For all of Portland's leadership in the field of sustainable design, the city and its architecture firms have been continually on the outside looking in when it comes to the biggest national architecture prize for green buildings, The American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment's Top 10 Green Projects list.
Each year the program celebrates, in the AIA's words, "projects that are the result of a thoroughly integrated approach to architecture, natural systems and technology," that "make a positive contribution to their communities, improve comfort for building occupants and reduce environmental impacts through strategies such as reuse of existing structures, connection to transit systems, low-impact and regenerative site development, energy and water conservation, use of sustainable or renewable construction materials, and design that improves indoor air quality."
But despite Portland often being called America's greenest city, and at several junctures having the most LEED-rated buildings of any US city, there has never before been a building project in Portland by a Portland firm to crack the Top Ten. Until now, with the listing of Twelve West, designed (and partially occupied) by ZGF Architects.
Portland has come close to making the Top Ten before. The Gerding Theater at the Portland Armory, designed by GBD Architects, won Honorable Mention for the 2007 list. But it still wasn't in the Top 10. The Wayne Morse Courthouse in Eugene was included in 2007's listing, but Eugene isn't Portland and the lead architect, Morphosis and Pritzker Prize winner Tom Mayne, is based in Southern California. The Lloyd Crossing sustainable design plan was included in 2005, but it was designed by a Seattle firm, Mithun, and is only an urban and greenspace plan, not a building. There was also the Bank of Astoria by Manzanita architect Tom Bender that made the list in 2002, but again, that's something different from Portland.
If our city was chasing windmills with the COTE Top Ten in years past, perhaps it took a building with windmills to make the list. That would be Twelve West, the mixed use building designed by ZGF Architects and developed by Gerding Edlen. Besides its other green credentials, including two LEED Platinum certifications, LEED-NC (new construction) overall and LEED-CI for the office interiors at ZGF's headquarters in the building, exceeding current 2030 Challenge benchmarks for energy use, and achieving an overall savings of 46% over a baseline standard, Twelve West also happens to be the first building with wind turbines in an urban setting in the United States.
One thing I've always wondered about the AIA/COTE list is whether they may be any kind of regional or other geographical bias. Was Portland merely being ignored? That seems unlikely, because even Seattle, in the same region, has earned numerous Top 10 listings. Even so, the lack of inclusion for Portland projects always seemed incongruent with what the rest of the green building world was saying about the city.
Yet when I look at the jury for this year's Top Ten, I can't help but wonder if some extra familiarity with Portland and its architects and developers was helpful. After all, this year's jury included Peter Busby, the Vancouver architect with Busby, Perkins & Will. Busby designed the Meriwether Condominiums in South Waterfront in Portland for Gerding Edlen. Did he recuse himself from choosing Twelve West? It doesn't seem so. Then there was Alison G. Kwok from the University of Oregon. She has no connection to Gerding or ZGF that I know of, but her familiarity with local architecture must have helped.
There's no doubting, though, that Twelve West deserves to be on the COTE list. The 23-story, 552,000 square foot building was constructed with low-impact materials, including salvaged, reclaimed and FSC-certified wood. Much of the concrete structure is exposed on the interior, minimizing the use of finish material and providing ample thermal mass. A 47% reduction in potable water use is predicted through use of efficient fixtures, low-water roof plantings, and rainwater reuse. And placing the building atop a surface parking lot in Portland's dense urban core (on the site of a former surface parking lot) facilitates a pedestrian oriented, car-free lifestyle for the occupants, which minimizes required parking while increasing density and reducing stormwater runoff.
In the years ahead, it will be interesting to see how Gerding Edlen and ZGF move forward. Gerding has changed its focus from new construction and mixed-use towers to renovating existing buildings, but if the economy were to start booming again, that would likely change. The developer began its rise to prominence with the Brewery Blocks development with GBD Architects, employing the firm for all five buildings plus the Armory and then an additional project, The Casey, just down the street. Those were all LEED-rated project, not to mention the Armory as the nation's first project on the National Register of Historic Places to earn a LEED rating, and The Casey was the first condo. But ZGF has now designed the first Portland building on the COTE Top 10 list, putting the firm on arguably equal fitting with GBD for top-shelf local green architecture credentials. When you couple that with the work ZGF is doing in Eugene for the University of Oregon's athletic department, such as the Jaqua Center and another to-be-announced project, it gives this venerable Portland firm a firm grip on the future.