Wyatt federal building (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
For most of its history, the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal building has been hiding in plain sight: a bland, nondescript office building across Chapman Square from City Hall. But for the past year, a remarkable transformation has been taking place as the building has had its entire facade removed and a new one of glass with metal screens (and eventually vegetation) taking its place.
Traveling regularly from home in Southeast Portland to downtown, I've watched the Wyatt for the past year with curiosity and, as of late, excitement. The new Wyatt building may be turning out as something special and exceptional, at least if the shading devices on its west facade are any indication.
The modernization of the circa-1974 Wyatt, which was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and fashioned in a partnership between James Cutler (of Cutler Anderson) and SERA Architects, is part of the Government Service Administration's design excellence program for federal buildings, which used to favor sculptural excellence but has in recent times come to focus more on sustainable design innovation. It's set to achieve LEED Platinum certification from the US Green Building Council and is expected to achieve a 55-60 percent reduction in energy use compared to a normal code-designed building as well as a 65 percent reduction in potable water consumption.
The 18-story, 512,474-square-foot building is not only a rebirth of the original Wyatt, but the renovation itself is flourishing today near completion after initially being left for dead. It was originally commissioned in 2005, but lost its initial funding. The project was on hold for much of 2007 and 2008 before receiving the aforementioned ARRA funds in 2009.
Originally, Cutler and SERA designed a series of vegetative fins for the west facade, but in the renewed post-2009 project, it was revamped into clusters of slender metal rods going up to the 18th floor. The architects felt they couldn't afford the risk of the vegetative facade failing. The metal shading devices, though, will have vegetation growing on them, initially just the first three floors but, as the plants grow, stretching up the rest of the facade.
Although there are also shading devices on the buidings additional exterior surfaces, it's really the west facade that is the bold gesture (to address afternoon solar orientation and the lack of a building directly across the street), resembling a gigantic succession of icycles moving up and down the building. Cutler also endeavored to ensure that the rest of the glassy walls were as simple and uncluttered as possible, which draws ones eyes all the more to the west facade.
At the same time, the signature shading devices are not the only energy-efficient or visually arresting design move at the Wyatt. For example, a new solar array on the roof will offset up to six percent of the building’s energy consumption. The rooftop is tilted to point toward optimal solar orientation, giving this boxy building an angular top. An innovative elevator system will actually generate energy as it moves downward. The design also peels back, at selected intervals, the bones of the original building to reveal its original steel and concrete. One senses that this is a building with multiple stages of history. And as if its bold look and efficient performance weren't enough, SERA led a collaborative construction effort with builder Howard S. Wright that has reduced a 27-month construction period to only 14 months. Even the most reactionary, tin-hatted critics of government spending ought to offer applause.
Just down the street from the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt building, another landmark sustainable project SERA has co-designed, the Oregon Sustainability Center (in collaboration with GBD Architects) has faced difficulty. Its funding mechanism is in question after the state declined to offer up its share of the cost, and while the OSC may be even more impressive than the Wyatt in its sustainable performance (the project is designed to meet rigid Living Building Challenge strictures for net-zero energy and water consumption), renderings show something not nearly as visually compelling as the Wyatt despite considerable improvement over its original conceptual designs.
The Wyatt, in this way, may come to symbolize a relatively rare alchemy in the architecture of Portland or beyond: a leading-edge sustainable building project that also possesses, through its innovations, a striking beauty.