TALK OF THE TOWN
South Montgomery County YMCA at Branch Crossing
The Woodlands, Texas
Designers of the new South Montgomery County YMCA at Branch Crossing in The Woodlands, Texas, found themselves working toward two potentially conflicting goals.
"It had to look and feel like a YMCA, which has a certain aesthetic that comes out of the organization's philosophy," explains Steve Durham, project manager for Houston-based architectural firm Kirksey, which designed the facility. A central tenet of that philosophy is that YMCAs must serve all members of their communities, regardless of ability to pay, a principle that calls for economizing wherever possible. In other words: no fancy country clubs.
At the same time, the South Montgomery County YMCA at Branch Crossing needed to fit into a community that places a premium on coexisting unobtrusively with its extensive and well-preserved natural surroundings. The Woodlands sets restrictions on both the construction methods and the final appearance of any new buildings to ensure minimal visual and ecological impact on the wooded areas and wetlands that define the community. In other words: no cinder-block shoeboxes.
Meeting both standards turned out to be no problem, according to both Durham and South Montgomery County YMCA Executive Director Darwin Barnett, who praises the 40,000-square-foot design for its "open, welcoming feel." The final product, which was completed under-budget, makes use of rough-hewn, natural-feeling elements like wood, stone, stained concrete and burnished concrete masonry blocks. Frequent windows admit sunlight throughout the facility, even in the rock-climbing room, where climbers who reach the top of the 26-foot climbing wall are treated to a view of the surrounding treetops.
"The design is very straightforward and pragmatic," Durham says. "It has materials that in themselves are not glamorous but when put together in a palette look quite nice. There is not a lot of makeup on this building."
Another priority for this particular YMCA was that there be good lines of sight within the building, both to market the facility's recreation resources to new and potential patrons as well as to complement the highly social atmosphere of the surrounding community.
"It turned out great," Barnett says. "From the lobby, you can see almost everything that's going on: kids in day care, the climbing wall, aerobics classes, the cardio area."
There's also room for mixing and mingling.
"Recreation is very much a social activity in this community, so we wanted the feel of a community gathering place," Barnett says. "So we asked for space for talking and socializing."
Sharing a membership roll of about 33,000 members with another YMCA, there was never any doubt that the new facility would see a great deal of use. Of concern to Barnett was the possibility that the two centers would be redundant. To prevent this, careful planning went into making sure that programming at the two centers was complementary. The South Montgomery County facility offers aerobics machines, weight-training equipment, playing fields, a daycare center, climbing center with a 35-foot rock climbing tower and rock walls, physical-therapy center focusing on young athletes, and a $1 million outdoor waterpark.
Reflecting on the design and construction process itself, Barnett is particularly impressed with how Durham's team was able to incorporate environmentally friendly elements into the construction while maintaining the project budget. These included ordering as many materials as possible from local vendors (to reduce the need for pollution-causing shipment methods) and construction techniques that minimized site disturbance and the resulting runoff, as well as using as few vapor-releasing products as possible.
"It's in [YMCA's] values to be good stewards of the resources we have," Barnett explains. "Not just financial resources but also our energy use, being prudent in what we do, being responsible members of the community."