Oregon Sustainability Center

building partnerships : advancing best practices : creating green jobs

Place Matters

In the coming days, we’ll be sharing some early concept designs for the OSC. They are the culmination of hours of heads-down, sleeves-rolled-up creativity from the team at GBD and SERA.

But first, we thought it’d help to set the scene.

This takes some eye squinting. Blur your vision, tap into your imagination, and have a look at the city block between SW 4th and 5th Avenues, and the streets Harrison and Montgomery, in downtown Portland.

This is the intended home of the Oregon Sustainability Center.


Bird’s eye view, as seen from the 16th floor of the Cyan, looking to the south and west.

Today, it is primarily a parking lot. The historic Harrison Court Apartments sit in the southwest quadrant of this block, and there’s an old couch, missing its cushions, stashed in some bushes behind the parked cars.


View of 4th Ave., looking south. The OSC site is just out of view, to the lower right.


The Portland Streetcar traveling north, skirting the eastern edge of the OSC site.

The city grid around here is about 20 degrees off of the north-south axis, and 4th Ave., home to Portland State University’s LEED Gold Engineering Building, jogs to the right just as it hits the OSC block. Currently, the Portland Streetcar skirts around all this, its tracks converging at 5th and Montgomery, where it either continues on to South Waterfront, or heads back north, depending.


Streetcar tracks passing underneath the College of Urban and Public Affairs.

To the north and west, between 5th and 6th Aves. and Montgomery and Mill, the streetcar cuts diagonally across the block, passing directly under Portland State University’s Urban Center, home to the College of Urban and Public Affairs. It has been, to date, the only place in the city where the streetcar cuts through a block in this way.

SW 5th and Montgomery is also the only point in the city where the streetcar tracks intersect with those of the new MAX line, the Portland Mall Light Rail (opening later this year), making this a significant hub for public transit.


Montgomery Street, looking to the west.

Looking to the west of the parking-lot-turned-OSC, Montgomery Street extends into, or actually flows from, the West Hills. It alternates between being car-full and car-free. The Urban Center Plaza one block west carved out Montgomery’s most recent pedestrian corridor, and the South Park Blocks, home to the Portland Farmer’s Market, and visible here as the swath of green trees beyond PSU’s elevated walkways, are also car-free.

Spin yourself around 180 degrees, with the OSC site now to your right, and you’re looking east down Montgomery, past the nearly finished Cyan, to the historic Pettygrove Park, designed by Lawrence Halprin, and part of Portland’s 1960’s urban renewal zone.


Pettygrove Park from above, with the Willamette River to the east.


Pettygrove Park from the ground, looking east.


Montgomery Street on the eastern edge of Pettygrove Park, where it is car-free.

The park extends from 4th Ave. down to 1st, dropping off at the waterfront, linking this SW Portland neighborhood to the Willamette River with one long stretch of green.

The potential for this green corridor has not been lost on the city. Together the Bureau of Environmental Services and the Portland Development Commission are pursuing a strategy for what is being called the Montgomery Green Street Blocks. An innovative plan that spans from SW 11th Ave. down to the eastern edge of Pettygrove Park, this Green Street incorporates a variety of district-wide stormwater management strategies, including pedestrian-centric curbless streets, pavers, stormwater planters, and vertical and horizontal green walls.


Click here for a larger view of the plan.

Neighbor to an urban university committed to revitalizing its district with sustainable planning and design…the nexus of a public transportation hub…within a network of green streets…part of a district that is being planned at the watershed scale…the anchor to what will be one of Portland’s first official EcoDistricts

Place does matter.

Having just done some eye squinting, and, starting from 5th and Montgomery, a vast visual sweep in every direction, you’ll now be able to see the upcoming designs as they’re intended: not for that of a single building, but rather for an exciting new project that is one small part of a much bigger thing.

Thank you to Damin Tarlow of Gerding Edlen Development for the very helpful tour.

All photos by Eugénie Frerichs.


Filed under: Design Progress, Project History

GBS releases eco-charrette report


The executive report from the OSC eco-charrette is now available for review.

Click here to download the complete 21-page PDF.

Thank you to Green Building Services for all of the hard work that went into the creation of this document (and this is only the summary!).


Filed under: Announcements, Design Progress, Project History, Research

Digging In: OSC’s research team takes its first steps


Lisa Petterson of SERA presents a design vision at the OSC charrette. Petterson and five others are now launching the initial research efforts for the OSC’s actual design and development.

The most common question we’ve heard since the end of the OSC charrette has been, What happens next?

To which we reply: A lot.

Ideally, the charrette infuses all aspects of the project moving forward, its salient points functioning as both a filter and a reference, whether the design team is puzzling over how to deal with storm water, or the research team is seeking ways to engage the university system.

But first, the distillation. Green Building Services reports that they have gathered over 20 GB of material from the week-long jam session. The team at GBS is now diligently culling through all of the notes, illustrations, videos and photographs they’ve collected, and they’ll be compiling a final report that will be made available for public distribution in the coming weeks. We’ll be sure to post that here when it arrives.

Meanwhile, the OSC research team has formed a working group that now meets every Monday to discuss the status of a series of prioritized investigations.

This group—which includes David Kenney of Oregon BEST, Jennifer Allen, interim director of the Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices at PSU, Damin Tarlow and Dennis Wilde of Gerding Edlen Development, and Clark Brockman and Lisa Petterson of SERA— has determined that the OSC research efforts for the feasibility study will center on achieving greater clarity on the greatest unknown variables related to the Living Building Challenge criteria.

The agenda also stems from a desire to take advantage, wherever possible, of existing research available from the Oregon University System (an OSC core project partner), which will be critical given the nearing deadline of the feasibility phase (June 30th, 2009).

The team has identified eight areas of focus. They include:

  • Identifying products the team is likely to use in the building that cannot be procured within the service radius prescribed by the Living Building Challenge (Prerequisite #8).
  • Understanding the research Portland State University is doing on measuring green roof behavior relative to energy conservation, water conservation and water quality as it might apply to this project.
  • Tracking and analyzing microclimate-specific data from Portland State University’s existing weather station so the design team can utilize it in its building analysis. Specifically, wind direction and intensity are very specific to the site and need to be gathered locally.
  • Gathering data on several parking garages near to the building site (SW 5th and Washington) to understand their energy use characteristics, to then potentially model a large building’s path to net zero energy at a district scale.
  • Initiating daylighting modeling and form analysis specific to the project (light shelf design/glazing design).
  • Reviewing existing carbon footprint metrics to assist in understanding the carbon impact of the OSC from manufacturing to design through construction and beyond.

Eager to get to work straight away (and aware of the shortage of time), the team’s investigations into these eight topic areas have already begun. We’ll keep you posted as the findings roll in.

Filed under: Project History, Research

The OSC’s Top Five : a closer look at the project’s guiding principles


Last week’s charrette unearthed a profusion of ideas for designing the Oregon Sustainability Center. In the interest of developing a unified point of view, the project team has distilled those ideas down to the following guiding principles, which will drive the project forward in the coming months.

  1. Appropriately scale systems for optimal performance.
  2. Make less do more.
  3. Design for resource equity.
  4. Integrate natural systems to benefit all species.
  5. Recognize that people are the life in a living building.

We asked a few members of the project team to elaborate on these concepts. Here’s what they had to say.


1.     Appropriately scale systems for optimal performance.
As we consider systems that may be incorporated into the OSC, we need to determine the scale or size of the system that will provide the most cost- and resource-efficient delivery of services. Some systems make sense when applied at a building scale, while other systems may make more sense at a district scale, providing services to many buildings. We will evaluate best scale/performance options for the following systems:

•    Stormwater Management
•    Rainwater Harvesting
•    Wastewater Treatment
•    Treated Wastewater Distribution
•    Earth-coupled Energy Systems
•    Renewable Energy


2.    Make less do more

One way to significantly reduce the environmental impact of the OSC will be to reduce the total amount of materials used in the project, thereby reducing the resource investment in the manufacture, transport, installation and maintenance of those materials.  For this to be successful, those materials that are incorporated into the building must provide as many functions as possible. One example: Design a single structural system that…

o    Is exposed as a finish material for ceilings, floors and walls
o    Provides distribution of heating and cooling
o    Serves as a conduit for plumbing, electrical and telephone/data
o    Provides thermal mass for night-flushing and passive cooling


3.    Design for resource equity
As we evaluate resource budgets for the building, and in order to meet the Living Building Challenge, we must not only consider our own needs for resource use, but also ensure that we consider the needs of other species.  For instance, the Living Building Challenge requires that the building use only the water that falls on the site.  This can be used to provide the water budget for the building, to meet the needs of the occupants and equipment.  However, when we consider “water equity”, this begs the question: Is it fair to other species if we use all of the water that falls on the site, and what if every building did this?


4.    Integrate natural systems to benefit all species
Inclusion of natural systems is essential to the success of the OSC.  Dr. Judith Heerwagen’s presentation at the charrette and her ongoing work clearly show the value of incorporating biophilic design approaches into the workplace environment.  Literal, facsimile or representative systems from nature provide psychological as well as performance enhancements for humans.  At the same time, natural treatment systems for stormwater, wastewater and air quality provide an ecosystem service without significant chemical inputs and energy use.  Through thoughtful design, these systems can also provide habitat for other species and further enhance the local ecosystem.


5.    Recognize that people are the life in a Living Building
The Living Building Challenge represents a dramatic paradigm shift in the way that buildings are designed, built and occupied.  A vacant building can exist without any resource inputs, but once occupied, a building requires resources to support the health and wellbeing of the occupants.  The existing building stock does not provide occupants with information on building performance so that they can make informed decisions about resource use.  A Living Building provides occupants with a feedback loop on individual resource use and overall building performance as well as providing appropriate choices to support occupant comfort and well-being.  This approach necessitates the active participation of the people in the building to ensure that resource budgets are met for energy and water use in order to meet the net-zero energy and water prerequisites.  With this new approach, occupants become part of the essential functions of the building.

Thank you to the team at SERA and GBD for the illustrations. You can download the full collection here. And thank you to Ralph DiNola of Green Building Services for his extensive input.

Filed under: Design Progress, Project History

Why not?

Turnout was high at last Friday’s eco-charrette Open House, and so was the curiosity, as dozens of visitors – including Mayor Sam Adams – studied the collection of sketches and notes that were on view.


There was no building to unveil, and only one model (by THA Architecture) – a modest 3D basswood construction of the SW Portland neighborhood where the Oregon Sustainability Center could one day stand. At the corner of SW 5th and Montgomery, the model showed nothing. Just a white open space, an empty square that barely interrupted the east/west expanse of vegetation that marked Montgomery’s future as a green street.

Fitting, this blank space, for all of its potential. And inspiring, too, knowing that last week’s gathering of some of the region’s most well-versed experts in sustainable design was dedicated solely to filling this blank space.

Scanning the graphic illustrations that lined the room of the Open House, each overflowing with declarations and large, sweeping question marks, it was clear that the charrette succeeded in at least one of its objectives: to challenge assumptions, provoke, and ask more questions than provide answers.


Now comes the hard part, distilling these questions down to what Ralph DiNola of Green Building Services described as the OSC’s “basis of design”.


Some of the more salient points from the week, that will help to inform this basis of design, include:

Design Vision

  • What makes a building iconic?
  • Does this building need to be iconic?
  • What makes a building timeless?
  • What makes a building from this place?
  • How do we take advantage of the unique characteristics of the site?
  • How can all of the building systems be combined to create an integrated, elegant design?
  • How do we design a building today that is forward thinking in its design, anticipating strategies and technologies that will be available in two years and beyond?


  • How will the entire bioregion – not just Portland – experience the OSC?
  • How will the OSC transform its visitors and occupants?
  • Knowing that the Living Building Challenge requires proactive behavior from the building occupants in order to be successful, how can we encourage shifts in human behavior, and then positively reinforce them?


  • How will the OSC maximize its function as a Living Laboratory?
  • What research opportunities can the OSC offer in terms of both information gathering and scientific research?
  • What information can we start to gather now, and what information will we want to gather later (thereby influencing the design of the building now)? [This includes researching “hardware” (materials, technologies) vs. “software” (processes, methods, practices for integrating materials and technologies) vs. “peopleware” (how occupants and neighbors interact with the building).]

Materials, Energy & Water

  • How will the building’s envelope harness energy/rainwater/habitat, and how will it connect its occupants to the outdoors?
  • How can we maximize passive energy sources?
  • Is it sustainable for every building to harness and reuse its own rainwater, or can we think of the building’s water use and re-use on the scale of an eco-district or watershed?

These are but a few of the myriad questions that were deliberated throughout the week.


Mayor Sam Adams (right) with Rob Bennett of P+OSI.

No less provocative was a vision set forth by the Mayor when he spoke briefly to the crowd gathered last Friday. Noting the significance of the OSC for its potential to reinforce Portland’s position as one of the most sustainable cities in the United States, Adams suggested perhaps aiming higher. Why not strive to become one of the most sustainable cities in the world?

Now that’s a good question. Last Friday, at least, with the afterglow from the week’s creative marathon still buzzing around the room, striving to become the most sustainable city in the world didn’t really feel all that far from reach. So…why not?

(all photos by Eugénie Frerichs)

Filed under: Project History

Check it out at the Open House

This Friday, the ideas of the week’s eco-charrette will be on display – covering everything from technical details to the wildest concepts.  Come discuss the project and explore the results!

Informal Open House | OSC eco-charrette

April 10, 2009, 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.

1120 NW Couch Street, Sixth Floor

Brewery Block Tower

Filed under: Announcements

Ready, Set, Slam


Presentations by a wild salmon, Professor Moss, and a 5-month-old baby girl; a group-wide sing-a-long to What a Wonderful World; subgroups calling themselves U.G.W.U.G. (“u get what u get”), EN-TREE (Ecologically Nourishing Tower Restoring the Environment Earth-wide), and Dark Sacred Nights…

If this Monday’s kick off to the Oregon Sustainability Center’s week-long eco-charrette and technical design session was any indication of how the rest of the week will go, it’s safe to say that the 60+ participants will be engaged with open minds, fresh ideas, and a healthy dose of humor.

All of which will come in handy. Jokes aside, the five-day intensive, hosted by Gerding Edlen Development and facilitated by Green Building Services, is designed to capture a large volume of critical information from the OSC consultants and partners in a very short, fast-paced, highly productive period of time.

By week’s end the group – which extends beyond the core project team to include finance experts, chemical engineers, policy makers, professors, students, and others – will have covered topics as varied as the Center’s overarching design vision, methods for achieving net-zero energy and water, and what it means to program life, work, and on-going research into a living building’s day-to-day. The full agenda for the week is posted here.

Monday, however, was all about setting the tone. First, a Commitment to Collaboration, (with tenets such as “Engage with an open mind… Listen, then respond… No filters, let it flow”). Next, reviews of eco-districts and the Living Building Challenge, followed by a spirited presentation by Seattle-based Judith Heerwagen, PhD., author of Biophilic Design: Theory, Research and Practice (2007), and a consultant on the social impacts of sustainable design. Her advice: when building new habitat, first take the time to “know your animal”.

And then came the Slam. Eight small groups formed at separate tables, armed with trace paper, flip charts, markers, site plans, a hard copy of the Living Building Challenge, and a futuristic RFP from 2059. The charge: design a 250,000 square foot office building with the following requirements:

Exceed the Living Building Challenge
NO mechanical HVAC systems
NO plumbing
NO electric lighting
ONLY natural materials
Oh, and…design it in less than an hour.

The groups were told from the beginning to “think outside of everything” they knew, and so they did. Up came buildings shaped like trees and fish, with living skins, green roofs, wind turbines, composting toilets, and stormwater/greywater treatment systems that provided clean water for the rest of the city. Buildings were drawn that shut down at sunset, forcing workers to go home. Others rotated slowly, chasing the sun. Lighting was designed to come from phosphorescent creatures, and a debate ensued over which team owned the rights to the process of capillary exchange as it applied to a building’s heating, cooling, and water use.

It is not likely that any of these designs will make it into the final drawings of the true Oregon Sustainability Center. But that was not the point.

“The purpose of today was to cut you loose of your preconceived notions, to really get you thinking in a new way for the rest of the session,” said facilitator Ralph DiNola of Green Building Services, as he wrapped up the day. “The important work comes with the rest of the week, but don’t forget the ideas of this first day, don’t get out of this mode.”

They’ve cut loose, and they’re in the mode. The work has only just begun. It’s going to be an interesting week, indeed. Stay tuned.

(And in the meantime, some shots from the day’s events are below.)


Ready, set, slam: work groups tear into the RFP.


The sketching begins.


Jennifer Allen of Portland State University.


Charrette facilitators Amanda Ryan, Ralph DiNola, and Terry Miller (not pictured: Alan Scott).


The winning team, Earth Bound, preparing the final presentation.


Tilt it sideways, and it’s shaped like a fish!


Clark Brockman of SERA with the tools of the trade.


Tom Liptan of the Bureau of Environmental Services holds up the first draft while Kathryn Krygier adds to draft #2.


Dark Sacred Nights…


Wee 1 decompresses after her presentation to the group. Her message was clear: the Portland Development Commission doesn’t own the site for the building, we’re borrowing it from Wee 1 and her generation. So we’d better get things right.

(all photos: Eugénie Frerichs)

Filed under: Project History