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Experts: How to better prepare Houston to combat climate related challenges

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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.

Houston-based organization premieres space health tech documentary

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A Houston space health organization has launched a film that is available to anyone interested in how space affects the human body.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, which is housed out of Baylor College of Medicine in consortium with Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced a new documentary — “Space Health: Surviving in the Final Frontier.” The film, which covers how space affects humans both physically and mentally. It's free to watch online.

“This documentary provides an unprecedented look into the challenges – physical and mental – facing space explorers and the types of innovative research that TRISH supports to address these challenges,” says Dr. Dorit Donoviel, TRISH executive director and associate professor in Baylor’s Center for Space Medicine, in a news release. “We hope the film inspires students and researchers alike to see how their work could one day soon improve the lives of human explorers.”

The documentary interviews a wide range of experts — scientists, flight surgeons, astronauts, etc. — about all topics related to health, like food, medicine, radiation, isolation, and more. Some names you'll see on the screen include:

  • Former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott
  • Active NASA astronaut Victor Glover
  • NASA Associate Administrator Kathy Lueders
  • Inspiration4 Commander Jared Issacman
  • TRISH-funded researchers Level Ex CEO Sam Glassenberg and Holobiome CEO Philip Strandwitz

“Understanding and solving the challenges that face humans in space is critical work,” says Dr. Jennifer Fogarty, TRISH chief scientific officer, in the release. “Not only does space health research aim to unlock new realms of possibility for human space exploration, but it also furthers our ability to innovate on earth, providing insights for healthcare at home.”

TRISH is funded by NASA’s Human Research Program and seeks both early stage and translation-ready research and technology to protect and improve the health and performance of space explorers. This film was enabled by a collaboration with NASA and HRP.

New report shows why now is the time for Houston to emerge as a hub for hydrogen innovation

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Houston, known for being the energy capital of the world, has potential to lead innovation within the hydrogen space, and a new report lays out how.

The report, which was released today by the Center for Houston’s Future, is titled "Houston as the epicenter of a global clean hydrogen hub." The information explains how Houston-based assets can be leveraged to lead a global clean hydrogen innovation.

“The Houston region has the talent, expertise and infrastructure needed to lead the global energy transition to a low-carbon world. Clean hydrogen, alongside carbon capture, use, and storage are among the key technology areas where Houston is set up to succeed and can be an example to other leading energy economies around the world,” says Bobby Tudor, chair of the Greater Houston Partnership’s Houston Energy Transition Initiative, in a news release.

Together, GHP's HETI and over 100 experts representing 70 companies and organizations produced the report, along with McKinsey and Company, which donated significant research and economic analyses. Here are some highlights from the study, according to the release:

  • Clean hydrogen production could grow 5 times over current hydrogen production by 2050.
  • The establishment of a clean hydrogen industry could create 180,000 jobs (direct, indirect and induced) statewide, while adding $100 billion to Texas' GDP growth.
  • Globally, a Houston-led clean hydrogen hub could abate 220 million tons (MT) tons of carbon emissions by 2050.

“This report gives additional weight to the already strong case that Houston is uniquely positioned to lead a transformational clean hydrogen hub with global impact,” says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “We can also deliver economic growth, create jobs and cut emissions across Houston and the Gulf Coast, including in underserved communities.”

The Houston region already produces and consumes a third of the nation’s hydrogen, per the release, and has more than 50 percent of the country’s dedicated hydrogen pipelines. These assets can be utilized to accelerate a transition to clean hydrogen, and the report lays out how.

"Using this roadmap as a guide and with Houston’s energy sector at the lead, we are ready to create a new clean hydrogen economy that will help fight climate change as it creates jobs and economic growth,” says Center for Houston’s Future CEO Brett Perlman. “We are more than ready, able and willing to take on these goals, as our record of overwhelming success in energy innovation and new market development shows.”