Vestas headquarters (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
For more than a decade since it was vacated in 2001, the circa-1927 Meier & Frank Depot Building has sat vacant waiting for a suitor. Now, it's the American headquarters for Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, thanks to an extensive renovation and the addition of a fifth floor overseen by GBD Architects and Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects.
Developed by Gerding Edlen, the company behind the five-building Brewery Blocks as well as numerous other Pearl District and South Waterfront projects (and also a ground-floor tenant of the new space), the Vestas headquarters is designed to meet Platinum-level LEED strictures and is a whopping 68 percent more energy efficient than a buiding designed to code. This comes from a variety of features including the building's thermal mass, its operable windows, its combination of operable windows and water-cooled ventilation, and downtown Portland's largest array of solar panels (enough to meet 12 percent of power needs).
Thanks to a 160,000-gallon cistern, the building collects enough water for non-potable use (flushing toilets, irrigation) that it uses 80 percent less than a conventional building and diverts 33 percent of Vestas' stormwater runoff away from the sewer system.
Overlooking I-405 from busy NW Everett Street, the hulking masonry building has always been more elegant than one expects from a warehouse. Now, with a fresh coat of white paint (resembling the white terra cotta of the classic AE Doyle designed Meier & Frank building downtown) and the boards removed from the windows, it has a handsome presence that is both unassuming and grand.
Inside, the Vestas headquarters is defined by and centered on a large multi-story atrium. Particularly when you're standing on the upper floors, the entire building feels connected as office workers circulate amongst glass-ensconced conference rooms, offices, and an auditorium with bleachers made from reclaimed wood salvaged from the bottom of the Willamette. Throughout the building, in fact, the wood helps soften the interior architecture and add texture. Most of all, though, the atrium itself makes the building feel special in how natural light permeates the building from the center radiating out.
The only place the atrium doesn't feel so compelling is on the ground floor. That may be because the building's second floor has been given over to parking. So when you're looking up at the atrium from the bottom, that sense of connection amongst the open floors surrounding the atrium is lost because the walls are sealed off. However, according to Patrick Wilde of Gerding Edlen, who accompanied me on the tour, that second floor could someday, as demand for space grows, be converted back to usage for humans and the second-floor able to join the atrium.
The rooftop, despite having such a large solar-panel array and parts of it given over to plantings for an eco-roof, also provides a great place to hang out with a postcard view. The design put a common lunch room on this fifth-floor addition to give everyone a share of the panorama.
It's all but impossible not to compare the Vestas project to another renovated full-block warehouse down the street, one also developed by Gerding Edlen: the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters. Both are company headquarters, and both feature central atriums with bleachers that marry concrete and reclaimed wood. And each has something to offer versus the other. The Vestas design has more of a bounty of natural light: it almost feels like you're standing outside when in its central atrium. Office workers here will never get seasonal affective disorder, even in the longest stretches of perennially gray December and January days.
Yet the Wieden + Kennedy building, designed by Brad Cloepfil's firm, Allied Works, is unquestionably more refined in its detail and refinement. The concrete looks like marble in the W+K and the upper stories a kind of living sculpture of catwalks and carved-out space. One senses there architecture as a a true artistic composition. In this way, the Vestas headquarters feels bland by comparison.
But again, that doesn't mean Vestas isn't an overwhelming success - because it is. It just feels like natural light and sustainability were overriding concerns for the Vestas project, while the ambition for capital-A architecture drove W+K.
Besides the architectural details, simply by building a major corporate headquarters here Vestas helps make a kind of statement that hopefully can be backed up over time. The market for alternative energy sources like wind and solar has had dramatic ups and downs over the past decade, as a great leap forward in market share has been set back by the recession and the plummeting cost of fossil fuels like natural gas with the spread of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques and its ability to tap previously unreachable reserves. Vestas has been laying off employees just as its big new headquarters is ready to unveil itself.
Yet standing outside the Vestas headquarters on a recent sunny afternoon, the building seemed to serve as a reminder to focus on the long term, one in which alternative energy plays an increasing role and in which Portland is a leading player. This city, despite whatever cultural cache it currently carries, is not an obvious choice for a corporate headquarters. We lack many Fortune 500 companies, we're not a center of financial wealth, and we lack major nationaly renowned academic institutions.
But Portland may be a suitable fit for Vestas, if not a kindred spirit. Like Denmark, where Vestas originated, Oregon is a left-leaning spot on the coast that's perhaps overshadowed by more populous neighbors but quietly harboring substantial ambitions in the burgeoning green economy, a place that eschews loud statements and prefers to just get on with a higher quality of life. Standing outside the Vestas headquarters feels like that future is more than just chasing windmills.