Ballet And Green Design Tango In Houston

Architect Marshall Strabala (pronounced stray-baa-lah) is known for designing award-winning performing arts venues, including the LG Arts Center in Seoul, Korea, and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, as well as for his super-tall building designs (currently, he holds bragging rights to three of the world’s ten tallest buildings, including the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). He’s also the designer behind Houston’s latest green building sensation, the the Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance.

In order to get a handle on just what makes the new Center for Dance so unique–along with some of the unique opportunities and challenges involved–we interviewed Strabala, via email. [NOTE: Marshall Strabala designed the Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance while he was Director of Design at Gensler. He is now the head of 2DEFINE Architecture, a global firm with offices in Chicago, Shanghai and Seoul.]

EarthTechling (ET): A recent news release noted that the Houston Ballet’s new Center for Dance was designed around a gallery-like concept and clean sight lines meant to engender a spirit of openness, activity and collaboration. How did these concepts inform the project? How did they play out in the arrangement of space?

Marshall Strabala (MS): The building was planned around two main concepts:  first, interaction between staff and dancers, academy and company, the public and the dancers.  We wanted to create a community centered on dance.  The studios where the dancers practice have large windows on the exterior to bring in natural light, and interior windows on the inside to allow the community to see the practice within.

Houston Ballet Center for Dance1

image via Houston Ballet

Each studio needs a 20-foot clear height and this allows us to have mezzanines that are over the studios–so at every turn within the building, one can overlook, see, and be part of the creative process. The company studios are on the top floors and a little more private. The Academy studios are on level 2, with a studio on the ground floor for the kids below age 5. The administrative offices are intermingled with the studio to create chance meetings for everyone involved in ballet.

Second, the building must promote dance in Houston.  The building was designed to advertise the ballet to people in Houston, not with bay signs, but by displaying dance to the city. The large studios face north to the arriving traffic. All cars coming into downtown Houston can see dancers in these large picture windows.  The building is a stage to the city.

Houston Ballet Center for Dance2

image via Houston Ballet

ET: Houston is known for its heat and humidity–and at 115,000 square feet, the Center for Dance is a big space to cool. How did your team approach the challenge of energy efficient climate control in a space this large?

MS:  The new building is very green, and will use less energy per square foot than the old ballet building. The planning of the building takes into account Houston’s harsh climate, and reducing energy consumption is a primary goal in every building that I design.

The most cost-effective way to reduce energy consumption is insulation. This building minimizes windows and super insulates the walls and roof.  We placed the windows where they will let in natural light and limit solar gain. We placed the largest windows to the north, where there is no direct sun, and smaller shaded windows to the west, and south. The eastern portion of the building was designed as a future party wall, and when the adjacent building is finished, the building will perform even better. There are no windows on the east facade.

Each portion of the building can be independently switched on or off.  No space needs to be cooled or heated when not in use.  This zoning allows the dancers to rehearse on weekends and evenings when the administrative group is not there.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.