Last week, US Green Building Council president Rick Fedrizzi was at the new Mercy Corps headquarters to personally award the building its Platinum certification, the highest possible in the Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating system for green buildings.
"Fabulous. Fabulous. Terrific," Fedrizzi said of the building, which was designed by THA Architecture and received an assist from consultants Green Building Services, engineering from Glumac and construction by Walsh. "This is always exciting for me. We talked sixteen years ago when we started the LEED system about how people would someday celebrate their buildings like this. This is a really beautiful space. And a building like this is teaching lessons you can take around the world."
"It is not easy to do LEED Platinum," added Fedrizzi (pictured at left in the shot below). "And I've actually seen LEED Platinum achieved but done wrong. But this building is what LEED Platinum should be all about. It will be a beacon."
"We needed a home that reflected our values and our mission," said Mercy Corps president Neil Kenny Guyer (pictured at right in the above shot) as he accepted the Platinum plaque (which is actually glass) from Fedrizzi, "a place where we could make an impact. We know that climate change discriminates. It affects the poorest first."
"But we knew we got it right the first day [after moving in]," Guyer added, "seeing people meeting on the stairwell with smiles on their faces."
The Mercy Corps headquarters is comprised half of a historic existing building, the circa 1892 Skidmore Fountain Building (also known as the Packer-Scott Building), and half from a new building, making one unified space. A lot of structural work had to be done to get the Skidmore Fountain Buidling structurally sound and up to current seismic codes, especially when one of its walls was removed to connect the new and old buildings. "“If you had a really strong breeze, this thing would have fallen over,” Ashton Walsh of Walsh Construction told the Daily Journal of Commerce.
The building includes offices for Mercy Corps as well as an Action Center, which the organization describes as "a social studies lab for school groups and a newsroom for everyone. It's an interactive exhibit space dedicated to providing up-to-date, compelling stories from around the world. It's a place where programs -- casual, short-term university seminars, impromptu panel discussions and guest lecturers -- encourage conversation about the issues of the day."
In order to get the design approved by the city's Historic Landmarks Commission, the exterior of the new half of the building needed to fit in aesthetically with the old Skidmore Fountain building's red brick façade.
THA Architects managed to walk a fine line in this regard, because the new half of the Mercy Corps headquarters feels thoroughly modern even as it is connected to the historic half. The newer portion feels like the repeating of a rhythm, neither a trite neo-historic caricature of old architecture nor a jarring incongruent departure.
The new half of the building's two most visible sides, the east-facing riverfront side and the south-facing one that looks out at Ankeny Plaza, are also distinctive in their use of glass. The riverfront facade takes its cue from Mercy Corps' mission. In researching the client and the project, the architects learned that a connecting thread between the many world cultures the agency serves is just that - thread and weaving. So the glassy riverfront facade faintly resembles a weaving, but again without resorting to postmodern silliness.
The south-facing facade (pictured above) is one of the most important for any green building, because that's where you manage changing solar light, so as to bring in the illumination and warmth when it's needed in the winter and keep it out when it's unwanted in summer. Instead of the usual light shelves one sees on many a green building facade (horizontal exterior shades extending out at every floor), the THA design utilizes a patchwork of small rectangular shades that are tilted at an angle. Standing inside the building, it made for a dazzling experience watching the winter sun come into the space. And the array of shades also creates a compelling look for the facade of this otherwise boxy building. I love it when beautiful form is born from very useful function.
Inside, the heart of the building, as Neil Kenny Guyer mentioned, is an open stairway that looks and feels like a kind of geometric DNA double-helix. Wood stair treads salvaged from the original building were combined with a light steel stair structure, giving the area both texture and transparency. This is the very middle, interior-most portion of the building, and it's still teeming with natural light.
Overall I am a big fan of the Mercy Corps building, but came away with two relatively small criticisms:
While standing in the new half of the building filled with Mercy Corps workers' cubicles, I was surprised to see that the executive offices were placed along the north and south facades and walled off on the inside with drywall. This means that only a select few will have access to natural light from the building's exterior. It's of course largely moot in terms of light distribution because this same area benefits from an all-glass east facade looking out at the river. But this configuration is still surprisingly indicative of an older, less egalitarian way of laying out administrative offices for executives and rank-and-file employees. I'd have expected either the executive offices along the building perimeter to be walled with glass on the inside, so the light and views are distributed into the space, or to have open desk configurations along the perimeter and executive offices in the middle of the space. During the tour, THA principal William Dann explained that interior-wall glass for these perimeter offices was too expensive, and that Mercy Corps didn't want to be extravagant with budget given the extreme needs of the people around the world the agency serves. But if that's the case, why not put the executives in the middle and the larger amount of regular employees along the glassy perimeter?
My other disappointment was with the Mercy Corps Action Center, located on the ground floor of the older Skidmore Fountain Building portion of the headquarters. This is a space for the public to come and learn more about Mercy Corps and the needs of people the agency serves. It was designed not by THA, but by noted exhibit designer Edwin Schlossberg (husband of Caroline Kennedy, JFK's daughter).
To its credit, the Action Center has on display some of the tools and equipment Mercy Corps provides around the world, such as an easy-to-build tent dwelling and a rollable donut-shaped water carrier. Most of the space consists of TVs where one watches video about Mercy Corps' efforts and is encouraged to take actions such as contacting a member of Congress.
The video terminals have educational value, of course. Yet I'd like to have seen more of an experiential design approach taken, as was done with the "Real.Life" exhibit at the Medical Teams International facility in Tigard. There you can stand under a simulated 25-foot tsunami wave (like the one that ravaged southeast Asia), or amidst a recreation of Mexico City's garbage-dump, a Ugandan refugee camp, and a Romanian orphanage. The Medical Teams International exhibit is emotionally evocative as it is educational; the Mercy Corps video terminals can be helpful to get one to take action, but any of this could also be done on the organization's website. In this day and age, providing someone with a screen full of information seems a little bit of an outdated concept when they can do so with even a cell phone.
Even so, the Mercy Corps building seems architecturally like a major success. Locating in still-gritty Old Town and renovating a historic structure wasn't the easiest course for the agency, but as Ralph DiNola of Green Building Services wrote in a blog post about the project, "Mercy Corps’ decision to consolidate several offices and locate in this part of the city catalyzes redevelopment momentum and revitalizes this re-emerging neighborhood. Directly adjacent to downtown, the urban locale leverages existing infrastructure, offers employees an array of alternative transportation options and concentrates development to protect agricultural and natural habitats in the outlying areas while infusing the adjacent district with long-term investment and ownership."
Indeed, I love the idea that when one comes west across the Burnside Bridge into downtown, the crossing is bookended by the University of Oregon's White Stag Block on the north side and the Mercy Corps headquarters to the south. Admittedly, it's also a neighborhood teeming with homeless people, but that's all the more reason why it's great to see these entities embracing Portland's urbanity, both in terms of amenities and challenges.
As with the rest of the THA Architecture (formerly Thomas Hacker Architects) portfolio, including projects like the Woodstock and Hillsdale libraries in Portland, or their theater for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, this is not contemporary design meant to grab you by the lapels and call attention to itself. The Mercy Corps headquarters is a quintessentially Portland building in that it's a good neighbor, a piece of the urban fabric that fits well within its context. Yet a lot of buildings that fit well into their context are a design bore, forgettable as soon as one passes them. The Mercy Corps headquarters is, like Fedrizzi says, a beacon. It walks a deft balance between sober and dazzling, which seems entirely fitting as a physical embodiment of the client and the city.