When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, the CRE community needs to prioritize marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Photography by Peter Molick

Houston is no stranger to hurricanes, and in recent years winter storms have become an increasing concern. Following the winter freeze in 2021, more than 4 million Texans were left without power, water, or heat. The state’s infrastructure system was adversely impacted concurrently — including workplaces, hospitals, transportation, homes, drinking water distribution, electric power generation, agriculture, and grocery stores. Now, a new potential disaster is on the horizon. Recent research shows Houston is most likely to be affected by wildfires, a climate-related challenge that our city has not previously faced.

According to the Gensler Research Institute’s 2022 U.S. Climate Action Survey, since 2019, only 18 percent of Americans believe their communities are built to withstand climate change. The good news is Americans overwhelmingly agree that addressing climate change is urgent. The question many are asking is — “How can we take action to better prepare buildings and cities to weather the climate challenge?” The solution is simple. In order to understand where we need to go, we must understand how we got here.

With a population that has more than doubled in the past 50 years, it is challenging for most Houstonians to imagine a time when The Bayou City was nothing more than agricultural lands and oil fields. Today, Houston is known for being the fourth-most populous city in the United States. It is a sprawling concrete jungle home to the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions. When reflecting on the past 50 years, one can’t help but evaluate the city’s successes and shortcomings. While Houston has succeeded in becoming a diverse, international city, we have sacrificed the very ecology that once made up one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas. By 1980, Houston possessed the least amount of green space per person in the country.

As new developments popped up across the city, it became difficult to convince developers to pursue third-party certifications such as LEED, a globally recognized symbol of sustainability that provides the framework for designing healthy, efficient, carbon saving buildings. We can credit Hines with being one of the few developers in Houston to prioritize green design during the early-2000s. City leaders also began advocating for resilient strategies and more green space to attract and retain international talent and businesses. In recent years, we have seen an increase in buildings that are achieving LEED certification, and soon it will become the baseline.

The Houston Advanced Research Center, Photography by Shau Lin Hon, Slyworks Photography

An example of a project leading the way for resilient design is The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC). In 2017 the organization completed work on its LEED Platinum Certified headquarters which was designed to meet the ENERGY STAR certification rate of 99 (out of 100). This means that the building is more efficient than 99 percent of all office buildings in the United States. Skanska is another construction and development company bringing a sustainable mindset to downtown Houston with its work on Bank of America Tower. In 2019, the 775,000 square foot building became the largest LEED v4 Platinum Core and Shell certified project in the world to date and was developed with harvesting technology that will significantly reduce energy usage.

It’s also important to understand the impact that the climate crisis is having on people. 91 percent of U.S. Gen Z/Millennials have been affected by extreme weather events since 2019, the most of any generation. These experiences have resulted in two generations preparing to react and combat climate change and has encouraged a spirit of transparency among companies who choose to share their environmental goals and strategies.

For architects and designers, addressing building and energy codes is proving to be the next big design consideration. As codes progress in the coming years, the result will be more unique and unexpected building designs.

When reimagining the use of buildings, Architects Paulina Abella and Tayler Trojcak propose an experimental process for repurposing vacant buildings called High Hackers. The concept provides an opportunity for developers to offer prime downtown real estate to people with diverse skill sets, whom they call “hackers,” to pursue projects shaped by their individual ideas. These hackers—makers, artists, and academics—will work alongside one another in spaces that encourage them to coexist with creatives from other fields and disciplines. More importantly, it fosters a collaborative, organic, and innovative workflow.

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, we encourage prioritizing marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Promoting awareness and optimism in our communities is another simple yet effective way to make a difference. For businesses, creating a sense of continuity in the face of climate events, investing in energy and resource efficiency and adaptation, and addressing insurability and the long-term value of real estate will ultimately help lead Houston and its community members toward a place of preparedness and resiliency.

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Rives Taylor directs Gensler’s Global Design Resilience teams and initiatives and has been a faculty member of both Rice University and the University of Houston for 30 years. Maria Perez is a design resilience leader for Gensler’s South Central region and director of sustainable design based in Gensler’s Houston office.

Gensler is using a new software program to help optimize social distancing in the workplace for Houston companies returning to the office. Photo courtesy of Gensler

New technology is helping Houston companies reimagine a socially distant workspace

feng shui

The COVID-19 pandemic has displaced many Houstonians from their office jobs to makeshift work-from-home setups. With coronavirus cases climbing in Houston, the obstacle of returning to work safely is undoubtedly on the minds of business owners across the city.

Thankfully, there's an algorithm for that. Gensler, a global architecture firm, has unveiled its ReRun program as a pandemic response tool to help offices create workspace layouts for safe social distancing.

ReRun allows Gensler to upload a floorplan into the program, which applies generative algorithms to determine safe separation between workplaces by creating circles ranging from six to eight-foot diameters. The tool can quickly generate scenarios and identify the most optimized capacity to meet social distancing demands, easing the role of operations and human resources.

"It's really just a tip of the spear in terms of occupancy planning, because once you know that information, then the next question is what do I do with that?" says Dean Strombom, strategy lead and principal at Gensler's Houston office.

"ReRun is the first tool we utilize to help [clients] determine how many people might be able to come back and still achieve the social distancing side. Then we work with them on how they should come back, whether it's a percentage of employees, staggered shift work or alternating days," Strombom says. Circulation patterns are also taken into account by the Gensler team, who analyze the traffic of hallways, meeting spaces and lounge areas.

Dean Strombom is the strategy lead and principal at Gensler's Houston office. Photo courtesy of Gensler

The international firm, with 50 offices around the world, has rolled out the ReRun tool to its database of clientele. The platform is also available to businesses outside of the firm's existing portfolio, who can use the tool by providing a simple CAD design of their workplace. ReRun is applied through the company's SaaS space management software, Wisp. Using occupancy planning, Wisp provides clients with color-coded floor plans to help visualize and communicate to their teams which seats are available or assigned for occupancy as employees phase back into the office.

The response has been positive among clientele. Strombom is currently applying Gensler's social distancing tool with a large financial services company with locations throughout the Houston area.

"We are loading the information from ReRun into the Wisp program, and then we'll be helping them determine how they will return to work, and specifically where people will sit," he shares. The company plans to come back with 20 percent of the workforce, increasing overtime with the help of Gensler's team. "Who comes back when and specifically where is what they're most excited about."

The company has determined four work modes employees exhibit: focus, collaboration, socialization, and learning. By categorizing the work modes, Gensler is looking ahead at how interior architecture can accommodate these phases.

"More recently, we've been talking about a need for regenerative spaces so that people can become more engaged in the workplace," says Strombom.

As described in a Gensler blog, isolation rooms were optioned as a way to contain an employee who begins to feel symptomatic but these rooms can also serve a different purpose for employees acclimating to a new normal.

"The isolation room is what we often call a wellness room in an office where people can get away from the general tensions that they may be feeling in a workplace where they can relax and reinvigorate themselves in a quiet space," says Strombom.

As the architecture industry adjusts to a post-pandemic world, Gensler is working with developer clients and building owners to share the near-term and long-term changes the company foresees. Strombom says clients have flexibility as a priority.

ReRun allows Gensler to upload a floorplan into the program, which applies generative algorithms to determine safe separation between workplaces by creating circles ranging from six to eight-foot diameters. Graphic courtesy of Gensler

"We have to think about the entire path or the entire entry sequence in office buildings that is true for residential as well. From the moment that you pull into the garage, what are all of those points along the way where you've got to be concerned about contact and cleanliness?" Strombom shares.

Strombom foresees new building systems coming to the forefront, for example air conditioners with a focus on keeping clean air circulation within the office building. He also predicts a need for flexible spaces that can change depending on the circumstances.

"You hear a lot about temperature readings and separations of people within building lobbies during pandemics. We need systems in place that you can rapidly deploy when something like this happens, but the majority of the time it can revert to a more normal circumstance," he says.

Tight spaces also require a new way of thinking.

"We've realized that the elevator cab is really one of the pinch points in office buildings if you're trying to maintain this social distancing," Strombom shares. "There's technology [out there] that can identify how many people are going to be entering a cab and restrict that occupancy. So that is something that's going to need to be done for the near term."

In a Gensler survey of its Houston office, 72 percent of respondents expect a maintained or increased level of virtual collaboration compared to these pre-COVID levels.

"As people have been semi-forced to work at home, they've realized that not only is it possible, but for some people it's the preferred way to work," says Strombom, who predicts virtual meetings will continue on.

While platforms like Zoom and Skype make meetings tenable, company employees are still anticipating a future in the office.

"Those of us that are now working from home, if you ask people the majority of respondents to the question of what they miss most, it's really the people," Strombom says.

From common space to desks and offices, ReRun can help enable social distancing in the workplace. Photo courtesy of Gensler

Memorial Park Conservancy's renovations include some projects that are rare or never been done before. Photo courtesy of MPC

These were Houston's top impact innovation stories this year

2019 IN REVIEW

When it comes to the impact that innovation has had on Houston, a number of things stand out for 2019. And, so many of these top stories from this past year are just beginning.

InnovationMap's most read articles in its impact category include new technologies for flood resiliency, The Ion's development, Memorial Park renovations, and more.

These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

From a water-absorbing tower to sensor-enabled rubber ducks, here are some flooding solution ideas coming out of Houston. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston. Continue reading.

Memorial Park Conservancy plans to deliver its first project of its master plan redevelopment next year

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Memorial Park Conservancy has until 2028 to deliver on its master plan redevelopment project, but if MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold has anything to say about it, the plan will be completed way ahead of that.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. In 2011, a major drought decimated the park and areas saw losses of 50 to even 90 percent of the canopy of trees.

"As tragic as it was, it made people take action," says Arnold.

Following the drought, these organizations looked to the people to see what was needed and wanted by the 3 million visitors and residents of the 170 ZIP codes that frequent the park annually.

"There was a huge outcry to do something," Arnold says. "That something became an effort to define the future of the park in a way that would be powerful, bold, thoughtful, innovative, and very resilient. It would consider Houstonians of the future and Houstonians today. It would consider soils, storm water treatment, the wildlife, and what people want." Continue reading.

Overheard: The Ion breaks ground in Midtown's former Sears building

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner. Continue reading.

Third Ward community expresses concerns with The Ion project that's underway

The local community has raised some concerns about Rice Management Company's Ion project's effect on the Third Ward. Courtesy of Rice University

The city of Houston has been buzzing about Rice Management Company's Ion Innovation Hub — a 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub project expected to deliver in 2021 — but there's one group isn't so thrilled with the plans: The Third Ward community.

In a public community meeting on November 12, community members gathered at the Wesley AME Church to plan a Community Benefits Agreement that would legally bind The Innovation District's development team and the Rice Management Company to move forward with the local residents' indicated best interests. According to the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed group to work on the CBA, it would be the first of its kind in Houston.

The coalition is supported by Third Ward is Home Civic Club, the Emancipation Economic Development Council, the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats - Harris County, and the Houston Society for Change. Continue reading.

4 things you need to know from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report as it pertains to innovation

downtown houston

The Greater Houston Partnership has the facts. Nick Bee/Pexels

Every year, the Greater Houston Partnership — the city's economic development arm — gathers up data and reports to paint a full picture of the Bayou City. In the past few editions, innovation has been a key component.

The GHP's innovation coverage spans three pages under the top industry and sectors category. From tech startup growth to money raised, here's what you need to know from the 2019 Houston Facts. Continue reading.

The Rice Alliance unveiled its new Gensler-designed, 3,000-square-foot office space. Photo courtesy of the Rice Alliance

Photos: Rice Alliance reveals new office space

new digs

Rice University's entrepreneurship-driving entity has a new, updated office on campus. The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship cut the ribbon on its 3,000-square-foot Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite just in time for the holidays.

The space was made possible by a $1 million donation from its namesake couple, Rice engineering alumnus William "Bill" Sick and his wife, Stephanie. Bill Sick was among the first supporters and mentors to the program when it was formed in 2000.

"[Bill is] passionate about building entrepreneurship at Rice University and passionate about the importance of entrepreneurship in driving innovation and economic development in this country," Brad Burke, managing director at the alliance, says. "Bill has watched Rice's program go from an unranked program to the No. 1 entrepreneurship program in the country and felt the Rice Alliance needed a larger, more appropriate space commensurate with the Rice Alliance's impact on Rice and on the Houston community."

Burke says the Rice Alliance's new home — located in McNair Hall, which houses the Jones Graduate School of Business — will be better accommodating for the number of industry professionals that come onto the Rice campus for events, programming, mentorship, and more.

"The Rice Alliance meets frequently with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, students, mentors, and other members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem," Burke says. "The new space is on the first floor of the Jones School and is much more accessible and visible to our guests and visitors."

The Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite has doubled the Alliance's space and has allowed the organization to co-locate with another innovation-focus entity on campus. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, will have an office in the space, better connecting the two organizations that have worked hand-in-hand for a number of years.

Some visual elements of the space include bright green walls, which sets the Rice Alliance apart from the school with an energetic feel. The space also features a number of Houston art, including:

  • A three-paneled piece by local Houston artist DUAL, which was commissioned by Rice Alliance for the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition.
  • A neon sign, designed and created by Houston artist Tim Walker of The Neon Gallery adorns the entrance wall.
  • In a way to honor Houston's history, mosaic tile flooring from the Blue Tile Project is also featured in the space.

Gensler designed the space and b. bell builders was the general contractor. Quynhmai Nguyen, Rice Alliance's senior director of operations and event planning, worked with Gensler and made the final detailed design decisions.

Energetic new space

The new space, which premiered with a holiday party last week, features a neon sign, designed and created by Houston artist Tim Walker of The Neon Gallery.

As the city grows, Houston faces more and more challenges from transportation and infrastructure to gentrification and climate change. Getty Images

Overheard: Expert panel weighs in on the future of Houston — from mobility to climate change

Eavesdropping in houston

As technology and infrastructure evolves, Houston is growing and evolving with it — in both good ways and bad.

On October 30, Gensler hosted its annual Evolution Houston forum that brings together various personalities and industries to discuss the future of the city of Houston. The panelists discussed gentrification, climate change, mobility, smart cities, and so many other hot topics Houstonians hear or think about on a regular basis.

Missed the event? Here are some powerful quotes from the discussion.

“I like to think of Houston as an adolescent city, struggling for its identity.”

Peter Merwin, design principal at Gensler, who adds, "If you look at places like New York, London, Paris — those are all luxury cities. They are fully formed, and a consequence of that is that they become unaffordable. It's something that we have to be careful about in Houston."

“One of the things that has been echoed by many of the artists and many of the poor people over the last few years is, [people] ‘want the culture but they don’t want us.’ It’s very reflective when you go [into the communities.]”

Kam Franklin, activist and singer-songwriter of The Suffers. Franklin described how she would move from the various neighborhoods she's lived in after they've grown in culture. She would see such a huge increase in her rent as people were more willing to pay the premium to live in these newly desirable neighborhoods because of the culture, but its pricing out the original inhabitants. Franklin added, "I'm not going to tell any of y'all where I moved."

“We have to continue to support the diversification of mobility options.”

Abbey Roberson, vice president of planning at the Texas Medical Center. Roberson says transportation is something she particularly focuses on considering how many people filter in and out of the TMC on a daily basis. The medical center wouldn't be able to support the traffic with out various modes of transportation — busses, light rails, etc. Roberson adds that this translates to the rest of the city. "We can't just be doing one thing or the other."

“We’re creating this great culture of trail activation.”

Steve Radom, founder & managing principal at Radom Capital LLC, which developed Heights Mercantile off a bike path and is now building out The MKT, which is also along the same bike path. Radom notes that the city has seen a 300 percent year over year in walkability and a 70 percent increase in bike traffic.

“Climate change is not something the city of Houston can change alone.”

Lara Cottingham, chief of staff & chief sustainability officer at the city of Houston. The city's climate action plan is a result of the devastating floods has seen almost annually. The plan is still being drafted but a version is expected to be released before the end of the year. Every city is facing sustainability challenges, and partnerships are what's going to drive change. "In Houston success means partnership," Cottingham adds.

“How do you talk about a city this big and diverse — every neighborhood has its own identity.”

Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge in Houston, discussed how Houston functions differently from other cities in that it its various neighborhoods — the Heights, Montrose, downtown — are different from each other.

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Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.