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Shangri La Is Found Horizon in Texas

Credits: ©http Shnagri La Botanical Gardens

The Shangri La Botanical Gardens rests on an extraordinarily diverse 252-acre ecosystem at the edge of the Adams Bayou in southeastern Texas. A local businessman had purchased the property in the 1940s and, as a hobby, created a small garden with a 10-acre lake, extensive plantings and pathways, greenhouses, and other garden features. In 2008, a major renovation was completed that restores vitality to what had become a tangle of dreams following major freezes and storms, and provides an education center that serves hundreds of school kids daily. The cypress/tupelo swamp, wooded uplands, and historic Shangri La Gardens now have a Visitor Center at the entrance to help acquaint guests with the site's history and resources. Nature education and research facilities include an outdoor education center, classroom pavilions, and bird viewing blinds, carefully situated within the preserve to provide hands-on learning opportunities. Thirty-six solar photovoltaic panels are installed on a portion of the south-facing roofs and in two fields by the outdoor classrooms, generating about 21 percent of Shangri La’s energy needs when the sun is out. The buildings’ designs feature proper orientation for passive solar heating and cooling, optimized overhangs, thoughtful window placement, and energy-efficient equipment and lighting to help reduce energy costs by 70 percent.


Shangri La Botanical Gardens 5

The Shangri La Botanical Gardens in Texas are comprised of an orientation center, nature discovery center lab & pavilion, outpost classrooms, and boat house. ©2010 Lake / Flato Architects

Finding Shangri La:
Outdoor classrooms, exhibition space, and public buildings make up this campus in a southeast Texas cypress swamp
By Aleksandr Bierig, Green Source magazine

In 34 years of teaching science around Orange, Texas, Michael Hoke saw a generation of students less and less connected to nature. “How many kids, nowadays, have a chance to go and eat something out of a garden?” he wondered. After George H. W. Bush presented him with the presidential award for excellence in science teaching in 1990, Hoke put his prize money toward fundraising for a nature education program. He wanted to bring his students to an area of cypress swamp near Orange, in the Sabine River watershed, conserved for many years by its owner, the Stark Foundation.

The foundation’s creator, timber-industrialist Lutcher Stark, had cultivated a picturesque promenade garden on part of the 252-acre site in the 1940s, after reading Lost Horizon, the book that conjured an unblemished monastery in Tibet called “Shangri-La.”

Stark named his gardens after that idyllic vision, but a difficult freeze in the mid 1950s, followed by his death in 1965, meant the area was left alone for a number of decades, unintentionally preserved as one of the best natural habitats near this southeast Texas town. Hoke began bringing students to the swamp in 1995, and, around 2000, the program’s success inspired the Stark Foundation to propose the creation of a permanent education center, along with a restoration of the historical gardens.

“When we started this project, we didn’t know the word LEED. We just said we want the buildings to be as earth-friendly as possible,” says Hoke. The foundation first went to Louisiana Landscape Architect Jeffrey Carbo for help restoring the Shangri- La gardens. Carbo collaborated with a larger firm, Mesa Design, which had previously worked with Lake | Flato, and suggested that the San Antonio-based architecture firm take on the campus buildings. The order of the arrangement landscape preceding architecture foreshadowed how the buildings would be conceived.

Bob Harris, FAIA, partner-in-charge on the project, describes this process: “It was an example of how not to think of architecture as an imposition, but to think of the site and natural surroundings as the point of departure.” A number of innovative sustainable strategies emerged from this mindset. All of the classroom pavilions, set in the swamp, were constructed with helical piers as foundations—an iterative process of placing small piers at 6-foot increments, one leading to the next. This allowed the piers to be placed without disturbing the swamp with excessively heavy machinery. Piers also provided clearance for the pavilions above the flood plane of the bayou.

Lake | Flato reused abandoned greenhouses on site and saved brick from nearby warehouse buildings for the site’s new structures. Salvaged timber was repurposed for fences and siding, reclaimed asphalt for the parking lot, and recycled plastic—the equivalent of 1.1 million milk jugs—was used to construct the boardwalks that traverse the swamp. Overall, 79 percent of construction waste was diverted from the landfill, and the buildings were constructed on previously developed land, leaving the habitat as undisturbed as possible.

Water and energy were other central considerations in the planning of Shangri-La. Nine cisterns (a total capacity of 33,200 gallons) collect rooftop rainwater, which is used for irrigation and toilets, reducing water use 77 percent over baseline figures. In this extremely hot and humid area, nearly half the buildings are open to the elements, using only shading and ventilation. The jury cited this openness to climate, as well as the use of photovoltaic cells at each of the remote classrooms, as integral to the campus’s energy-saving strategy, which reduced use by two-thirds against the average.

In 2005, the landfall of Hurricane Rita provided another remarkable opportunity for environmental adaptation. After the hurricane decimated the forest and the nascent construction site, Hoke worked with state officials to clear the site of a thick layer of dead trees that were choking out new growth. Moving as quickly as possible, a team with mobile saw mills salvaged much of the felled wood for use. Lake | Flato quickly changed material specifications, using the felled trees in the buildings themselves, turning a disaster into an opportunity.

Hoke followed with an ambitious program to replant the forest with native Longleaf Pines, which had been subsumed by the faster-growing, invasive Loblolly Pines. He estimates that he and his team planted 17,000 trees and “Mother Nature probably planted another 50,000.” After the building opened in late 2007, it was hit yet again by Hurricane Ike, which, while less severe than Rita, still required a huge amount of rebuilding due to widespread flooding. The center has been open again since early this year, with a staff of eight teachers and busloads of schoolchildren arriving daily.

Those visitors are treated to an environment that separates inside from out as little as possible. Since students are inside hermetic classrooms most of the year, it was part of Hoke’s intention to immerse students in the natural world: “Kids come out here and have an experience,” he says. “Going into a cypress swamp on an electric boat is a pretty neat thing.” That experience is amplified by the buildings: on-site classrooms, outdoor circulation space that floats above the water, and a series of repurposed greenhouses all seem to grow out of the forest, at peace with (and a piece of) the land that surrounds it.

Green Design Strategies
Shangri La Botanical Garden and Nature Centers building complex is a certified Platinum LEED building by the United States Green Building Council.
Green features include:

• The Restricted Parking Lot is recycled asphalt from Green Avenue and Simmons Drive Orange.

• Bike racks are available to encourage visitors and employees to bike to Shangri La.

• Metal cisterns collect rainwater to irrigate the courtyard area and flush the toilets.

• Thirty six solar panels at Shangri La produce 300 watts of electricity. When the sun shines the panels produce 40 percent of the electricity required to run the orientation center buildings. Energy is also purchased from green sources - wind power plants in west Texas.

• A geothermal well system provides the heat sink for the heating and cooling units. 34 closed loop wells are utilized along with one 700’ deep well. This allows Shangri La to take advantage of the consistent temperatures deep within the earth (approximately 75 degree temperature).

• The metal roofing reflect heat which allows for more than 50 percent reduction in energy usage.

• Each waterless urinal saves 45, 000 gallons annually.

• Floor coverings are made from easily renewable materials such as corn. The corn based carpet is laid in two foot squares so small areas may be replaced as necessary.

• Sinker cypress was used in some areas.

• Large building windows allow daylight to flow into the office.

• Fallen trees from Hurricane Rita were incorporated into the construction. Large cypress trees felled by the storm were milled on site using mobile milling equipment to create benches, a boardwalk in the Pond of the Blue Moon and a rustic folly.

• Concrete foundations are 40 percent fly ash, a mineral resulting from the combustion of coal which is usually burned off into the atmosphere. This reduces the amount of cement used and reuses fly ash that would otherwise go to a landfill.

• The plastic walkways throughout Shangri La look like wooden boards. They are made from recycled plastic and recycled wood. The amount of plastic recycled for this job equals 1.1 million milk jugs or 3.6 million plastic bags. It's 50 percent plastic and 50 percent wood fibers.

• Soy-bean based insulation is used in the walls and ceilings throughout the buildings.

• Bricks at Shangri La were salvaged from an old warehouse built in Arkansas in 1910.

• Organic products and beneficial insects are used instead of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

The Nature Discovery Center is a screened-in pavilion situated in the middle of Shangri La's cypress/tupelo swamp, offering visitors a unique and interactive way to explore the fascinating world of nature. As the sounds of the swamp echo through the pavilion, some lucky visitors will come eye-to-eye with snakes and other creatures that have found a home in Shangri La. Those who don't mind a little mud can dig through pond water to explore the amazing world of invertebrates, and a spotting scope allows guests to spy on animals in the swamp or nesting birds in the heronry. Each activity offers an engaging sensory experience of the magical world that is Shangri La.

View map


  Shangri La Botanical Gardens Map (2,101 kb)

  Shangri La LEED Facts (551 kb)


Stark Foundation (Texas)

Shangri La Botanical Gardens AIA Case Study

Jeff Carbo Landscape Architects (Louisiana, USA)

Lake / Flato Architects (Texas, USA)

Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center (Texas, USA)