BY BRIAN LIBBY
In September of 2004, Portland's GBD Architects received word from the US Green Building Council that one of the firm's downtown projects, Museum Place, had received a LEED [Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design] rating, GBD's first. 14 years later, GBD's latest, the Osprey Apartments in South Waterfront, has recently received a LEED Gold rating, making it the firm's 50th LEED-rated project.
Together these 50 buildings represent about 11 million square feet of space. But what's arguably more important is what has been saved compared to what would be required for and consumed by conventional buildings: enough carbon to be equivalent to 445,000 acres of forest being preserved (equivalent to 86 Forest Parks), as well as 379 million gallons of water saved, and the equivalent of $108 million worth of electricity.
Recently I sat down with two GBD veterans involved with a lot of those 50 projects, principal Kyle Andersen and firm director Phil Beyl, to talk about their LEED-rated journey.
That first LEED project, Museum Place, was indicative of how GBD was well suited to pursue sustainable design and utilize an integrated design culture because, particularly in the latter case, it's what they were largely already doing. Sustainable architecture really starts with the integrated design process: the architect, general contractor, owner and key subcontractors working together long before the design is complete. "We were fortunate to earn LEED on that one," Beyl says, "because the project was largely complete before we began the application process. I think it was our firm’s standard delivery method largely because of our client base. Almost all our clients are private sector and they rely on a collaborative approach that gets things done in the shortest possible timeframe."
As I wrote about in a 2004 Metropolis magazine article, Museum Place was also innovative in another way: the first Safeway grocery store in the United States to have housing located above. Unfortunately the chain hasn't really pursed that urbanity much since. My nearest Safeway, on Hawthorne Boulevard, is a hideous eyesore in addition to being single-story. Safeway doesn't normally strike me as a very progressive company, but this store allowed the grocer a 17 percent reduction in energy usage compared to one built to code.
When one thinks of GBD Architects and LEED, the Brewery Blocks are what really come to mind. A five-building adaptive re-use project on the site of the former Blitz-Weinhard brewery, each building was LEED rated, including The Henry condominiums in 2005 as well as the Louisa Apartments and the M Financial Plaza in 2007. But it took a lot of convincing for the projects to go forward with these sustainable design measures.
"I remember a lot of eyes rolling during the early stages of selling the project," Beyl says. "We converted a conference room in our office to a kind of team room and studio for the Brewery Blocks. Bob and Mark would bring prospective investors or finance people in and and we’d do a little dog and pony show. The eyes were rolling when we said we were going to put operable windows in the buildings. Who’s going to care about opening the windows? The cache with LEED certification had zero traction in the private sector marketplace at the time. I think they [Gerding Edlen] were the ones who created that traction. They started signing tenants for a higher rate than you could get downtown, because the history of the place was special and so was the environmental performance."
"All of a sudden our industry was talking about integrated design, but that’s what we were doing at our firm long beforehand," Andersen said. "I think that’s what gave us a leg up as the building industry became more collaborative." In Portland, perhaps because it's a smaller city or perhaps because it lacks wealth, collaboration has always been prevalent in a variety of creative communities, but it's always true with some more than others.
Besides the Brewery Blocks, GBD also was the architect for a renovation of the circa-1891 Portland Armory across the street. It was the first historic LEED Platinum-rated project in the United States as it became the Gerding Theater, home of Portland Center Stage. The architects basically left the building's shell largely untouched while constructing a modern building inside. "We built a ship in a bottle,” GBD's Steve Domreis explained to me in a 2007 Metropolis article.
One thing I've been interested in over the course of my 18 years writing about architecture is how the collaborative process between architects, contractors and other team members has evolved. For example, we used to say "integrated design process" without any capitalization, but now there is IPD, or Integrated Project Delivery, a more regimented and official project delivery method. With that in mind, I asked Beyl and Andersen how they've seen integrated design process evolve over the course of those 50 projects.
"This is not unique to us, but I think we were an early adopter of a philosophy that everybody doing work on a LEED project needed to understand the characteristics of LEED," Beyl told me. "In the early days it seemed like you had to hire a consultant who knew the LEED process. We soon determined though that we all had to have the knowledge that this consultant had if we were going to make it a mainstream endeavor on our projects. This led to an intensive in-house training program that we required all of our staff to participate in and which we made available to our clients, consultants and contractors that we worked with. I don’t think we could have ever got to LEED Platinum as often as we have by simply using outside consultants. Why? Because the decisions that need to be made to get a project to this level are ingrained in every stage of and with every team member of the project."
Anderson also noted how the maturation of the green-products and materials market has helped, as have new design tools. "Finding formaldehyde-free products used to be hard, for example," he said. "Now it’s easy. It’s changing the industry on the supply side. It’s become easier for us to find highly sustainable materials and resources because LEED has set that up for us. And on the software front, certainly tools that let you test factors like fluid dynamics and daylight levels have become important. You couldn’t illustrate things like convection without modeling it. BIM [Building Information Modeling software] has helped us with daylight modeling, which was something we had to do by hand earlier. We use software where we can twist the building’s orientation and see in real time the impact of energy consumption. That’s relatively new software we don’t use all the time but we certainly do when we have the ability to study the orientation."
I asked Beyl and Andersen to talk about a couple of LEED-rated projects among the 50 that were meaningful in some way, either as a piece of architecture or in terms of the levels of sustainability achieved or by some other measure. Beyl mentioned First and Main, the downtown office building near the Hawthorne Bridge, because of the persuasion that happened before ground was broken. "That project was initiated by an office developer that really had to be pushed to consider LEED. We kept the pressure on throughout the process and finally even were able to push it over the top and achieve platinum.That felt good to accomplish. Our PCC Willow Creek project was PCC’s first LEED-rated building," Beyl said. "It was gratifying to be part of that but more so because wewere able to deliver at the platinum level."
Another milestone for the firm was the Center for Health and Healing, Oregon Health & Science University's first building in South Waterfront and, along with the adjacent Portland Aerial Tram, the impetus for the entire district. Beyl recalled one example of how code didn't initially allow the kind of higher-efficiency solution the architects and the building team were proposing. "Our mechanical engineers told us early in the design process that we could reduce fan energy in the building in a big way by using a displacement air system for ventilation, a strategy that introduces cooled air into a space at a very low velocity," he explained. "The cool air would pool on the floor and convection would occur naturally inside the room when something warm, like a human or a computer, was introduced into the room. Our engineers were able to use design tools that allowed them to model and measure this strategy and demonstrate its effectiveness. We also built a mock-up to confirm what the computers were telling us, but it allowed us to buy into an innovative, high-impact design approach at an early stage and convince governing authorities that it should be approved."
Andersen also cited GBD's work for Portland Community College's Willow Creek Center in Hillsboro, another LEED Platinum project, as something special. "For PCC we started using this lexicon of science on display," he explained. "Instead of saying, ‘Trust us: there’s a lot of insulation in these walls,’ we wanted to put it on display. [Author and biophilia expert] Judith Heerwagen talks about the Prius effect: when you give people more info they make better decisions. When you give occupants information, it causes them to ask questions. Those questions cause them to make better decisions. But it became also kind of whimsical: something fun about a new vernacular of architecture, as opposed to a plaque on the wall."
Though it was never built and thus didn't earn a LEED rating, Andersen also cited the Oregon Sustainability Center as a project on which they learned the most, particularly given that it sought to meet not only LEED Platinum but also Living Building Challenge guidelines, "a building that generates its own energy, collects all its water and treats all its own waste on site," he explained. "If we are going to change the sustainability paradigm, then we need to think outside the buildings themselves. Through that process we learned buildings have to work together at a neighborhood scale. It’s not unlike with the central utility plant at the Brewery Blocks. There’s a symbiotic equilibrium between different buildings with different loads. Now you can start talking about concepts like micro-grids, and take sustainability to a whole other level. I think that the big neighborhood scale is really that shift. We have to think at a bigger scale to have greater impact."
Another GBD project, the Kiln Apartments on North Williams Avenue, was the first multifamily project in the US to achieve Passive House certification. "That one, it was an experiment on everyone’s part, including [developer] Gerding Edlen’s," Beyl recalled. "We haven’t done another one yet, so maybe it’s not yet as financially viable as it needs to be. But technically it was really fascinating because of the extremes you had to go through with building systems to make it perform like it does."
"On the Oregon Sustainability Center, one of the biggest first moves was the envelope and in some ways similar to the Kiln in that way: you spend so much energy typically warming up and cooling off the building throughout the day," Andersen added. "If the façade can limit the fluctuations and smooth the different demands between morning and night then the building requires a lot less energy, which then makes it easier to meet the energy needs."
I asked Andersen and Beyl what new frontiers they see, or hope to see, in sustainable architecture. "I wonder at what point in our lives technology and passive solutions will manifest themselves into buildings that are more animated, where buildings can open up and breathe and change shape based on factors like how the sun’s hitting it," Andersen said. "I don’t think we’re far away. At some point, technology helps the building respond in a passive way."
Rather than on the technical aspects of sustainable design and its evolution, Beyl said what’s been the most gratifying is "is to see how much change has occured in the marketplace and the urban environments we been a part of," Beyl added. "The majority of our work is in the private sector so what we do has to be viable. If it’s not working or in tmarket demand, it won’t get done. By showing people that it can be done, our work can be highly impactful. We’ve evolved from a market that says “why should we pay more to do LEED?” to one that says “why isn’t it LEED rated or, why is it only silver? The industry has been able to prove that a lot of people are willing to pay the price to get there and believe that the benefits have tangible value. It will be fascinating to watch and be part of what’s next in pushing those market forces to higher levels."
Andersen said what excites him the most today in sustainable design is "the conversation happening around resiliency. For the most part it’s focused on natural disaster survival, whereas sustainability is more about stresses: industry and resources. But when you synthesize resiliency with biophilia and regenerative design, it’s something resilient from a point of view where buildings take care of themselves. They heal and adapt and don’t rely on a centralized infrastructure. When you start distributing water and power resources around, that becomes very exciting and resilient at the same time."
And even with all this experience, architects must always learn and embrace new materials and methods. Take the rise of mass-timber buildings and the use of cross-laminated timber in place of steel and concrete. GBD has seen other firms design some of the city's first CLT buildings, but the firm is also currently designing a CLT-framed office building in Vancouver, Washington. "It’s exciting to regionalize the source of materials," Andersen said, "and not be trucking or shipping things around the world."
There are other Portland architecture firms that may win more awards or receive more design-magazine press for their beautiful buildings. But I've always admired GBD for its rational, problem-solving approach to designing often sizable buildings and spaces. Today this firm is just one of many designing LEED-rated and sustainable buildings in Portland, but in the history of local sustainable architecture, GBD will always be a pioneer.