Shangri La Nature Center

By Laura Berbel, Senior Project Engineer, The Beck Group | September 28, 2010

The Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center will be a world-class facility seeking LEED© Platinum certification, adding to the cultural diversity that is Orange, Texas. The project is funded by the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, whose mission is to improve the quality of life in Southeast Texas. Shangri La is nestled within the Stark Foundation's 252-acre property in the heart of the city of Orange.

The nature center was designed by Lake Flato Architects, Inc., Mesa Design Group and Jeffrey Carbo, ASLA. The Austin office of the Dallas-based The Beck Group was awarded pre-construction and construction services for the project. The Historical Garden is a reflection of the Stark Family's Botanical Garden that closed in the 1950s after a fierce winter storm decimated the landscape. Ironically, the 18-month construction schedule to bring the property back to its original beauty in 2005 was delayed in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Rita during the early stages of construction.

Helping People Help the City

Many of Louisiana's victims of Hurricane Katrina found refuge in Orange, Texas, and amazingly, within a few weeks, found themselves reliving the nightmare of a wind-damaged environment, existing once again without supplies and utilities.

The Beck Group and the entire Stark Foundation team partnered to first help rectify the storm-related damage to buildings and land throughout the city before returning to work on the Shangri La renovation. They called on nearby contractors and consultants to procure generators, gasoline and water to preserve the treasures in the art museum. Then, Beck repaired properties in the city, including the Stark Museum of Art, the Lutcher Theater and the historic Stark home.

Preparing the Site

Once the initial crisis had passed, and the construction team returned to their project at the Shangri-La center, they found much cleanup was needed there as well. The landscape design team had planned the new gardens around a heavy tree canopy. The project had been designed to specifically utilize the shade to minimize the heat island effect. This was required for one of the LEED points that was calculated into the project's potential rating. However, the once heavily-vegetated property had lost 80 percent of its tree canopy when Hurricane Rita came through. Cleanup was a long and arduous process.

The Shangri La site reclamation efforts were ongoing and focused on tactical deadfall extraction and preservation of surviving trees. Mobile milling equipment from Austin was staged in a centralized location on the Shangri La property.

The owner agreed to salvage the deadfall timber for a feature in the historic garden called the Cypress Gate. The structure was made of four, 30-foot-tall cypress trees and other timber milled on-site. Log benches and furniture for the visitor center, boardwalks and outdoor classrooms were also milled from deadfall caused by Hurricane Rita.

Building Sustainable Buildings

The visitor center incorporates five individual buildings that are designated as environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to visit and work. The structure's concrete foundations consist of 41-percent fly ash. The walls and ceilings are insulated with soy-based insulation. The majority of the walls are built of reclaimed brick material salvaged from a warehouse in Arkansas that was built in 1910. The roofing is designed to reflect heat and collect rain water runoff for use in toilets and in the extensive landscape irrigation system.

The mechanical equipment is connected to a closed-loop, geothermal heating and cooling system which pumps water from an 800-foot-deep well, benefiting from the earth's reduced underground temperature. Well water, or thermal transfer fluid, is distributed through underground piping to each of the building's geothermal/water source heat pumps, used for either cooling or heating. After flowing through the system, the water is returned underground.

Creating a Bayou Commute

Bordered by Adam's Bayou, the nature center design makes use of this body of water to transport visitors to remote classrooms via specially designed pontoon boats. This element helps preserve the land by limiting travel through the property's natural and delicate environment.

One of the unique aspects of this job site has been the construction of a boat house that required 40-foot-long piles to be driven into the bayou floor to house the facility's passenger boats. The location of the boat house is restricted by two low bridges that do not allow large equipment into the bayou, impeding pile installation. By salvaging a small barge from Galveston Bay and using a neighbor's boat ramp, The Beck Group was able to power a small barge into position to set the piles with a water jet installation system.

The boardwalks to the remote classrooms and throughout the property are constructed on helical piers. Each pier is screwed into the ground by a mini excavator with a high torque drive head attachment. The pier depth ranges from 15 feet to 25 feet and is capable of supporting up to 20,000 pounds of vertical load. The piers first supported the mini excavator during construction and then the finished boardwalk, consisting of treated wood framing with a composite wood deck. The installation activity was designed to minimize site disturbance.

A Unique Texas Refuge

The nature center will offer a unique environment where visitors can learn about and explore the distinctive ecosystems within the eastern-most part of Texas. Arriving at any of the three educational outposts, visitors can experience the diverse flora and fauna within the cypress/tupelo swamp and see more than 300 species of plants. Completion is scheduled for the late fall of 2007, and the park will open in the spring of 2008. Learn more about this unusual ecological haven on the website,