A few weeks ago Portland's most prolific central city developer, Gerding-Edlen, announced they have purchased the old Meier & Frank warehouse in the Pearl District. Instead of condominiums or luxury apartments, which have comprised most Pearl projects, this one will have offices.
Unsurprisingly but still impressively, Gerding-Edlen and their usual design collaborator, GBD Architects, have announced that the project will be targeted to earn the top 'Platinum' LEED rating from the US Green Building Council. That will mean things like solar panels, a green roof, and toilets flushed with rainwater. I'm guessing there will also be a very large atrium in the middle to flood the interior space with natural light.
I haven't worked in an office for the last seven years. But if I did, I'd probably prefer this building for my desk to just about any in town.
As with the Portland Armory that G-E and GBD renovated into the Gerding Theater for Portland Center Stage, this project will also have the difficult task of negotiating both green building strictures as well as those for a historic renovation. For example, light shelves on the exterior of the building would certainly help bring in and distribute more natural illumination, but how would they look on that historic exterior shell?
Regardless, I see this building's offices filling up quickly. The simple truth is, once you've worked in a green office space, it's very difficult to go back to the darker, more drab conditions of even the swankiest non-green buildings. I mean, who likes fluorescent light? Who wants to get sick more often? And what bosses wouldn't want to invest in their employees with spaces that make them more productive?
In the future, as more green offices fill the Pearl District, perhaps the increasing challenge will be to retrofit a generation or two of downtown offices to make them more competitive and inviting now that our perception of what makes a pleasant space has changed for good with green design principles.
The M&F warehouse-to-office renovation of course brings to mind a similar project that Gerding-Edlen also developed: the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters. That project turned out exquisite, with gorgeous concrete and wood workmanship and a breathtaking inner cathedral of catwalks and soft light. But the architect for W+K was Brad Cloepfil and his highly acclaimed firm, Allied Works, which is currently designing museums and other high-profile projects all over the country after winning design competitions against 'starchitects' like Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid.
GBD Architects has done a very impressive job of designing, with their fellow building team members, a host of ultra sustainable spaces in the Pearl and South Waterfront, most all of them for Gerding-Edlen. But is GBD capable of building something as beautiful as the W+K space? I mean, look at the concrete in the Gerding Theater and then go look at the concrete in W+K. Surely we're talking two very different budgets here, but I'm still not sure I believe GBD is up to making W+K II. It'll probably have a Platinum rating to be proud of, and no one wants to belittle the fact that this M&F warehouse-turned-office will be a great addition to the Pearl, particularly for its office-worker inhabitants but also in how this 120,000 square foot warehouse will be preserved for future generations. That's all great. But in comparing themselves to W+K, as they've done in the press release, I think the G-E/GBD team is setting themselves up for a comparison that they'll only come out favorably in with respect to sustainability. Why not hire Allied Works to be the design architect and GBD to be the architect of record on this one? Or about 10 others? It's a broken record to lament the city's most acclaimed firm always getting shut out of projects in its own back yard. But every time one sees the same cluster of two or three firms getting almost all the condo and office work in town, one wonders if the development community is doing all it can to embrace great, beautiful, holistic design.