Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center
Since the publication of the book Lost Horizon in 1933, the term “Shangri La” has represented a place of beauty, peace, and enlightenment. In Orange, Texas, a modern Shangri La has been recreated with the best of both nature and gardens. Situated within the city limits of Orange, the 252-acre Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center (Shangri La) is a program of the Stark Foundation, a private foundation whose mission is to improve and enrich the quality of life in Southeast Texas and encourage and assist education. H. J. Lutcher Stark began work on Shangri La in 1937 and the gardens first opened to the public in 1946. In 1958, a major snowstorm heavily damaged the gardens. He closed the area to the public, and it remained that way for nearly 50 years. Nelda C. Stark bequeathed the property to the Stark Foundation in 2001.
Adjacent to the original Stark gardens is a natural area containing more than 225 of the original 252 acres, which comprises the “Nature Center” portion of Shangri La. It is a valuable ecosystem containing wetlands, grasslands, upland forests, cypress-tupelo swamp, and Ruby Lake. A survey of the birds in Shangri La, found more than 17 migratory species, including an active heronry containing 5,000 nesting birds.
In 2002, architects and environmental engineers began the process to restore the botanical gardens and create a nature center for study and research at K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels. In September 2005, at the beginning of construction, the Shangri La property sustained a direct hit from Hurricane Rita. Rather than conceding a setback, the team took advantage of the opportunity for salvaging fallen trees and incorporating them into the new facility or harvesting them for other projects. The restored and expanded facility opened to the public in early 2008.
The core of the new facility’s buildings is the Orientation Center, which helps visitors become acquainted with the rich history of Shangri La – from H.J. Lutcher Stark’s original vision to the new Botanical Gardens and Nature Center. This area includes an Exhibit Hall, the Discovery Theater, a Classroom Greenhouse, an interactive Children’s Garden, a Water Demonstration Garden that shows how plants filter pollution from the water, a Café, and the Garden Store. Venturing into the Nature Center entails a walk along an elevated recycled composite boardwalk and an electric boat ride into the Adams Bayou. Along the way, visitors can see the Survivor Tree – a 1,200-year-old Pond Cypress Tree that has survived disease, axes, and storms. Visitors can then walk to three solar-powered Outpost Pavilions, which serve as classrooms for school groups and quiet retreats for those seeking refuge from the busy world outside. The Botanical Gardens utilizes artistic concepts and features more than 300 species of plants in themed displays.
Shangri La is the first project in Texas and the 50th project in the world to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Platinum level certification for LEED® for New Construction. In February 2008, the project earned 57 points under the LEED-NC v2.1 Rating System. Reclaimed brick, sinker cypress logs salvaged from Louisiana rivers, a geoexchange heat pump system, photovoltaics, extensive daylight, reinvigoration of the natural wetlands, rainwater collection for plant watering and toilet flushing, and water conserving fixtures are some of the green building strategies employed by the dedicated design and construction team. The case study in BuildingGreen’s High Performance Buildings Database details these and other sustainable initiatives. The American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment (AIA COTE) honored the project as one of the Top Ten projects in 2009. Regarded as the profession’s best known recognition program for sustainable design excellence, AIA COTE Top Ten measures both qualitative and quantitative aspects of sustainable design. GreenSource magazine featured Shangri La as a case study in its July-August 2009 edition.
From 2004 – 2008, Earthly Ideas was the sustainability and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) consultant for Shangri La. We served as the green building information and education resource to the extensive team during design and construction, provided sustainable materials and methods research, and reviewed and edited drawings and specifications. We provided project management of the LEED certification process and were thrilled to see the project honored with LEED Platinum (our first!). During that process, we assisted the owner in developing innovation credits related to the post-hurricane timber salvage and reforestation and lake water quality and habitat improvement.
Shangri La strives in its mission to Mentor Children of All Ages to Be Kind to Their World and was featured in the April-June 2011 Houston Green Guide as the Greenest Place in Texas.