BY BRIAN LIBBY
Recently I toured the EcoFlats mixed-use apartment building, along North Williams Avenue in Portland with its co-developer, Jean-Pierre Veillet of Siteworks Design Build.
Williams Avenue, once the heart of a thriving African American community, is today well known as a popular bike route as well as a burgeoning retail area of restaurants, cafes and shops. The building deliberately aspires to cater to the cycling community and demographic. On the ground floor of the building, for example, is Hopworks Bike Bar. “Some 3,000 riders a day pass by Mr. Ettinger’s new brewpub,” the New York Times’ Linda Baker writes of Hopworks in a recent feature about the neighborhood and catering to cyclists. “It has racks for 75 bicycles and free locks, to-go entrees that fit in bicycle water-bottle cages, and dozens of handmade bicycle frames suspended over the bar areas.”
There are no automobile parking spaces for tenants, but the 18-unit building has storage for 30 bikes. “Cyclists are a great potential market for businesses that want people traveling at human-scale speed and will stop and buy something,” Roger Geller, the city’s bicycle coordinator, also told Baker.
Eco Flats is one of 15 building projects aiming toward net-zero operations through a pilot program launched in 2009 by Energy Trust of Oregon. Co developed by Doug Shapiro, it was designed to use approximately 60 percent less energy than a building constructed to code stipulations. Veillet says actual savings have been higher, approaching 80 percent. In the ground-floor entry to the apartments via elevator, a flat-screen TV affixed to the upper wall conveys in real time the amount of energy being used by each unit as well as how much energy is being generated by a rooftop array of solar panels.
“It took two years to convince the bank, but it was filled with tenants in 30 days,” Jean-Pierre Veillet says. “This isn’t a political statement. It’s something easy we can do now that saves 80 percent of the energy.”
The building’s architect is Works Partnership, the Portland firm that has won a slough of design awards and acclaim over the past decade for both new buildings like bSide6 and renovations like the Eastbank Commerce Center. (Rick Potestio, another of the city's top architects, also contributed early in the project.) Curiously, though, you won’t find the EcoFlats in Works Partnership’s website portfolio. This doesn’t seem to be because Works has washed its hands with its client or that there was friction. It’s a successful project economically, and I would argue aesthetically as well. But Veillet (whose work includes the expansion of Portland restaurant Genoa as well as a pop-up store in Manhattan for clothier Nau, also featured in the Times), is a blend of builder and designer, more so than just the contractor-led method the name Sitworks Design-Build would indicate.
“I respect Bill and Carrie as a architects. Bill is very dynamic with his design sensibility and capturing a building in the larger built environment. Carrie is brilliance in a bottle,” Veillet says of the relationship. “But EcoFlats is not a project that was fully under their control. I had the role of main contributor of funds, was heavily involved in design, ultimately responsible to the construction, and the promoter to the banks and PDC to gather their support. They are not a stamp-providing architecture firm and this one is a tweener. I provided the seed, they all helped it grow, then I trimmed the bush.”
From a visual, aesthetic point of view, EcoFlats looks just like what it is: a handsome although maybe not outright beautiful building that resembles Works projects like bSide 6 in the three dimensional quality of its façade, yet perhaps lacks the detail and rigor of a full-fledged Works Partnership piece of architecture. Yet this wasn’t something Veillet and Works fell into; at least from Veillet’s point of view, it was an intentional, pragmatic move that has resulted in exceptional efficiency yet reasonable rental rates.
What’s more, although the EcoFlats look is not a rigidly pristine one, it has a slightly rough-and-tumble quality that is not unsuccessful. The more I got to know the building, the more I came to like it. That’s in part because of materials such as reclaimed timber used in the upstairs walkway, or ceramic-coated siding, a Japanese import that modulates the building’s temperature swings by absorbing heat or cold and ventilating it before the building core absorbs it.
I also particularly enjoyed the metal-mesh screens on the front facade and how they appear almost like drapery only more industrial. The facade here seems reminiscent to my eyes not only of Works' bSide6 but also Holst Architecture's celebrated Belmont Lofts.
And you can’t talk about the building of the EcoFlats without considering the timing: a so-called Great Recession in which government and nonprofit incentives exist for green projects but banks have been extraordinarily reluctant to lend. That Veillet was able to line up support and collaboration from the Portland Development Commission, the Energy Trust of Oregon to make his project both pencil out and receive funding is no small feat.
In the end, there are buildings that win awards for their sculptural quality, and others which find their prestige being certified by LEED or other green building rating systems, but both are a small minority of what gets built. I think of the EcoFlats as an efficient building like those with green certifications, and more than hinting at the kind of design presence on the street that turns heads, be they of passers by or design juries. If it’s more of a DIY version that wears its pragmatism on its sleeve, the EcoFlats also delivers ample helpings of both function and form, all at a time when the wheels of the building machine have been grinding at their slowest time in a generation. It’s hard not to hoist a mug of beer or pipe a bike wheelie in response.