Ask anyone about Ronald McDonald and he or she is likely to conjure up visions of the affable character known worldwide for his whimsical red coiffure and golden attire. Yet increasingly throughout the Central Texas region, mentions of McDonald's Chief Happiness Officer are just as likely to elicit associations with hues of green as the trademark red and gold long donned by Ron.

It has been nearly two years since the December 2007 opening of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Austin and Central Texas, the world's first green Ronald McDonald House and the region's first LEED Platinum certified building, and the initial results have been overwhelmingly successful.

Chief Executive Officer Kent Burress says he couldn't imagine a more perfect facility. Increased awareness has grown the House's volunteer base by 20%; there are now 400-plus active volunteers, each of whom is essential to this nonprofit entity's vitality-especially considering that last year it hosted three times as many families as in previous years. And while volunteer levels are on the way up, energy bills for the 28,500-square-foot facility are down. The organization's previous home, a 13,000-square-foot facility, incurred an average monthly summer electric bill of nearly $4,000. The current facility, which is more than twice as large as its predecessor, averaged monthly bills of around $2,000 during its first summer in operation. And for an organization that relies on charitable contributions for its livelihood, any extra funds are worth their weight in gold McNuggets.

Since 1985 Ronald McDonald House Charities of Austin and Central Texas has provided services to thousands of families whose children are seeking treatment at Austin-area hospitals, accommodating such families from across the 46-county region surrounding the city of Austin and Central Texas. The organization gives families a place to rest, eat, and share experiences with families of other children in similar situations, among other important services. Located within Austin's Mueller development-a New Urbanist community realized from a brownfield site-Ronald McDonald House functions in concert with the nearby Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas, which is also LEED Platinum certified and a mere 150 yards away, ensuring that families can access the care their children need by providing an affordable, healing and homelike place to stay.

The commitment to going green with the Austin Ronald McDonald House drove planning from the earliest decisions and was a shared objective between all project participants. Because the project was the region's first LEED Platinum certified facility-there were only a handful of Platinum certified projects in the entire world at the time-much of the sustainable program was pioneering in nature, and with innovation, a learning curve comes with the territory. “Finding Platinum-caliber products was quite a challenge,” Burress relates.

The design process began with a focus on the user groups-how to provide a welcoming place for respite and refuge from the rigors of hospital life-and with the design of the guest suites' kitchens and living rooms. The four-story facility offers 30 guest suites, each of which features a living room, private bathroom, separate bedroom with a queen-sized bed, and a private porch or balcony. Common areas include a family dining room, living room, activity room, exercise room, media room, and kitchen where volunteer community groups provide lunch and dinner daily.

Providing extremely high air quality was of utmost importance, as the building is home to many children with weakened immune systems. In fact, one of the House's goals is zero environmentally transferred illnesses. After all, even catching a common cold could set a child's surgery back indefinitely. As such, each room is naturally ventilated and no air is shared between rooms, ensuring a healthier interior environment. Moreover, an innovative HVAC system, one of the first of its kind, cleans, recycles, and filters air brought inside the building, and air is cleaned multiple times before being recirculated within the interior. The use of low VOC-emitting materials throughout the facility further enhances the air quality.

Well-lit interior spaces were also critical to the building's design, conceived by architect Don Eckols, AIA. Bathrooms and closets are the only interior spaces in the entire facility that do not receive natural light. The building's long and linear orientation enabled the introduction of daylight from both north and south sides of patient rooms, while the building's four-floor core acts as a light well shaded by structures that control light infiltration, resulting in warm, inviting interiors that are easily navigable. Eckols' well-lit interiors are also lucidly organized so even a child will not get lost, as gentle curved wings serve as embracing structures. The interior organization affords easy access to three roof gardens designed by TBG Partners, which feature extensive (6″ depth) Hydrotech green roof systems containing native, drought-tolerant plant species that reflect the natural setting of the Texas Hill Country. As part of a site plan developed by TBG, roof gardens serve as oases, affording intimate but open spaces with seating for families, gardens, and opportunities to reflect in an outdoor setting within the facility's confines. On the ground level, a playground and picnic area act as the facility's backyard, affording ample open space for children to run, play, and observe butterflies in the butterfly garden.

The facility's rooftop is also home to a 10.8-kilowatt solar array donated by Green Mountain Energy Company and Austin Energy. Comprised of 54 photovoltaic panels, the array generates enough energy to power 15 of the House's 30 rooms and offsets more than 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually. The panels also serve a didactic purpose, providing a prominent visual example of an alternative energy system in practice.

The question presents itself then: Do patients and families arriving at the Austin Ronald McDonald House realize they're entering into a pioneering facility for energy-efficient design and responsible development?

“They don't know it's Platinum,” Burress says, “but they know it's green-and that excites them.” Beyond the patients, families, and staff who use the facility daily, Burress notes that community groups tour-including groups from local churches, universities, schools, and other organizations-the House on a regular basis. Moreover, the House has provided a highly visible case study for other small- and medium-sized nonprofit organizations, illustrating how to effectively incorporate a variety of green measures in a viable manner.

So has the success of the Austin House affected plans for other Ronald McDonald Houses with regard to going green? Burress notes that while each House is autonomous and has its own unique budgetary considerations, the application of sustainable principles is highly encouraged in spite of individual decisions whether or not to pursue certification. For instance, the 41-room Ronald McDonald House in Kansas City's Longfellow Park, while not LEED certified, employs a geothermal heat pump buried underneath a parking lot to provide the House's heating and cooling, and plants naturally clean runoff as it enters the city's stormwater system. The Gatewood House in Atlanta is slated to become the second LEED certified Ronald McDonald House and is targeting Gold certification.

A success by any measure, the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Austin and Central Texas has provided a sterling example of the health, economic, environmental, and many other benefits of developing green healthcare facilities. After all, the House is designed to be a central part of the healing process in tandem with the adjacent hospitals. As Burress notes, “The House is not just a part of the program-the House is the program.” And because of that, many Central Texas children and their families are able to enjoy a few more Happy Meals together. HD

Managing Principal Brian Ott, ASLA, LEED AP, leads TBG Partners' Austin office, where he has been an integral team member for more than 18 years. Healthcare Design 2009 September;9(9):20-24