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Green Giant

How much is sustainability worth? Try $65 million in public money.

IMAGE: Courtesy of GBD Architects and SERA Architects

In a state that grows sturgeon 10 feet long and Douglas firs taller than 300 feet, large, natural wonders are nothing new.

But if a starry-eyed and unusually broad coalition gets its way, Portland will soon become home to the world's tallest "living building," a revolutionary structure that will generate all its own electricity, capture and process its own water and leave no carbon footprint.

After a couple years of planning, the project is now on a fast track: Gerding Edlen Development is due to award the construction contract Wednesday, Nov. 24, for the 132,000-square-foot building—and it plans to break ground next summer.

BIG GOAL: Supporters of the Oregon Sustainability Center say they're trying to create "one of the most advanced buildings on the planet." IMAGE: Courtesy of GBD Architects and SERA Architects

The project is audacious. "We are attempting to create one of the most advanced buildings on the planet," says Rob Bennett, director of the Portland Sustainability Institute.

Sheathed in ultra-efficient, triple-glazed glass and topped with a massive, sail-like array of solar panels, the seven- or eight-story Oregon Sustainability Center will resemble a terrestrial NASA space station, surrounded with gardens that will filter and process wastewater.

The building, which will occupy what is now a surface parking lot at Southwest 4th Avenue and Montgomery Street, will include many unusual features, such as a 200,000-gallon tank to capture every drop of rain that falls on the roof and a geothermal heating and cooling system that will tap into the earth's free energy.

The building's price tag reflects proponents' ambitions. The most recent "all in" construction cost estimate is $462 per square foot—perhaps the most expensive office space ever built in Portland. It will require $65 million in public funds, mostly from the Oregon University System and City of Portland—and propel Portland into the lead of a green arms race with cities such as Chicago, Seattle and Austin.

While few critics challenge the worthiness of the project's goals, some question the practical realities of proceeding at a time when the city struggles to provide basic services.

"We have limited resources," says economist Joe Cortright of Impresa Consulting. "I worry that we're spending them on what could be a green Potemkin village rather than addressing more systemic solutions, like building codes."

"For a model to be sustainable, it has to be not only ecologically sustainable but economically sustainable," adds Will Macht, a real estate developer and professor at Portland State University. "This project is not economically sustainable, and that is the simple truth."

Advocates say such criticism is myopic.

THE COLOR OF MONEY: Oregon Environmental Council Executive Director Andrea Durbin calls it "short-sighted" just to look at the building's real-estate cost. IMAGE: leahnash.com

They say the Sustainability Center should be viewed not as a real estate deal but the next chapter in an Oregon success story that stretches from the Bottle Bill to national leadership in recycling to forward-looking public transportation and renewable-energy policies.

"It's very short-sighted to look just at the real estate cost," says Andrea Durbin, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council and one of the project's leaders. "The real question is, how do you actually use this project to leverage long-term outcomes?"


In 2001, Portland anchored itself on the sustainability map when the Ecotrust building, a 19th-century brick and stone structure on Northwest 9th Avenue and Johnson Street, achieved what is called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, gold status. The Ecotrust building became Oregon's first LEED gold building and the nation's first remodeled building to meet that standard.

Ecotrust won its award based on criteria such as energy conservation, access to transportation and use of natural light and recycled materials, and an ecoroof and landscaping that eliminated nearly all runoff.

Even the unwanted parts of the Ecotrust building, which was originally built as a warehouse in 1895, were recycled: 98 percent of the debris taken out in the renovation was reused.

Over the past decade, the Portland development community has pursued LEED certification aggressively. Nearly all building projects in which the city or its urban renewal agency, the Portland Development Commission, invested sought LEED status. Portland now has 103 LEED-rated buildings, second only to Chicago's 120.

"I would say that pushed the whole industry forward," says Scott Andrews, chairman of the Portland Development Commission and president of Melvin Mark Companies, one of the city's largest private real estate firms.

But the difference between a LEED building and the proposed Oregon Sustainability Center is like the difference between jumping a hurdle and clearing an 18-foot pole-vault bar—without the pole.

"It's a quantum leap forward," says Gerding Edlen project manager Jill Sherman, whose firm has developed eight LEED platinum buildings.

LEED standards simply deal with design. The Living Building Standard focuses on how a building actually performs. To achieve certification, the Sustainability Center must emit no carbon for 12 months, use no outside water and meet strict energy-savings goals during that period.

"This is where the world is going," says Kimberly Schneider, Mayor Sam Adams' economic development director. "We want to be an early adopter and get there first."

P D C Hypes O S C

In order to meet the "Living Building Challenge," the partners in the Oregon Sustainability Center—the Oregon University System, the City of Portland, and a team of mostly nonprofit green organizations called the Oregon Living Building Initiative—have to build something that is as different from a conventional building as a Prius is from a Hummer—and the Prius has to generate all its own fuel.

To do that requires a radical design.

The building's shell will be triple-glazed glass and concrete; 60,000 square feet of solar panels will be embedded in walls and cover other surfaces like a second skin, generating more electricity than the building's 750 inhabitants will use.

A massive solar disc angled to catch the sun's rays will sit on the roof, and a solar-panel-coated roof will shelter the Southwest 4th Avenue streetcar, which, once it's rerouted, will run right through the building's foyer.

The guts of the structure are also radical. Rather than employing a forced-air heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system like a typical high-rise, the building will employ a geothermal well system that shoots warm water 200 feet down into the earth for cooling in the summer and does the same with cold water in the winter to provide "carbon-free" heating and cooling.

After analyzing historical weather records, building engineers are confident they can capture 400,000 gallons of rainwater annually.

Because that rain falls sporadically, a 200,000-gallon tank in the basement will serve as storage. Using a state-of-the-art natural filtration system that includes a biological wastewater treatment system called "The Living Machine," the building will be self-sufficient in water terms and will not connect to the city's overburdened sewer system.

The building will cycle "gray" water (water that's been used for washing hands or dishes) through toilets, the heating and cooling system and indoor gardens. "Black water," or sewage, will be separated. The solids will be used as fertilizer on-site and, after going through "The Living Machine," the water flushed back into the ground.

"After treatment, even the 'black water' will be almost clean enough to drink," says Vice Chancellor for Finance Jay Kenton, the Oregon University's System's point man on the project. "Although I don't know that you'd want to do that."

Sophisticated monitoring and metering devices—more than 1,000 of them—will measure how much energy each person in the building is using, down to keeping an eye on each wall plug.

Much of the ventilation will be natural—every occupant will have access to a window that opens.

In addition to the goal of reducing energy usage by about 70 percent compared with a comparably sized conventional building, the project must also meet stringent sourcing and materials requirements.

SOURCE: Oregon Sustainability Center's Feasibility Study

Everything from building components to the people who work on the project must be from within a defined radius of Portland.

For instance, "heavy, high-density materials," such as stone, must come from within 250 miles. So no Italian marble. Consultants cannot come from more than 1,500 miles away, and solar panels must be made within 9,000 miles. The purpose of those restrictions is to reduce the fuel used in transporting materials to Portland.

The Challenge also "red-lines" materials that are toxic or otherwise undesirable.

For instance, the wiring in many buildings is coated with petroleum-based plastic polyvinyl chloride, which cannot be used in a "living building." Nor can materials that include mercury, lead or cadmium or that are treated with formaldehyde, a common preservative.

So with all those conditions—and before considering whether the project is economically feasible—a threshold question is whether the building is technically achievable.

Last year, project sponsors hired Balzhiser & Hubbard, a Eugene engineering firm, to conduct a "validation study" of the Sustainability Center's preliminary design.

With some tweaks, the firm said, the systems proposed for the building should work. But the Eugene firm worried about the human component.

"The energy savings goals for this project are very aggressive and may be overestimated," states the firm's January 2010 report. "The savings will require many changes to the habits and expectations of occupants and may not be realized long term."

What the study is talking about is the fact that the energy targets will be achieved only with some "social engineering."

Better technology is supposed to provide about three-quarters of the projected energy savings. But more mundane efforts, such as tenants putting up with cooler offices in the winter and warmer ones in the summer, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, not using hot water or energy-hog appliances, and minimizing electrical usage for desktop computers and personal electronic devices, must provide the rest.

Those ideas are not news. President Jimmy Carter gave the nation similar advice in the late 1970s—turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater. But it's also worth noting that recycling is a choice, and one that Portlanders make at nearly twice the national average.

"Part of it will be how things are designed. When people leave their desks, electronics will go into sleep mode," says the Oregon Environmental Council's Durbin. "A big part of it is education. If you are in a place where everybody is doing the same thing, social reinforcement makes it easier."

With Portland's unemployment rate well above the national average, it's easy to see why city officials are promoting what they say will be a catalytic project for "growing skills, expertise and jobs," as an August presentation to City Council predicted.

Even economist Joe Cortright, who is skeptical of the Oregon Sustainability Center, supports the policymakers' focus on beefing up the state's green economy.

"You can make a very plausible case that we have a strong leadership position in green tech and sustainability," Cortright says. "I just question whether concentrating on this building is the right focus."

A review of the city's economic development efforts over the past decade does resemble a 16-year-old's driving record: lots of tears and bent fenders.

Many Portlanders will remember the aggressive predictions city officials made for the $200 million investment in South Waterfront over the past decade—it was supposed to create a biotechnology industry and yield 10,000 new jobs.

Those jobs have failed to materialize (as Cortright predicted), and South Waterfront is an empty quarter of sparsely filled condos and apartments for old people.

In an earlier "if you build it, they will come" episode, the city pumped $12 million into fixing up an Old Town building in 2001 for what it called the "Creative Services Center." When tenants did not move in, PDC moved itself there.

"We learned a lot from those two experiences," says Mayor Sam Adams. "In both cases, there was more wishful thinking than rigor."

Adams adds that the Sustainability Center is a broad partnership with shared risks, unlike earlier projects that were primarily city-financed.

Lisa Abuaf, PDC project manager for the Sustainability Center, says it's not fair to pick on those two earlier misfires without noting that the agency has made other investments that paid off handsomely.

And there's no question the Pearl District, much of it primed with city money, is a major success. Abuaf also notes the Portland Streetcar catalyzed downtown development and created a market for Oregon Iron Works that has spread well beyond Portland.

Now, she and other project sponsors are working to bring down the projected costs of the Sustainability Center.

Abuaf says the most recent plan yields a building that will lease space for $28.45 per square foot. That's steep—about 20 percent more than it now costs to lease the best office space downtown. (And that cost is down from a year ago; see "Green-Eyed Monster," WW, Oct. 21, 2009.)

The city and OUS in September asked Gerding Edlen and SERA Architects to find ways to cut building costs so that the rental price drops to about $26.30 per foot.

Abuaf also notes that over the long term, the operating costs of the building should be significantly cheaper than those of conventional buildings.

SOURCE: Oregon Sustainability Center

From the city's perspective, Abuaf says, the OSC will provide economic development benefits far greater than its cost. First, it will create immediate construction jobs, then it will allow those construction workers to gain new skills from working on a cutting-edge project and, most importantly, build on Portland's "green-tech, clean-tech sector."

"This is not a real estate deal," Abuaf says. "This is an economic development deal."

There is a certain leap of faith inherent in the project. But proponents note that unlike trying to start a biotech cluster from scratch, they are adding to an existing strength.

"Portland exports a lot of building and design skills," says PDC's Andrews. "And much of that has to do with our reputation as innovators on LEED projects."

He also says building a showpiece environmental building will create its own demand.

Not long ago, Andrews recalls, he and many of his peers in the commercial real estate industry scoffed at LEED.

"In the early days, we didn't do LEED," Andrews says. "We'd say, 'How can you talk a tenant into paying an extra $2 per square foot in rent?'"

But now, Andrews says, prospective tenants demand an environmentally friendly certification and are willing to pay for it.

One of the reasons city and university officials feel so confident about the building is the interest large for-profit companies such as General Electric, Intel and SolarWorld have expressed in showcasing their technologies in the project.

"The way I view the building is that it's similar to the visionaries that set aside land for light rail," says Bob Beisner, managing director for Hillsboro's SolarWorld, which is helping design the optimal array of solar panels that will power the building.

"It's the forward-looking aspect of the building and how these developments will be incorporated into other buildings in the future that makes the project exciting," Beisner says.

Of course, plenty could go wrong.

Durbin worries most about whether the building's designers and engineers will be able to bring costs down.

The Oregon University System's Jay Kenton frets about renting nearly 50,000 feet of office space to small businesses at steep rents. (Several tenants have already provided contingent commitments to the building, including Earth Advantage, Oregon Environmental Council, Sustainable Northwest, River Network and Green Building Services, the only for-profit tenant.)

Kenton has asked the City of Portland to join the university system in backstopping those rents, essentially guaranteeing them should the small tenants not perform.

In the worst case, Kenton says, if some tenants cannot remain in the building, he expects Portland State's strong growth would absorb any extra space.


Of all the buildings' proponents, Adams may be the most cautious.

"If we can't get costs down to an acceptable level, there's honor in not moving forward," he says.

If, as seems likely, the project does move forward but falls short of lofty expectations, taxpayers can take solace because the biggest single tenant in the Oregon Sustainability Center will be Portland State University.

That fact alone significantly limits the worst-case scenario. PSU is by far the state's largest university and is currently overflowing with students and renting space because it does not have enough classrooms.

PSU Vice President for Finance and Administration Lindsay Desrochers says the university wants to house its large and rapidly expanding sustainability faculty in the new building and wants to create two extra-large classrooms—with capacities of 250 or more—which the university currently lacks.

"PSU enrollments have surged, and research is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year," Desrochers told WW via email.

"We need classrooms and research space now. We have been acquiring existing buildings, and building classrooms in new buildings like the new rec center."

In recent years, critics, including this newspaper, have derided City Hall for thinking small. Other voices have argued convincingly that for Portland to achieve its ambitions as a city, Portland State must dramatically raise its profile.

The Oregon Sustainability Center gives both entities an opportunity to take a meaningful step forward.

"Sure it's a risk," says PDC's Andrews. "But it's a risk worth taking."

The “ Triple Net Zero ” Challenge

Courtesy of GBD Architects and SERA Architects, Photo: Eugénie Frerichs

In 2006, the International Living Building Institute, which is a potential tenant in the Oregon Sustainability Center, issued the first "living building" challenge. The are 16 criteria that make strict demands about site selection, energy use, materials, water consumption, indoor environment quality and aesthetics. The goal: zero outside energy and water use and no carbon footprint, or "triple net zero."

"This is really a major step in the evolution of buildings," says Jill Sherman, Gerding Edlen's project manager for the OSC. "The idea is to get from where buildings were a detriment because of the materials in them and the energy they use to where they will have a positive impact and actually produce more energy than they use."

Two small, single-tenant buildings in rural New York and Missouri became the first U.S. buildings to meet the challenge earlier this year. —NJ