Designed For Life

By Colleen Hook
Photos Courtesy Of Regency Production

In an attempt to inspire the community and expand programming to encourage environmentally conscious lifestyles, the city of McAllen, Texas, took an historic adobe home and a half mile of trails through an old Thornforest, transforming it into a 15-acre urban sanctuary.


But the city didn’t stop there. Using the sanctuary—known as Quinta Mazatlan—as a backdrop, members of the McAllen Parks & Recreation Department decided to lead by example creating the DiscoveryCenter, a LEED-certified teaching facility with a science laboratory, exhibit area, and meeting space.

Consider the following five tips for other departments on how to teach (by example) the community about sustainable living:

1. Look For Inspiration
Inspiration for the DiscoveryCenter came from Jason and Marcia Matthews, the first owners and builders of Quinta Mazatlan and who built an energy-efficient house in the 1930s—long before “green” was “cool.” The house was constructed of 10,000 adobe blocks molded from dirt gathered locally. In fact, all of the materials came from within a 500-mile radius. Some items, like the old newspaper plates, were recycled to line the roof, while windows and patios created natural light. More than 95 percent of the plants used in landscaping were native—which made them low-maintenance, and provided food and shelter for valley creatures.

2. Lead By Example
Quinta Mazatlan has always been a “mansion with a mission,” so it was important to maintain its original goal of showing how people and nature can exist harmoniously. With the adobe home surrounded by lush nature, the DiscoveryCenter had to continue the appearance and design of a home with a small footprint. While the trails and forest are used to educate, the building itself is an educational tool. LEED tours were developed with the hope that the small, attractive building would provide a model for others.

3. Involve The Community
Involvement and support from the community strongly influenced the city to proceed with the extra reporting procedures and costs involved in obtaining LEED certification. The lead donor, David Guerra, president and CEO of IBC Bank, championed the project and inspired others to follow. Input from future users of the facility—scout groups, school groups, teachers, volunteers, and area businessmen—influenced the building design.

4. Choose Green Tools
Many people assume green facilities are difficult to build and very expensive, but one can actually choose from a huge “green” toolbox. The DiscoveryCenter does not use solar panels, a green roof, or large metal cisterns; they were not economical for the 3,500-square-foot building. However, these might be good tools for other projects. The design chosen by the department worked within the budget, served the programmatic goals, and eventually saved money in the building’s operations.

5. Think Like Your Ancestors
The DiscoveryCenter was to be McAllen’s first LEED-designed municipal building. The focus was to create a “sustainable home,” which actually ended up having the attributes of a home built in the pioneer days. Some of the greatest tools were the simplest ones. For instance, more than 50 percent of the building has a wonderful patio that provides shade and serves as a “visor” when indoors. Think of Grandma’s house with a covered porch and rocking chairs! Such a simple feature as a patio can save up to 30 percent in cooling energy costs. Another simple tool was the “L” shape of the building, which allowed it to be placed in the corner of the property. This layout saved a great amount of green space for more native landscaping, and created a wildlife pond. Another “ancestral tool” was to shop locally. Thus, materials were reused and recycled. Bins were set up on the building grounds for all discarded items to be recycled, including wood, metal, glass, and more. To mimic the previous owners, native drought- and heat-resistant plants were planted to support and attract wildlife.

The DiscoveryCenter was awarded a Silver LEED certification that met the performance requirements for energy efficiency. It was “Designed for Life,” community members, and the surrounding wildlife.

The nature center educates more than 30,000 children and adults annually —both outdoors and indoors. A recently signed contract with the school district has doubled the previous contract, now providing environmental-science curriculum programs to third, fifth, seventh, and high school honors science classes. The LEED-certified facility is an excellent tool to educate the public about sustainable building, and a useful facility for environmental education.

Colleen Curran Hook is the Manager of Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen Wing of the World Birding Center, city of McAllen Eco-tourism Project (promoting conservation through travel to natural areas). Reach her at or 956-681-3370.