When the architectural team at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates set out to create a multi-use space for Austin’s scenic Waller Creek neighbourhood, it didn’t imagine it would be building a structure for the record books. But that’s just what happened as the team finalised the design for the Waterline, a 1,022-foot (311-metre), 74-storey structure that’s set to become the tallest building in Texas when it opens in late 2026.
Built spoke to Andrew Klare, design director of the Waterline project, about the challenges of working with such a tall structure, KPF’s design inspiration and the changes he hopes the project brings to one of Austin’s most dynamic downtown residential areas.
Environmentally responsive design
The KPF team’s efforts to come up with a spectacular design concept for the Waterline project started in the design’s early stages, when Klare and his associates created the first renderings of the tower as part of a lengthy competition process.
“This project came to us through competition between a number of world-class firms,” Klare said. “KPF was ultimately fortunate enough to be asked to take on the project with a talented team of consultants.”
The groups KPF consulted with included environmental experts, who ensured that the team’s work would be in line with larger conservation goals. “Our project helps advance the goals of the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy to reposition Waller Creek into a linear urban park,” Klare said. “Waterline will seamlessly integrate nature and architecture at the project’s site, taking the utmost care and sensitivity when it comes to the environment at the creek and Lady Bird Lake.”
Working with his expansive team to dream up a site-specific approach, Klare said the site where the building was going to be situated played a critical role in the design process, as the KPF designers and their consultants worked to build an environmentally responsive structure that would be in tune with its surroundings, despite its size. “The site, on Waller Creek and at the southern edge of the Waterloo Greenway, was a major source of inspiration for the whole project team,” he said.
As the team created its initial design, it was mindful of the ways that the Waterline, which broke ground in September 2022, would have an impact on its surroundings, making architectural decisions that would increase the feelings of harmony with the nature it evoked.
“We lifted the building to open up the ground floor as much as possible to allow the landscape of the creek to permeate the building’s lobbies, plaza and edges of the site,” Klare said. “Our team also looked to the geology of the creek, with its horizontal stratification, when it came to the building’s massing and façade design. Waterline’s layered mixed-use programme is represented horizontally, creating a collage of facades that speaks to the fabric of Austin’s skyline and connects to nature.”
Everything’s bigger in Texas
The idea of making the Waterline so tall wasn’t purely a design choice motivated by the desire to outdo Dallas’ 1,002-foot (305-metre), 75-storey JPMorgan Chase Tower. Instead, Klare said it was ultimately a logistical decision grounded in the realities of the development process.
“The economic demands of the site required a set programme from the development team, so with that came a decision about what was appropriate in terms of density,” Klare explained. “Given the character of the Rainey District as well as the access to the Waterloo Greenway and the Hike and Bike Trail, maximising the amount of porosity of the public realm was a primary goal.”
Klare said the team wanted to create a multi-use structure that would feel like a vibrant part of the community. “We leveraged the mixed-use programme of hotel, office and residential space to activate the ground plane further, giving presence to the creek both day and night,” he said.
To create a dense, mixed-used space that didn’t feel overwhelming, Klare said the KPF team experimented with a number of ideas. “As for the height of the project, we studied several options but settled on a tall tower to preserve views from our neighbouring buildings,” he said. “Going tall also improved the overall efficiencies of the project operations and speed of construction.”
“Mixed-use projects like Waterline cater to the needs of cities all over the world,” Klare said. “By integrating a variety of programmes vertically, we are adding density without creating urban sprawl and bringing 24/7 activity to the waterfront.”
A tall height and mixed-use design meant the KPF team is firmly locked into current urban design trends. “This typology is a model for future growth in Austin and other cities because it creates a destination not only of work or rest, but entertainment and exploration all in a building that occupies a minimal footprint,” Klare said.
Bringing communities together with mixed-use design
Klare said he hopes the Waterline’s design will help it become part of the solution for a rapidly urbanising city and neighbourhood that needs increased density to accommodate a growing population of transplants and Austin natives.
“About half of Waterline’s programme is dedicated to rental apartments, adding some much-needed housing stock to the city,” Klare said. “Given the project’s beautiful site and mix of uses, we think it will be a great place to live and will set the stage for similar projects in Austin.”
Klare said he thinks mixed-use structures present an ideal solution to the problems of urbanisation, creating a more streamlined solution to the housing issue while keeping downtowns vibrant.
“The great thing about mixed-use projects like this is that each of the building’s programmes operates on a slightly different schedule, so there is near-constant, 24-hour activity happening,” Klare said. “It also allows for a lot of efficiency. Each programme is separate and distinct, yet connected in terms of building systems and structure, allowing for synergy that supports users’ wants and needs.”
Ultimately, Klare said he hopes the Waterline project will be a model for what Austin can become. “It may sound cliché, but architecture really does have the power to bring people together,” he said. “At Waterline, the entire concept is based around this idea of community while also integrating the natural environment of Austin’s beloved waterfront. Users can connect with nature at multiple levels throughout the building, creating opportunities for shared outdoor experiences.”