As the first building of a 16-acre innovation district now taking shape outside of Rice University‘s campus in Houston, the recently completed Ion office building is trying to chart a new course for business in the city. Houston has been a bustling center of growth for decades, but its oil, medicine, aerospace, and academic industries have largely kept to themselves, siloed by differences and the physical barriers of the city’s wide, zoning-free urban form.
“People aren’t collaborating and colliding and sharing ideas as easily as they can in cities that have built environments where people are literally rubbing shoulders,” says Ryan LeVasseur, managing director of direct real estate, the entity in charge of managing the university’s $6.2 billion endowment fund. “So we are attempting to reverse that.”
By creating mixed-use spaces for established companies, startups still in the accelerator or incubator phase, and academic events, the Ion is hoping to erase the divisions between companies and industries.
The starting point for the project was to reuse the historic Sears building on the site, land already owned by the university. Built in 1939, the four-story department store—the largest in Houston at the time—featured a dramatic art deco facade, spacious terrazzo floors, and soaring ceilings. After 79 years, in 2018, Sears closed the Main Street store. Partly because of its architectural heritage and partly its sizable floor plates—nearly double that of the typical downtown building—Rice Management made the uncommon decision to preserve the building. “That’s very much a standard practice in other markets, but in Houston it isn’t,” says LeVasseur.
The redesign is technically an adaptive reuse of the historic building, with two floors added on top and extra square footage added on two sides. Designed by SHoP Architects, with Gensler and James Carpenter Design Associates, the former department store has been reborn as a modern mix of offices, coworking spaces, incubator areas, event space, restaurants, and informal shared-collaboration areas across the 266,000 square feet.
“Our approach to the adaptive reuse was in some ways really practical,” says Anneli Rice, project director at SHoP Architects. “How can we make this the best place for workspace and not so much nostalgic but keeping the really great elements of the building that survived the test of time?”
One thing that failed that test was the dark, largely windowless interior—conducive to selling vacuum cleaners and couches at Sears, but less ideal for startup office work. The designers, led by James Carpenter Design Associates, incorporated a new central light well from the top floor, creating a light-filled atrium, with windows cut all around the perimeter. The atrium is ringed by shared seating and public meeting space on each floor that are intended to make room for interactions and cross-pollination among the operations housed in the building.
Rice says the Ion is meant to be an architectural representation of the lifecycle of a company. Its ground floor spaces are small, intended for scrappy, growing companies and ideas still in the incubation stage. Above, there are coworking and mid-size offices, with some shared collaboration areas. At the top, in penthouse spaces, are fully outfitted offices with views of the city befitting companies that have made it.
To create space where the new and established can intermingle, including with the public during events, the designers also reconfigured the ground floor to be more of a public gathering and interaction space than just an office building lobby. The transformation was a heavy lift. Even with its terrazzo floors and tall ceilings, by the 1960s, much of the ground floor’s early grandeur had been erased. “They had closed off every single bit of the facade except for the main entrance off of the parking lot,” says Rice. Pushing back against this car orientation, the architects reopened two other historic entrances.
Counter to, or perhaps in spite of, the city’s reputation, the innovation district is planned to be walkable and pedestrian-oriented, with a light rail line connecting the site and just one parking structure for the area, instead of the Houston way of a parking lot for every building. In pushing the parking to another location, the Ion building site has room for what LeVasseur hopes will be part of a network of open public space.
Designed by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, a large plaza sits aside the Ion building, creating a publicly accessible piece of open outdoor space in a city where commercial properties typically turn inward. It’s intended to set the standard for the entire district, according to LeVasseur.
“What we’re doing is establishing the ground-plane typology with the Ion for what we will build with partners throughout the district,” he says. “These are spaces that are intended for people to come together.”
The innovation district has had some local pushback, with residents in the adjacent neighborhood expressing concerns that the project will lead to gentrification and displacement. Nonetheless, Houston’s city council recently approved a community benefits agreement with Rice Management Company that commits $15 million to various community programs.
Tenants have already moved into the Ion, which will have a grand opening in January. LeVasseur says the building is already showing signs of encouraging interaction, with events on the ground floor and early use of the shared amenity space and meeting areas around the atrium. “People want to work together,” he says. “They want to share space. They want to collaborate.”