BY BRIAN LIBBY
Perhaps no other street in Portland has transformed over the past five to ten years like the North Williams-Vancouver Avenue corridor. Head north from Russell Street on Russell in particular and you’ll see an area that used to be home to a mix of vacant lots, old houses and light industrial enclaves is now teeming with new condos and apartments, restaurants and shops.
Even so, the new Radiator Building at North Vancouver Avenue and Fremont Street is something new. It’s not another mixed-use residential structure but a commercial office building. With its metal cladding and long, vertical sunshades, it looks the part.
If it seems surprising to have a commercial building amidst the residences and retail, the project’s developer, architect and general contractor, Ben Kaiser of PATH, believes an office is what this burgeoning district needs to become a true 20-minute neighborhood, where people can live, work and play within less than a half-hour’s walk.
The 36,000 square foot Radiator Building is not just uncommon for locating offices here. It also marks an emerging trend in construction: a return to wood framing. Kaiser wanted the building to be as sustainable as possible, and was attracted to the idea that while it takes a huge amount of carbon and energy to produce steel and concrete, “wood consumes and sequesters carbon,” he said on a recent building tour. “There’s a lot of momentum for this. Timber framing is so much more sustainable.” Kaiser says that though the building is only five stories, that makes it the tallest wood-framed building in Oregon. “I bet the next ten years will bring wood framing to all over Portland.”
Uncommon too is the triple duty Kaiser is playing here as designer, builder and developer. “I love it,” he says. “There’s no middle man and no one to blame. But you should see the email load.”
Kaiser is not alone in his belief of timber framing’s increasing attractiveness. Around the world, a number of projects have begun to push the envelope of what wood-framed architecture can be, with tall “plyscrapers” planned in cities like Stockholm, Vienna and Vancouver, British Columbia. According to a recent report in London’s Guardian newspaper, a 20-story wood-framed building can sequester about 3,100 tons of carbon, while an equivalently sized concrete-framed building would give off about 1,200 tons. That 4,300-ton difference is equivalent to removing 900 cars per year.
The Radiator Building is just one of three buildings under construction on this parcel. Kaiser had planned to develop all of them himself, but after the recession ended up selling the other two sites, which are now seeing a pair of Holst Architecture-designed buildings under construction. In between them is a 15,000 square foot courtyard that is being donated to the city as a park.
Walking through the Radiator offices, I almost did a double-take upon noticing the timber ceilings. They make the building look like one of those old warehouses that get renovated into offices, with exposed conduit but greater vertical spaciousness. But Kaiser’s design pairs the exposed ceilings with an access floor, keeping the ceilings free of ducts and electrical conduit. This will help the building to remain adaptable as new uses may come in the decades ahead.
The ground floor is comprised of two retail spaces as well as ground-floor parking—about 10 spots. Parking represents both the best and the worst of this building. There are far more spots needed than what is provided in those ground floor spots, but Kaiser’s team formed a partnership with the church next door to rent spaces for Radiator Building employees to use on non-Sundays, a win-win that may also help the church stay in its location with an additional revenue stream. But just the fact that the Radiator has parking on about a third of its ground floor really takes away from the atmosphere. Which Kaiser pragmatically understands. “This could be a sweet restaurant space,” he says as we stand amongst the parking spots. “But I couldn’t get financing without parking, even though I could have filled it with commercial tenants.” The banks made this building not everything it could have been.
Besides its framing, the Radiator Building is sustainable in numerous other ways. Rooftop photovoltaic panels provide enough energy for all of the building’s public areas. The aforementioned exterior vertical sun shades are programmed to tilt almost 180 degrees to help maximize interior daylight when it’s wanted and prevent glare when there’s too much. The Radiator and Holst’s One North building across the courtyard also share a stormwater management system. The building also has highly efficient windows and lots of insulation, so much so that a shared heating and cooling system utilizing excess heat from the New Seasons across the street was deemed unnecessary.
Working in the Radiator Building might also someday save its occupants’ lives. It’s equipped with an earthquake early detection system that will give about a one to two-minute heads up via text before the rumbling starts, and will shut off all gas and bring the elevator to the ground floor. Kaiser says the Radiator name was not just a reference to the appearance of the front façade with its exterior louvers, but was intended to express the idea of radiating information, be it about energy performance or the imminent arrival of a jolt to the Richter scale.
In Portland’s march to density, it can still be a little funny to be walking amidst the single-family homes and suddenly come upon buildings of this scale. But the Radiator Building, even if it looks a little easier to imagine downtown, and even if it's handsome but not necessarily gorgeous, is indeed a fitting representative not just of how close-in Portland is changing, but what our architecture can be: an enabler of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and leading edge sustainable thinking.