Keep Your Ion This, Houston

Rice University taps SHoP Architects for an innovation center in Houston

Exterior rendering of The Ion, Rice University's planned innovation center designed by SHoP Architects, James Carpenter Design Associates, James Corner Field Operations, and Gensler. (Courtesy Rice University)

An 80-year-old former Sears department store will be transformed into a multi-level innovation center and business incubator for Houston, Texas, under a plan unveiled by Rice University.

The 270,000-square-foot project is designed to bring students, professors, and entrepreneurs together with corporate leaders and investors, and to provide the centerpiece for a 16-acre innovation district in midtown Houston. Besides classrooms for students and workspace for start-up companies, there will be areas for lectures, conferences, hack-a-thons, demonstrations, job training, and networking events, as well as restaurants and other amenities.

Rice has assembled four high-profile designers to repurpose the 1939 flagship department store, keeping salient Art Deco features while modifying the building for 21st-century occupants. Designers include SHoP Architects, James Carpenter Design Associates, James Corner Field Operations, and the Houston office of Gensler.

The four-story building on Main Street was the first Sears store in Houston and closed in January of 2018 as part of the retailer’s nationwide retrenchment. Part of a 9.4-acre tract that was offered to Amazon as part of Houston’s bid to be selected for that company’s second headquarters, it’s close to seven colleges and universities, a METRORail line, the Texas Medical Center, and the city’s Museum District.

When Houston didn’t make Amazon’s short list of 20 regions under consideration as of January of 2018, it became available for other uses. Amazon later chose northern Virginia and New York City as sites where it will split its second headquarters.

In advance of its transformation, the Sears building in Houston has been renamed The Ion.

Interior rendering of The Ion

Interior rendering of The Ion (Courtesy Rice University)

“We chose the name Ion because it’s from the Greek ienai, which means go,” said Rice University president David Leebron, in a statement on Rice’s website. “We see it as embodying the ever-forward motion of discovery, the spark at the center of a truly original idea…The Ion will become Houston’s nucleus for innovation, fostering a community and culture where entrepreneurs and corporations come together to solve some of the world’s greatest problems.”

“The Ion will inspire open innovation between universities, global corporations and investors,” said Gabriela Rowe, the CEO of Station Houston, a tech accelerator that will manage programming, in a statement about the project. “Students and faculty members from institutions like Rice University and the University of Houston will coexist and collaborate with scientists from Houston’s other great institutions. Investors and corporations will meet face to face with start-up entrepreneurs. Together, at The Ion, they will transform Houston into a thriving, connected high-tech ecosystem.”

Besides Rice, officials say, institutions that will be involved with programming include the University of Houston, UH-Downtown, the University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist University, San Jacinto College, and the South Texas College of Law.

Architectural plans call for retention of original Art Deco elements such as glass block windows, canopies, and decorative tiles that date back to the store’s opening. A central atrium will be created to let in natural light, and new windows will be installed to provide views that weren’t possible before and provide glimpses of the activity inside.

The larger innovation district will include housing, stores, restaurants, public spaces, and infrastructure that will support a growing tech community.

The Ion project will be led by Rice Management Company, which manages Rice University’s endowment, and Hines of Houston is managing the development. An exact construction budget has not been disclosed, but Rice Management officials said in 2018 they will invest up to $100 million for the project. Construction is expected to start in May and be complete by the end of 2020.

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