BY JULIETTE BEALE
While Portland may have lost its lead as the most bike-able city to Minneapolis, and one publication now ranks ours as only the ninth greenest city in the country, we are arguably still at the forefront when it comes to green design, as evidenced by having three projects on the 2012 AIA COTE Top Ten list: the Mercy Corps Word Headquarters, Hood River Middle School, and Portland Community College’s Newberg Center. Earlier this week, The University of Oregon’s Architecture Department hosted a panel discussion featuring key members from each of these projects’ design teams.
The Mercy Corps World Headquarters, designed by THA Architecture, is a LEED Platinum project that combines an existing historic structure with a modern addition. Open offices were placed on the outer edge near the windows, in the historic portion, and core and service elements were located toward the center. In the modern addition, the entire East elevation is a curtain wall shaded by street trees. The project has a 3,800 square-foot green roof, stack ventilation through the main staircase, and re-used timber stair treads.
Hood River Middle School Music and Science Building, designed by Opsis and set to achieve net-zero energy usage (generating as much as it consumes), is located within the context of a larger school that is on the National Historic Register. The building’s design demanded an acute consideration of the natural context, the historic fabric, and the school’s sustainable/ science curriculum. The project has a geothermal heating system with heat exchange recovery ventilators, a radiant floor slab, and high mass walls for thermal storage. Trusses and other materials were salvaged from the demolition of a buss storage barn previously located on the site for re-use in the new roof structure.
Portland Community College- Newberg Center, by Hennebery-Eddy, is the first of six buildings planned for this newest PCC campus. A net-zero project like Hood River, the building’s envelope is insulated with structural insulated panels (SIPS). Sloped ceilings leading upward toward skylights provide enough diffuse light to meet lighting needs during daytime hours. A series of louvers and dampers, located below windows, bring fresh air into the building. Large stacks, located along the building’s central axis, naturally vent air, while a109-kW photovoltaic array generates all the space’s energy.
One panelist was quick to note that all three Portland projects outperformed the others on the list, a good boost for Portland pride. Projects are judged on a set of criteria including light and air, water cycle, land use and site ecology, among others. Yet these panelists collectively suggested several other driving forces rooted in our well-established sustainable building culture.
For example, the clients of these projects were savvy and didn’t need to be convinced into adopting strict sustainable goals, panelists agreed. For Mercy Corps, a sustainable building was in tandem with its official mission: “To alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities.” PCC Newberg’s President went to the design team with the goal of creating the most sustainable building possible. At Hood River Middle School, the curriculum being housed in the new building was environmental, so the client wanted a sustainable building to showcase these technologies in an educational way.
Government and nonprofit incentives also helped projects along. The State of Oregon, for example, offers many financial incentives to promote green design. PCC-Newberg took advantage of the Energy Trust of Oregon’s Path to Net Zero program. The project’s solar array as funded by a bond measure that stipulated 50% of project funds had to go toward solar technology.
Hood River Middle School (video courtesy Opsis)
Having a high goal such as LEED Platinum or net zero focused the clients’ attention and gave them something to rally behind, panelists also said. For Hood River Middle School, the building itself was to be a tool for sustainable education. Working with Opsis, they investigated all the ways net zero strategies could also be used in the classroom. Building energy use monitors are in visible locations for students. A portion of the wall was cut back to reveal the construction. Students were involved in the process of designing a living machine.
David Keltner of THA mentioned that Portland is already positioned at a tipping point when it comes to our understanding of sustainable technologies. For this type of project to be successful, panelists agreed, it demands an integrated project team of architects, engineers, contractor and client. There also must be industry buy-in. “Engineering something that is not out there in everyone’s vocabulary is like designing a Ferrari,” Alec Holser of Opsis said. Having professionals ready to work together to find new approaches to meet these challenges was fundamental. In the case of net zero, many of the technologies must solve two problems at once and then they need to work with the other strategies. There is a complex balance, for example, between daylighting and heat gains. The PCC innovative sloped ceiling helped spread the light of a standard type and sized skylight.
Panelists were unanimous that net-zero projects are paving the way for future invention and innovation in materials and technologies. As they become more of a norm, codes too will need to be updated. Net zero water usage is difficult to achieve when water recycled on site cannot be reused in the landscape or restrooms.
A great lesson from these projects is that green buildings can be designed in a way that educates their users. Whether it’s building performance monitors or an architectural display of strategies on the facade, the more users learn, the more comfortable users become with these buildings. Through understanding there is change. When people know they are in a cutting edge building with passive heating/ cooling they have different expectations. Erica Dunn of Hennebery Eddy cited that more people complain of being too hot when they have AC than when they don’t because they are mentally prepared for a greater range in temperatures. It’s really about common sense, Rob Reimer of Hennebery Eddy said. “It’s not about gadgets or gizmos. Just designing a smart building.”
In the end, continually searching for new paradigms is critical for advancing the design discourse. For example, David Keltner noted there is always talk of reductions in energy use, but what about a consideration of new forms of energy production? Our next step will entail a re-thinking that is even more outside the box. It will be interesting to see how this may shape the future of COTE Top Ten Green Projects.