At the end of March, faith-based non-profit Link Ministries and Urban Tech, the downtown studio of the College of Architecture at Texas Tech University, announced plans for High Cotton Genesis, a homeless assistance facility on the 5-acre site of a former cotton gin in Lubbock, Texas. Designed by San Antonio architecture studios HiWorks and Urbanist Design and Dallas landscape architecture practice Studio Outside, the master plan provides a framework for phased development of new service buildings and a chapel, the adaptive reuse of existing agricultural structures, and landscape elements that will soften the harsh West Texas environment.
High Cotton has already been in operation on the site for three years in a military-like array of tents, which has become known as “Tent City.” It was set up after the Lubbock City Council made it illegal for the homeless to occupy the city’s central library as a 90-day assistance program geared toward helping the housing impaired to get back on their feet, find a job, and move into their own residence. “We came at it not trying to be nice to anybody, we were just trying to get them out of downtown,” said Urban Tech director David Driskill.
Link Ministries, which owns and operates several community centers in former cotton industry buildings in the area, donated the property. The facility—the first of its kind in Lubbock—turned out to tap quite a need. “Every day I get at least one call from a potential resident that I have to turn down because we’re at capacity and have a waiting list. It’s a good sign that our services are helping people in the community, but it’s also a sign that it’s time to grow,” said Link Ministries director Les Burrus in a statement.
To determine how best to improve the project, Link Ministries and Urban Tech formed an advisory group (the High Cotton Core) and held an information gathering session in January 2012. In the fall of that year, Lake Flato Architects led a design charrette with the High Cotton community to further flesh out a vision for the site. In fall 2013, the stakeholders reached out to the design team, inviting them for a two-day site visit and two more charrettes. In order to get a better idea of the experience of residents, Brantley Hightower, founder and principal of HiWorks, spent a night in Tent City.
The master plan builds on the assets that High Cotton has in place, making strategic additions to diversify and improve the level of services offered so that it can help a broader range of the homeless population. One key element that was maintained is Tent City. “The whole idea of using tents started because that was all they had,” said Hightower. “But what they found is that they were nice enough and permanent enough to be an improvement over the street, but you didn’t want to stay there forever.”
“When you start getting into physical architecture for this kind of use it has to be durable and can get dehumanizing pretty quick,” said Jonathan Card of Urbanist Design. “The tents are no substitute to your own house, but they do offer some dignity.”
The most prominent architectural aspect of the project is the chapel, a 45-foot high extension of the existing cotton gin building, which will become a landmark in the flat landscape. The lower-slung service buildings and a perimeter wall, based on a Spanish Mission precedent, are planned to be constructed from rammed earth.
The landscape design mixes various drought-resistant grasses and other arid plants with windbreaks and lusher vegetation to create a soothing retreat from the surrounding windswept plains. “We ended up blending orthogonal lines and letting nature eat its way through the site to give it more interest,” said Tary Arterburn of Studio Outside. “The client said that part of West Texas is like walking into a definition of hell and wanted it to be an oasis for residents.”