Green Building in a Green Place

You don't have to drive to Austin to see the results of a "green" building project. Recent improvements at Sheldon Lake State Park and Environmental Learning Center were constructed with materials that leave the smallest footprint possible. Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports.

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The park is about 15 miles from downtown Houston, just east of Miller Road #3 on the Beaumont Highway and just across the railroad tracks. The park is designed mostly for school groups who spend the day learning about wildlife, hiking, identifying critters and fishing with gear provided by the park.

"I don't know if you've ever been around 20 kids with a fishing pole and a hook on the end of it, but it's not for the weak hearted, trust me."

That's Robert Comstock the park's superintendent. While students have been going to Sheldon Lake for years, it wasn't until a bond election in 2002 that enough money was put together to give the park a face lift. The gathering point at Sheldon Lake is the new concrete, wood and steel Pond Pavilion.

"All this steel, this is all used oilfield steel. The wood you see, this is Brazilian tropical wood and this is Douglas Fir above us. No old growth was cut down to produce this. I like to say its wood with papers to the children. What it means is you can document it that it was plantation grown, it has a provenance."

Comstock says the concrete used has a high fly ash content so less cement is needed, and there are three large tanks that collect rainwater which is used for irrigation around the park. Solar panels and a wind turbine provide about ten percent of the parks electricity. Comstock says the new facility also has geothermal air conditioning.

"Behind us in this field there are nine 250-foot wells with water loops going down and up through each of the nine wells connected to the two AC units in this building here. What we are doing is using the constant 72-degree temperature of the earth as a cooling source for the building in the summer and conversely for a heat source for the building in the winter."

The water cools the air compressor not hot outside air. This also eliminates the need for a fan on the compressor and because the water is 72-degrees and not the hotter outside air temperature, the unit runs more efficiently and therefore can be smaller than a conventional system.

"So lets say I would normally need four tons of air conditioning to cool this building I actually only have a two ton unit."

Bricks used to build the new restrooms came from a building that was torn down in Houston and the hot water comes from solar panels. Even what appear to be large stones that make a small pond are recycled. They are really chunks of concrete that were once a sidewalk. It all looks so natural that it has become more than just an ornamental pond.

"We've got our little 18-inch alligator here he came in last summer right after the facility opened. He seems to enjoy the kids coming and watching and seeing the little ones, and then they are not too scared when they see his big brothers down in the ponds down on the trails."

Park superintendent Robert Comstock says, so far it appears that even though the park has expanded it has not increased its energy costs.

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