As a representation of calmness and well-being, water has often influenced design through its dynamic and fluid nature. In certain locations where water is scarce, such as the Chihuahuan Desert, water-based rituals have become a crucial part of the local culture. Understanding that water resources are shared regionally, El Paso Water (EPW) decided to build a new headquarters along Hawkins Boulevard in the heart of the city’s main shopping destination, where their existing building is located. Designed by San Antonio-based Lake|Flato Architects and local firm Exigo Architecture, the new EPW administration building will consist of approximately 79,000 sf of office space to house the utility’s executive functions and other departments and provide a multipurpose room for meetings and staff training.
The project will take place in three phases. Phase 1, which is currently underway, focuses on building a new access road and a precast concrete parking structure with about 146 parking spaces. In Phase 2, a four-story office building will be constructed to accommodate approximately 290 employees. This new facility will be built next to EPW’s existing office building, which will remain fully operational during construction. In Phase 3, the existing building will be demolished and improvements to the site made. Paulina Lagos, AIA, an associate principal and the project manager for Exigo Architecture, calls it “a formidable project.” Citing the process whereby design is being delivered in accelerated packages to construction manager at risk Hensel Phelps and the challenges of ensuring that the current building remains fully operational during construction, Lagos notes that “strong collaboration between the design and construction teams is a critical component to the project’s success.”
According to the architects, the design was born from a series of visioning sessions with the client that included conversations around the needs and identity of El Paso, the functionality and identity of the building, and the architectural design and materials that would best represent these in context. An important goal centers on representing the story and innovative work of EPW, including showcasing ways to address stormwater appropriately and advance landscape management with minimal irrigation in El Paso’s unique climate. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, who, along with Lake|Flato, recently led a campus transformation project for the University of Texas at El Paso, is in charge of the landscape design. For the EPW project, collaboration between the firms began in the early stages of visioning and concentrated on the idea of merging the new building into the landscape while taking into account the need for the existing building to remain fully functional throughout the construction process. To achieve the project goals, large landscape gestures were designed, including walking paths, native plantings, strong bio-soil and stormwater management, and a responsive roof drainage system.
The architecture represents both the culture of EPW and the culture of the city itself through a recognition of not only how water (both above and below ground) connects these cultures across the city grid, the Franklin Mountains, and the geography in general, but also how architecture can express that context. The final design represents the intersection of the Franklin Mountains and the city grid: a mass versus a grid, with a connecting bridge in the center that consists of both closed and open collaboration spaces. Additionally, the materiality (both in the structural design and the cladding) highlights the duality of the break tiles and the utilitarian metal panel structure by including a bridge to connect these two worlds. “The hybrid steel and CLT structure will be a first for El Paso,” says Lagos. “As a regional mass timber expert, Arup’s John Hand has been instrumental in directing the structural design for our team.”
The building includes a wing that represents the city grid, comprising a four-story structure with extensive glass cladding located on the north part of the property. The western portion of this wing will rotate toward the north while the rest aligns with the city grid. This rotation will maximize daylight penetration into the open office space inside. Additionally, this configuration will self-shade the inner part of the building (the mass representing the mountains), and the bridge is set back to provide visual access to the actual mountains nearby. The light penetration and self-shading will create different work space environments from one part of the building to the other, with open office space giving way to more closed office spaces.
The sum of these parts adds up to a unique administration building that is quite dissimilar from the office buildings typical of the locale. This configuration affords amazing views of the surrounding area while highlighting the building’s geographical context and its close proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. As Lagos puts it, EPW wanted to support employee well-being in the new building “via both functional and flexible spaces, combined with ample daylight and views towards the Franklin Mountains and the Sierra de Juárez.”
The project site is located between two major retail strips at the edge of the Fountains at Farah, an outdoor shopping mall that is also used as a recreational site by young residents in the area. Significant attention has been paid to the corner of the property where it meets the Fountains at Farah: A series of retaining walls, coupled with landscaping, negotiate the marked change in elevation between the current EPW building and the road. Unfortunately, though, the new design does not include an open-access area, primarily for security reasons.
With completion expected early in 2025, the new EPW Headquarters project will not only provide a home for El Paso Water but also serve as an educational site advancing the local community’s understanding of water management and low-water landscaping — illustrating that, even in the Chihuahuan Desert, you can enjoy a beautiful landscape that respects limited local water resources. We certainly hope it will showcase exactly that.
Mahyar Hadighi, Ph.D., is the director of historic preservation and design program at Texas Tech University.