UH Architecture Students Developing Concepts for Former Sugar Plant Site

Students to Present Ideas for Retail, Residential Spaces Near New Ballpark to Architects, Developers

There's been a buzz in the Sugar Land area since it was announced that the minor league baseball team the Skeeters would make a home there. With a new sports team arriving, developers are seeing opportunities for growth near its future home, StarTex Power Field.

The ballpark is near the former Imperial Sugar plant. Many of this historic plant's facilities are still standing and ready to be rehabilitated into new projects. No plans have been made yet, but 10 architecture students are generating designs and concepts that may inspire residential and commercial spaces.

As part of the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture's 5th Year Design Studio, students have visited the site and were assigned a specific sugar plant building to reinvent. Throughout the semester, students have developed possible new uses for these facilities, which include lofts, restaurants, brew pubs and retail outlets.

Under the supervision of architecture adjunct professor Barry Moore, students are finishing up their physical and computer models of these projects. On May 3, they will share them with representatives from Johnson Development and Gensler Architecture.

The semester-long experience is providing students with an invaluable opportunity to apply solutions to a problem they haven't encountered  -  rehabilitating an existing structure.

"The future of architecture will be primarily focused on the renovation and adaptive rehabilitation of existing buildings," Moore said. "For this project, students have to become acquainted with the site and the buildings. They've visited the site and researched these structures. Now, they need to create new architecture using these preexisting facilities."

Each student has been assigned a specific building. These include the former raw sugar warehouse, distribution warehouse, power plant and char house, where sugar was refined.

Student Peter Langley is developing a plan that would transform the old distribution warehouse into a mixed-use facility with restaurants, retail outlets and residential spaces. He said this project presents new challenges, but it also allows students to explore new areas of architectural creativity.

"It's a new way of looking at architecture," Langley said. "We're approaching a totally different problem than we're used to.  Instead of coming up with an entirely new building, we have to apply ideas to something that's already there. It's easier in some ways, but it's also harder. We're all hammering away on how to make our concepts fit these buildings."

Langley's classmate Elena Rodriguez is tasked with rehabbing the site's former char house. Her plans for this eight-story building include a rooftop bar and grill, as well as lofts. She also is working on a plan to create a park connected to a nearby amphitheater and pavilion.

"This is an excellent exercise in historic preservation," she said. "These are the kinds of projects that are happening here in Houston and across the country. There are more existing buildings that need to be rehabilitated than new projects. I definitely see myself working on things like this in the future. "

While this project is providing students with practical design experience, it also provides them with the experience of presenting their ideas to professional architects and developers. Students' concepts may not be used, but they may spark ideas that developers can present to investors.

Hector J. Perez Jr. appreciates the chance to show his work to industry professionals who can ask questions and provide feedback. He is looking forward to sharing his concepts for converting the site's former raw sugar warehouse into a mixed use facility with townhomes, studios and retail space.

Perez credits Moore for connecting students with veteran architects, developers and clients. Developing designs is only one part of architecture, he said. Being able to effectively communicate one's work is crucial to entering the field, he added.

 "Studio classes like this provide students with real-world interactions. We can learn why people like or don't like our designs. It's part of the learning process," he said. "We'll be presenting to people in the industry instead of professors or other students. It's a great opportunity to take our ideas out of the classroom and present them to an audience of professionals."