News | ‘Treehouse’ offers a view of the future
July 20, 2014
By Nancy Sarnoff | Houston Chronicle
The new offices of Metro-National - the real estate company that owns Memorial City Mall and much of the land around it - look a lot like numerous other corporate spaces across the Houston area.
Housed in a suburban office tower off the Katy Freeway, the space opens up into a bright reception area with comfortable leather seating and a stylish wood and marble desk. A glassed-in boardroom overlooks the adjacent Memorial neighborhood, and rows of enclosed offices line the perimeter of the space.
But a glass door accessible only from the fourth-floor break room on the building's southeast corner leads to a space with a vastly different vibe.
The door opens onto a short outdoor walkway, playfully inspired by a swinging bridge, leading to a two-story structure the company refers to as "the Treehouse."
When it's completed later this month, the building - an amalgam of South American wood paneling and angled glass - will represent "a collaborative and sustainable office of the future," the company said.
It will also serve as a showroom for new and future developments the company has under way in the Memorial City area.
Put another way: if real estate were a science, the Treehouse would be Metro-National's lab.
A place for cool ideas
"The Treehouse is a place where we can escape the adult world and get creative and come with cool ideas for building and design," said Glenn Fuhrman, Metro-National's vice president of design and construction, who will have an office in the new space along with about a dozen other employees.
It will be home to all of Memorial City's development activities, including master planning, architecture, construction and interior design.
There will be private offices for employees who will work in the building full time and temporary work stations for visiting architects, engineers, brokers, consultants and potential tenants of retail spaces and offices that MetroNational builds.
The company hopes employees from the tower will use the space, too.
"The idea is to encourage co-workers to mingle in a relaxed, creative environment and to share what you are working on, fostering new ideas and teamwork," Fuhrman said.
The building demonstrates a trend toward more casual and flexible workplace design.
Companies are offering employees more options in how and where they work, a practice that leads to higher productivity, studies show.
Office workers spend less than half of their days at their desks, according to a recent study of 20,000 workers from around the world conducted by CBRE, a commercial real estate firm. The other half of the time is spent working with others in meetings - in person or online.
Allowing employees to select their specific workspaces results in greater satisfaction, the study showed.
MetroNational's Treehouse has abundant collaborative workspace for planned or impromptu meetings, along with a rooftop deck with a garden and outdoor kitchen for events.
"We need more examples of that," said Christopher Browne, a land planner with a background in architecture.
Browne, who recently toured MetroNational's building with the local chapter of the American Planning Association where he serves on the board, said the new space will introduce more people to alternative workplaces beyond the typical corporate environment.
"It doesn't have to be a boring building," he said. "I think this is a very creative fun example of what can be possible."
The space will have an open area called "the Camp" where the ceiling moves up and down depending on how the room is being used.
It will have a bar made from recycled beer bottle tops and a stage for presentations or small music concerts.
A glass garage-style door can open to an outdoor wraparound balcony with a fireplace.
The 14,700-square-foot building, on Bunker Hill just east of Memorial City Mall, was designed to achieve Platinum certification - the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
The building has a rooftop garden, solar panels and a geothermal heating and cooling system. There's also a wind turbine and a cistern for rainwater collection.
The property has its own botanic landscaping guide describing the ground level and rooftop garden plants, which include Zoysia grass, blue sky vines, showboat philodendrons and African irises.
The company plans to give tours of the building to students and others in the community. A portion of the second floor will hold a history wall showcasing milestones for the company and Memorial City. Studio RED Architects, Acumen Design and the Office of James Burnett were involved in the building and landscape design.
Setting the tone
MetroNational officials, who declined to disclose the cost of the project, said the Treehouse helps set the tone for changes in the company's development strategy.
The privately held firm was founded in 1954. It owns and manages more than 8.5 million square feet of commercial real estate and more than 250 acres around the mall and spanning both sides of Interstate 10, some of it undeveloped.
A couple of years ago, the company started making plans to transition the Memorial City area from a suburban-style real estate development into a more urban, upscale and dense enclave.
An evolving market
The company has not revealed all of its plans yet, but it recently opened Gateway Memorial City, a two-level 90,000-square-foot retail center west of Memorial City Mall and is planning to bring a Hotel ZaZa to the area.
"We see Memorial City as a great example of suburban-style development that's evolving and responding in tune to our changing market," said Ann Taylor, executive director of the local and San Antonio chapters of the Urban Land Institute.
She said the company is making more efficient use of its land as it plans more high-rise development and makes the area more inviting for pedestrians.
The Treehouse is a fun space, said Taylor, who toured the building during construction last month.
"With all the creativity they've poured into it, I would expect a whole lot of creativity will come out of it too," she said.