavernous canopy of a grove of live oaks. The sun is sinking; the cicada chorus is rising; and after a day of conservation projects that included weaving ashe juniper branches into erosion controls above the creek, the kids are worn out. They would usually go for a swim, but this summer the swimming hole is low and full of green algae. “Nobody wants to be in it right now,” says a camp counselor. Instead, they’re writing songs. One is an ode to the mysteries of nature. Another, called “Van Feet,” is an ode to, well, summer camp.
For 16 years, the campers and counselors of El Ranchito, a camp for scholarship-eligible kids held at Shield Ranch just outside of Austin, have taken shelter under trees in this meadow like Robin Hood’s merry men, but with sunscreen and hibiscus tea. This summer, the camp moves into permanent facilities designed by Andersson/Wise and Ten Eyck Landscape Architects and built by Hill & Wilkinson. The 14-acre campsite, with an open-air pavilion, 11 screened shelters, and an ADA-compliant trail, is a significant upgrade from tents nestled against a cedar brake, but it has a similar lightness of touch.
SITES Gold certified under the Sustainable SITES Initiative, the campsite is totally off-grid, depending entirely on rainwater and solar collection for its operations. It has the first public water system approved for construction by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that relies entirely on rainwater. The septic system is another first: the first onsite septic facility permitted by Travis County and TCEQ to use evaporative toilets. Before, the kids were aware of water limits because they could see the bottom of the water cooler. Now, they can see the tanks that hold the water harvested from the roof of the pavilion and shower building. Once that water runs out, the camp is closed to visitors. The new campsite is the result of a meticulous and thoughtful collaboration between the ranch owners, design team, consultants, and state and county officials. It’s also a beautiful diagram of a stark reality in the Texas Hill Country: An aquifer can sustain only so many Texans. Who gets to be here?
With 95 percent of Texas land under private ownership (compared to around 60 percent for the United States overall), the work of preserving land for non-development purposes — including protecting the watersheds that collect the rainwater that becomes drinking water for urban centers and swimming holes for public enjoyment — falls heavily to private landowners in areas outside of city jurisdiction. The 6,400-acre Shield Ranch, for instance, comprises 10 percent of the Barton Creek Watershed and contributes water to the Edwards Aquifer, which means that what happens on the ranch has a trickle-down effect, very literally, on Barton Springs and on Austin. Many of these large ranches were created decades ago, when land was cheap; now, as the population grows and expands outward from the cities, a pattern of fragmented, piecemeal development and rising land costs in those same areas increases demand on watersheds and puts economic pressure on landowners. It’s lucky for us thirsty, sweaty city-dwellers that some of these landowners — often in partnership with governmental agencies — choose instead to preserve large areas for conservation. Call it private ownership for the public good.
In 1938, when Fred and Vera Shield of San Antonio bought the first acres along Barton Creek of what would eventually become Shield Ranch, there were fewer than 90,000 people living in Austin. Electricity wouldn’t reach portions of the Hill Country for another decade or so. Fred and Vera loved to fish, and the spring-fed creek running through the ranch was full of Guadalupe bass, perch, and catfish, along with American eel coming up from the Gulf. The land — sparsely inhabited but hardly pristine — was overgrazed and choked up with Ashe juniper. Archeological evidence suggested human inhabitation of the ranch dating back over 10,000 years, and a few structures built by early European-American settlers remained. Over time, the Shield’s added a house and a barn along with roads, fences, corrals, peach orchards, and water wells and stock tanks, and welcomed a few more generations (daughter Pat, her husband Robert Ayres, their children Bob and Vera, and Bob’s eldest daughter, Kathleen). With the purchase of adjacent properties, the ranch grew to its current size and built a reputation for land stewardship. Through years of chopping Ashe juniper, rotational grazing of cattle, prescribed burns, and control of the deer population, the family and ranch staff slowly transformed a neglected landscape of oak mottes and exposed caliche hillsides into tall grass meadows and forests teeming with rabbits, deer, lizards, and songbirds.
It’s been a busy century. By the mid-1980s, Austin’s population was pushing half a million, and the city was growing upward and outward. Plans for a proposed highway across the ranch prompted the family to begin planning for the future. In 1998, they placed 4,670 acres of ranchland into a conservation easement — a voluntary and permanent restriction of development rights on land with the purpose of protecting it for conservation purposes — and donated that easement to The Nature Conservancy. At the time, such easements were rare in Texas, and this was one of the largest easement donations to date. Another easement on an adjacent 1,676 acres was sold to Austin in 1999 as part of the city’s first voter-approved bond initiative to protect water quality in the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer. A few years later, the Shield-Ayres-Bowen family formed the Shield Ranch Foundation, a nonprofit created to share Shield Ranch with the public “in ways that educate, transform and inspire.”
They also set out to build the next generation of nature lovers. In 2007, in partnership with El Buen Samaritano and the Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center (founded as Westcave Preserve), Shield Ranch formed El Ranchito, a nature immersion scholarship camp for Austin kids who usually don’t have access to nature. Held on the ranch, the camp gets city kids stargazing and swimming and befriending spiders. It also sets up a big-picture relationship between the campers and the land. Campers come back year after year, and half the counselors there now were once campers.
After years of makeshift operations, permanent facilities for El Ranchito became a top priority. “We don’t want the kids to feel scared of nature,” says Executive Director Andrea Mellard, “but every time a storm rolls in, they’re sprinting for the vans to take shelter at a nearby church.” But while the program was more or less defined — sleeping shelters, a main gathering room and dining hall, a kitchen, restrooms, showers, and handwashing facilities, and a “weather room” (the only conditioned public space in the project) — big questions remained. Could the camp run off just rainwater and solar power? How much water would need to be collected?
With the help of project manager Susan Benz of the Benz Resource Group, who has discreetly shepherded into being a number of Austin’s architectural landmarks, the family put together the design and construction team. Guided by a master plan compiled by Andropogon Associates in 2018, the team set out to design permanent facilities that would offer visitors — not just campers, but community groups of all ages — a measure of protection from the elements while preserving the magic of the campsite in the meadow.
From the beginning, the project was an intensely collaborative effort centered on that conservation ethic and the family’s desire to educate the public about the steps they were taking to protect the land. Prior to design, Benz organized a meeting with Travis County officials to introduce them to the project. Afterward, she heard from one participant that reviewers were vying for a chance to work on it. Bob Ayres, president of the Shield Land Stewardship Group and Shield Ranch Foundation, was struck, he says, by the “willingness of entities outside of the ranch to work with the project, not stand in our way.” TCEQ had never approved a rainwater-only public water system for construction for any facility except two for bottling water. They were open to the new idea, as long as they could regulate and test results. Still, there were some obstacles to overcome. “The biggest challenges to getting to a site development permit were things unrelated to innovation,” says Ayres. For instance, the team had assumed that expanding a ranch road to two lanes to allow for fire truck access would be sufficient — this was a ranch, after all, not a residential subdivision — but the county required enough concrete paving for two fire trucks to pass each other. “We had a lot of discussion about how to tuck that in,” says Ten Eyck senior associate Stephanie Saulmon. “We ended up scoring the concrete with a rake so it’s not so shiny and new.”
When the campers first arrive at the ranch, after the tangle of highways and gas stations and strip malls smooths back into a single-lane road, they get out of the van and follow a path through oak juniper woodlands to a gathering place, where a bridge carries them into the second level of the pavilion. They’re greeted by the smell of cooking. (Chef Addie has been on staff for 15 years; this is the first year her kitchen isn’t a Yeti cooler and three folding tables under a pop-up tent.) Architect Arthur Andersson, FAIA, describes the siting: “Our first big move was to propose a bridge that would take you from the forest into the pavilion. Once you go over the bridge, you’re 10 feet up, over the mosquitoes, over the snakes, and into the prevailing breezes. Then the service goes below, and there’s an educational component to that.” The roof of the pavilion and shower building catch all the water that is used on-site, and that water is stored in tanks below the structures. Walking into the pavilion, kids pass over the pipes that feed a trough sink for handwashing. You can’t not be aware of water, out here.
“The shelters of the native people and of the settlers were lessons in brevity,” says Andersson. “You had to understand the angles of the sun; you had to understand prevailing breezes. That’s the benchmark we started with” — that, and some rigorous site constraints imposed by the conservation easements. A site plan by Andersson/Wise shows the shelters — two groups of wood and steel cabins — as tiny clearings in a field of cross-hatches indicating a no-development zone overlaid by a no-walking zone. The forest was too dense for a tree or detailed topographic survey to be feasible, so to determine the location of each cabin, the team relied on geographic information systems and “ground-truthing”: walking the site and locating the trail, step by step, allowing for an ADA-compliant maximum slope of 1:20 and pipes below for limited low-voltage power and hydrological flow down the slope. Ground-truthing revealed elements of the site that would be invisible in a site plan, such as the branching pattern of a tree or the shape of a particular limestone outcropping. It took time. Landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck joked that she would be out there with pruners to make room for the shelters “twig by twig.”
“It wasn’t a ‘this-is-how-you-do-it’ project,” says Ryan Shipley, vice president of operations at Hill & Wilkinson. “We were out there for a year, figuring it out.” He adds, “The nature immersion piece of it, we experienced that in our workforce. Everybody was just in a great mood out there.” Like a lot of other contractors, says Shipley, Hill & Wilkinson had done “bits and pieces” of going off the grid, but this project was all in: There was no connection to outside infrastructure. Site constraints and input from the contractor (along with previous experience in off-the-beaten-path construction) led Andersson/Wise to a grid and panel solution that could be constructed off-site, carried in along the path (generous for walkers, but very tight for construction equipment), and built with just a few feet of clearance around each shelter.
The construction of a prototype allowed for many site- and client-specific adjustments, says Shipley, “like when Shield’s ranch manager, Blake Murden, pointed out that maybe we didn’t want to be spot welding connections in the middle of ranch land in a drought.” (Murden is CEO of Shield Ranch’s Land Stewardship Group.) Likewise, paint would require maintenance and the introduction of another material into the landscape; the architects switched to raw galvanized metal for the frame, with cedar slats and screens forming the panels. Instead of bunks, the team chose moveable cots, comfortable for campers but not overly camp-redolent for grown-up visitors. Each sleeping area has at least one stationary screen panel for natural airflow, with a solid sliding panel that offers control for light or protection from the weather. Sunlight can flood in or trickle, and so can the darkness: There are no lights beyond one tiny guidelight at the entry to each cabin. Visitors go to sleep with the sound of cicadas and coyotes and wake up to the sunrise and the dawn chorus of birds.
So how many people can the land support? “It depends on how often they wash their hands,” says Robin Bagley Logan, project manager for Andersson/Wise. “We did so many calculations. I’ll never look at a glass of water the same way.” Projections made during design, using a detailed accounting of expected rainfall divided by the estimated number of flushes, handwashes, showers, and meals suggested 3,500 visitors per year — far more than the 114 campers and staff of El Ranchito.
The foundation trustees decided to open up the facilities for year-round all-ages community uses including educational, nonprofit, and business groups whose interests align with the ranch’s conservation and community-building ethic. (In other words, the camp welcomes visitors who understand — or who will learn quickly — that if there hasn’t been much rain, they might need to take a short shower.) “We’re still finding out how much solar energy and water we can harvest,” says Ayres. Rainwater collection could get more challenging, he says, as the climate gets drier and hotter and rainwater events get more intense. “But there really isn’t an alternative for us. Our neighbors who rely on groundwater are trucking in water.”
What will Shield Ranch look like in another hundred years? “I hope it looks a lot like it does right now,” says Vera Ayres Bowen, vice president of Shield Ranch and the Shield Ranch Foundation, and president of El Ranchito. It’s an open question. But right now, at the camp, it’s time for lunch and, if the kids are lucky, a swim.
Jessie Temple is an architect in Austin.