Oregon Sustainability Center

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OSC: The Video

Check it out!

Many thanks to PDC’s John Cárdenas for creating the video.


Filed under: Project History

Keeping Urban Design Wild


Meandering streams, a canopy of trees, dappled light dancing across a ground cover of native grasses and shrubs…and then the streetcar rolls through. Hang on…where are we?

We could be at the entrance to the OSC.

Since last week’s critique, the team has been tinkering with the project’s urban design – looking at how the OSC will integrate with its greater place. Two key factors influence this: the site’s drainage, and its context.


Site analysis, with an eye for its natural drainage and relationship to surrounding blocks.

The first bit’s simple: water flows across the site from its highest point at SW 5th and Harrison, to the north and west, funneling into Montgomery, and eventually to the Willamette River.

The second bit – looking at the site within its greater context, at the edge of an urban campus, surrounded by a bustling commercial and residential district – is inspiring.

For the OSC, the projects that have most directly informed early designs are PSU’s Urban Plaza, to the northwest, and the Halprin sequence, a series of linked open spaces to the east that were designed by the office of Lawrence Halprin in the 1960s. A quick look at each reveals that many principles for this new project’s urban design have been in place for years, the OSC offering the next evolution.


A study of the “ecology of form” by Lawrence Halprin. Courtesy HLC.

Taking cues from the topography of the Cascades, Halprin’s eight-block series of parks and plazas (Portland’s first “green street”) starts with a Source Fountain at its southernmost tip, moves to the Lovejoy Fountain (high desert), passes through Pettygrove Park (the foothills, meadows, streams), and culminates at the Ira Keller Forecourt Fountain, which, with its dramatic water features and vegetation, are a nod to the northwest’s alpine landscape.

As Halprin wrote in 1981, “The space is choreographed for movement with nodes for quiet & contemplation, action & inaction, hard & soft, YIN & Yang.”


The Urban Plaza, currently under construction to make way for the new Rec Center.

By contrast, the PSU Urban Plaza, completed in 2000, is an eastern gateway to the urban university campus, an important throughway at SW 5th and Montgomery for the streetcar, MAX, and thousands of pedestrians who either pass through in a hurry, or who stop, sit on steps, eat lunch, and bask in the sun. Fittingly, its open-air design takes a classical approach; it is a piazza, a rectangular room with classically defined edges, semicircular features, and hard surfaces that combined reflect the ethos of the studies taking place in the building on its site, the College of Urban & Public Affairs.

From an ecological perspective, having such divergent landscapes flanking its site begs the OSC to serve as a transitional zone, and the design team is moving forward with this in mind.


Studying the yin and yang of the OSC and the Urban Plaza.

Taking Halprin’s idea of complementary opposites very much to heart, Kurt Schultz of SERA saw the OSC’s own urban design as the Yin to the PSU Urban Plaza’s Yang. He also saw an opportunity to add a new tributary to the Halprin sequence, one that is a Cascadian forest floor, a natural transition from the harder landscape of the Urban Plaza, to the west, to the softer, greener Halprin “river”, to the east.

ground floor-landscape

Landscape plan for the OSC site.

The transition will be dramatic. Working with landscape architects from Nevue Ngan and Associates, the team envisions the OSC’s ground level experience as akin to a walk through our native forests. Photovoltaic panels that are soaring overhead – integral to the building’s energy strategy – will be translucent, creating dappled light rather than total shade, and large wooden columns will hold the panels in place.  Walking through the plaza, one is immersed in an understory of trees, a quiet, sheltered space that is in stark contrast to the bustling open Urban Plaza across the street.


Design inspiration: a raised boardwalk is one way to further soften a site. (photo courtesy GBD)

Softer surfaces such as raised wooden boardwalks reinforce the forest experience, as they cross over meandering streams, small open runnels that are carrying stormwater from the building and the site down to the Montgomery green street, the district’s major “river”.

grassy-railway-4-THE HAGUE

Grassy tracks in The Hague. (photo courtesy GBD)

The streetcar tracks, which cut diagonally across the site, will not interrupt this forest, but will instead be enveloped. While not unprecedented – grassy tracks have cropped up throughout much of Europe – the grasses and trees between and around the streetcar at the OSC will be native.

Continuing this theme into the building itself, the team is looking into wooden finishes for the ground-floor ceiling, so that as visitors pass from the outside in, the distinction between the natural and built environment remains blurred. This also introduces wood, at an early stage, as a material that will be used repeatedly throughout the building.


The OSC, lower right, can be approached from all sides, leaving its primary entrance ambiguous.

Equally unclear – in a good way – is the location of the building’s front door. As is characteristic of many university buildings, visitors will be entering and exiting the OSC from all sides. Students will access classrooms and the conference center from a grand staircase that starts from the direction of the Urban Plaza, climbs over the streetcar and enters the building on the second floor. Other visitors, perhaps wholly unaware of the university across the street, will come in from Montgomery, lured into the building by its uninterrupted flow of greenery from the street to the building’s rising green wall.

Once inside and on the upper floors, the building’s torque – the four degree rotation that occurs on each floor – is directed back toward PSU’s Urban Plaza, the OSC’s curved edges reaching out and across to the Urban Center’s straighter lines. The yin and yang dynamic emerges once again.


Sketch of the Portland sequence by Lawrence Halprin. Courtesy HLC.

When further describing his Portland project, Halprin wrote in 1981, “The…approach was to bring into the heart of downtown activities which related in a very real way to the environment of the Portland area – the Columbia river, the Cascade mountains, the streams, rivers & mountain meadows. These symbolic elements are very much a part of Portlanders’ psyche – they glory in their natural environment & escape to it as often as possible.”

The urban oasis, a great escape, without ever leaving the city. While Halprin wasn’t the first to provide this for Portland (think Park Blocks, Forest Park), he certainly set the tone for this SW Portland neighborhood, and in its wildness and reverence for the ecologies of our region, it is a tone the OSC intends to keep.

Filed under: Design Progress, Project History

A Balancing Act: Early designs of the OSC


The latest iteration of the OSC sits among its predecessors, soon to be swapped for yet another draft.

Good news: it’s possible.

Thanks to rigorous trial, error, number crunching, model building, draft scrapping, and model re-building, we now have a path to achieving net zero energy and net zero water in a high rise building.

Good news, yes, but it is only the beginning. We are months away from knowing what such a building might actually look like. Yet its early designs, each a unique exploration into the extremes of form and function, reveal that by working within parameters that maximize highly efficient harvesting and use of energy and water, a living building on an urban scale can, in fact, be possible.


How did we get here?

Earlier this week, the OSC’s core team at GBD and SERA presented designs and fielded questions on the path they’ve taken to date. In attendance were members of the OSC working group, and three invited guests from the project’s advisory committee: Alice Wiewel, Director of Capital Planning at the Oregon University System; Christine Theodoropolous, Department Head at the University of Oregon School of Architecture; and Sergio Palleroni, fellow and professor at Portland State University’s Center for Sustainable Practices and Processes.

Much like a standard academic design review, the session was informal, emphasizing candid feedback and dialog. There was clearly plenty to say, as the group was engaged in a lively discussion that lasted over two hours.

The project’s lead designers, Kyle Andersen of GBD and Kurt Schultz of SERA, led the conversation.


After revisiting the OSC’s top five guiding principles, which emerged from the design charrette held in early April, and reviewing the building site within its greater context of the PSU campus, the planned SW Portland EcoDistrict, and the Montgomery Green Street, the focus turned to the designs.

We’ll let them drive the rest of this post…


This list of attributes hung alongside the sketches and notes on the wall. Each will need to work in concert not only with the project’s five guiding principles, and the complex program designed to meet the specific space needs of each building tenant, but also the rigorous prerequisites of the Living Building Challenge, the catalyst which first brought everyone together months ago.



The earliest models of the OSC were a study in “bracketing the extremes” of biophilic form, designing from the most pure (a raindrop) to the most abstract (the “torque”). With the exception of the Courtyard scheme (described below), all early designs were for a 250 foot tall building.


The Raindrop scheme.


The Nautilus scheme.


The Kidney Bean scheme.

The Raindrop, Nautilus, and Kidney Bean schemes each included an atrium that punched light all the way through the building, tying, in the design team’s view, the entire building together. Later analysis revealed that a top-to-bottom opening would not effectively achieve the daylighting the team was after, and also posed structural (mechanical pressure/comfort) and safety concerns.


The Torque scheme.

The Torque scheme pushed the “building as metaphor” idea one step further, mimicking in its upper levels the behavior of a sunflower as it unfurls and tracks the sun across the sky. For the building, such a twist, or “torque”, gradually changes the building orientation from the urban form of the block toward a solar-friendly orientation.

The Courtyard scheme.

In addition to the object-based explorations, the team explored how feasible it could be to fit all of the building’s program into a shorter building, in this case 170 ft. They found they could fit the program, but the Courtyard scheme was, in their opinion, at the cost of the building’s sculptural, inspiring form. They did not explore this further.

Early feedback encouraged the team to look more deeply into the Nautilus and Torque schemes, to see whether it might be possible to merge these two ideas into a single form. Here are two of those studies.





At play in these designs is the push and pull between the building’s program, which at last check called for 250,000 to 260,000 square feet, and the total surface area necessary on the site to house all of the photovoltaic panels required for the building’s energy production. The grid-like panels in these models represent those PV panels.

Last week, the core project team agreed to pursue a design that achieved net zero energy, first, and fit the program, second. This decision, combined with revisions to the Nautilus-Torque hybrid, led to the latest 220,000 square foot design, which fell prey to the most intense scrutiny at this week’s design review.


The ground floor, shown here with Montgomery Street at the top, must wear many hats: Gateway to the building, a stop for the southbound streetcar, a southern flank to the Montgomery Green Street, a shortcut for pedestrians passing through, host to interactive exhibit space, one stop among many for stormwater as it travels from the rooftops to areas of infiltration, to name a few.

Two options for the streetcar’s path remain on the table: First, to keep its tracks as they are today, with the northbound path traveling along Montgomery Street, or second, to divert the tracks so that both north- and southbound cars cut directly through, and under, the building. Moving the tracks off of Montgomery creates opportunities for the green street to be closed for festivals and events. General consensus at the design critique was leaning toward this second option, as it facilitates lively interaction in and around the building.


Replacing the single, 15-story shaft of light, open gardens now alternate up the building with north- and south-facing exposures. The north-facing, Montgomery Green Street side includes a green wall that climbs uninterrupted to the 7th floor, using a continuous stream of vegetation to pull the green street into and up the building.  The design also proposes alternating the men’s and women’s restrooms on the upper floors, a generally reductive measure to save on fixtures, square footage, and water.


Structural elements and garden spaces ring the outer perimeter of the building, with elevators and restrooms clustered at the core. Honoring the guiding vision of the Torque, the floor plan rotates four degrees on every level.





This week’s critique focused primarily on the lower levels, which, according to the advisory board, felt the least successful. The design team agreed, noting there were still many unanswered questions.

As the end of the feasibility study nears (early June), they will continue on their quest, looking more deeply into where the primary entrance should be (favoring the green street, or favoring the sun?), how to activate and energize the ground floor (is it a hub, or a thoroughfare, or how can it be both?), how to soften the site so that it’s experienced as a lush forest with a canopy of trees (PV panels) overhead, how to address the urban design challenges (what is the building’s relationship to its neighbors? how is it experienced from down the street? from across the river?)…

“We’ve been juggling a lot of things,” says Kyle Andersen of GBD. “The energy for the building, how big is the building, how tall is the building, where do we put the PV’s…now we need to really come back full circle, looking harder at this, the human experience of the building.”

“Whatever design we end up with in the feasibility study is purely a vehicle to demonstrate the feasibility of the project, it is not necessarily the final design,” continues Andersen. “It is one of many potential designs. But the bigger picture is that it demonstrates that [a Living Building of this scale] can be done. It could look like this, it could be square, it could be rectangle, it could be tall and skinny…But we’ve also found that there are parameters, how much PV do you have, so how long is the building facing south, and so on…it’s a balancing act. But [this is] definitely not the final design.”

The OSC’s design will continue to evolve. Meanwhile, the project team is busy digging in to the equally burning question of How much will it cost? More on that one, later.

Thank you to Kyle Andersen of GBD, Lisa Petterson of SERA, and Kathryn Krygier, for their input.

All photos by Eugénie Frerichs.

Filed under: Design Progress, Project History

Solving the Programming Puzzle


Whether it concerns people, agencies, or physical spaces, defining needs and mapping relationships are critical to the programming process.

In the simplest of terms, the “programming” for a new building is a statement of its needs: what does it need to provide, how much should it cost, and, from there, how big should it be.

The programming for the OSC, however, is far from simple. Unlike traditional projects, which determine a building’s size based largely on the client needs alone, the OSC comes with the added complexity of the Living Building Challenge (LBC), which states, in the simplest of terms, that in order to achieve certification, a project must be more than just a building. It needs to be alive.

Within the context of programming, the LBC prerequisite that most directly influences the project’s scale is Prerequisite #4, Net Zero Energy, which requires 100% of the building’s energy needs to be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis.

The OSC’s program, then, must evolve in tandem with the development of the building’s energy strategy; taking into consideration how much energy the OSC will supply, and how much it will use.

The design team at GBD and SERA has been busy solving this programming puzzle for weeks. Working from the overriding premise that the OSC program must facilitate collaboration and community among tenants, the team has been gathering data on space and staffing needs from each individual tenant, first, and then vetting these needs for redundancies and inefficiencies relative to other tenants’ needs.

The building’s program must address the needs of three major tenant groups:

In addition to providing workspace for these groups, the project team envisions a series of shared program spaces:

  • A large conference center, classrooms and research facilities for hundreds of daily students and local and international visitors
  • A “Visualization Lab” (an interactive, 3D immersive environment designed with cutting edge graphic technologies)
  • A resource and exhibit center that highlights the region’s innovations in sustainability, showcases Oregon sustainable businesses, and draws attention to the building’s own features and innovations;
  • Retail space on the ground floor;
  • All of the building’s support spaces, including bike lockers and shower rooms, green spaces, the lobby, loading dock, common areas, and mechanical/electrical;
  • And, specific to the Living Building prerequisites for Water, space for a rainwater collection tank and a Living Machine wastewater treatment plant.

The team has assigned, revised, and re-assigned square footages for each of these components. Based on early calculations from a series of conceptual building models, it appears that the OSC program is on the “ragged edge” of fulfilling the dual objectives of meeting tenant needs and achieving net zero energy.

But there’s a catch: From the perspective of programming alone, the expressed needs of the OSC tenants adds up to a 260,000 square foot building.

From the perspective of achieving net zero energy, early modeling reveals that the building can effectively generate all of its needed energy on site if the building is scaled down to approximately 200,000 square feet.

Something’s got to give.

Either the tenant and shared spaces will need to shrink, or the surface area for the building’s photovoltaic panels will need to grow, overflowing, in one scenario, onto the roofs of neighboring parking structures.

Earlier this week, the core project team expressed a preference to cap the building’s total square footage to approximately 200,000 square feet, shifting the burden of net-zero energy to the tenants, who will need to adapt and modify their workspace practices in order to fit within the building’s energy strategy.

Fortunately, this call for workspace evolution runs parallel to a larger cultural trend.

“We’re right in the throes of this massive cultural shift in the way people communicate,” notes Phil Beyl of GBD Architects, “And [there is] a much more willing audience to sit close to one another and do your job, as opposed to needing a ten-by-ten cube.”

Thus the workspace shuffle has begun. In order to bring the total square footage down to its net zero sweet spot, the design team is digging deeper into the workspace allocations to see where even greater efficiencies can emerge. This has greater economic advantages, as well, yielding savings on rent wherever square footage can be reduced.

The final piece to the puzzle, however, will not fall into place until the building has opened its doors. As is the case with all aspects of the Living Building Challenge, the true success of the OSC ultimately relies on the user performance, its daily energy consumption determining whether the building really can successfully stay “alive”.

“I think probably the most important thing that we need to do,” says Beyl, “is to make the tenants feel really comfortable that they understand what life in the building is going to be like, and to prime them for how they might consider shifting, changing, modifying their work culture to ultimately thrive in this building.”

A half-day workshop with the OSC tenants – which will focus on just that – is scheduled for May 20th.

(Thank you to Phil Beyl at GBD for his significant input on this topic, and to Lucas Posada for the diagram.)

Filed under: Design Progress, Project History