Oregon Sustainability Center

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Achieving Water Independence


Sketch of rainwater’s course through the OSC. Courtesy GBD.

“A Living Building is water independent.”

So says the Living Building Challenge (LBC), and so will be the Oregon Sustainability Center, employing water conservation measures that will complement a comprehensive rainwater collection system and an on-site sanitary wastewater treatment system, the Living Machine.

As with energy, water in the built environment is an ecological issue that demands significant attention from all new design. The LBC explains:

“Scarcity of clean potable water is quickly becoming a serious issue in many countries around the world. Most regions of the United States and Canada have avoided the majority of these limitations and problems to-date due to the presence of abundant fresh water, but highly unsustainable water use patterns and the continued draw-down of major aquifers portent significant problems ahead…

“The Living Building Challenge envisions a future whereby all buildings are designed to harvest sufficient water to meet the needs of occupants, while respecting the natural hydrology of the site, the water needs of neighbors and the ecosystem it inhabits. Indeed, water can be used and purified and then used again.”

Green Wall-source inhabitat-com

Example of a green wall, one potential stop for storm water on its path through a living building. Courtesy inhabitat.com.

With this in mind, the LBC has defined the following prerequisites for a Living Building’s water strategy:

  • Prerequisite 10 – Net Zero Water 100% of occupants’ water use must come from captured precipitation or closed loop water systems that account for downstream ecosystem impacts and that are appropriately purified without the use of chemicals.
  • Prerequisite 11 – Sustainable Water Discharge 100% of storm water and building water discharge must be managed on-site and integrated into a comprehensive system to feed the project’s demands.

Mt-Tabor-source-Kevin Robert Perry

Storm water flowing into a bioswale near Mt. Tabor (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy Kevin Robert Perry.

Given the rainy climate of the Pacific Northwest, water issues are of particular interest around here. According to the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, it rains an average of 37 inches in Portland per year. This yields roughly 10 billion gallons of storm water runoff, the volume and speed of which leads to flooding, erosion, natural habitat destruction, and, potentially, combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Such an abundance of rain feeds the regional misconception that water conservation issues are of a lesser concern, yet as the LBC points out, a lack of regard for water use today, coupled with the mistreatment of the water that does get used, is foreshadowing a significant environmental crisis just around the bend.

This challenge has driven the OSC team to commit to strategies to achieve net zero water that will in fact move the project much further, toward a goal of hydro equity, giving back to its local ecosystem clean water that it does not need.


The Oregon Road Map for Achieving Water Independence in Buildings (click to enlarge). This study was prepared by a team from Gerding Edlen Development, Central City Concern, SERA, and Interface Engineering, with funding by the Bullitt Foundation, Cascadia GBC, Enterprise Community Partners, and Portland Development Commission. You can find the complete report here.

Similar to the building’s strategy for net zero energy, the design team added water conservation measures first, incorporating into the basis of design the lowest flow fixtures available on the market today, most of which will be equipped with optical sensors.

To achieve net zero water, the building will collect rainwater for potable uses from the rooftops. As described in earlier posts, a 6,200 square foot bifacial photovoltaic (PV) array on the 4th floor of the building, and a 3,000 square foot bifacial PV array on the 3rd floor, will create a translucent canopy covering the OSC’s ground floor plaza. Organically shaped PV arrays will also top the building, once on the 10th floor, and a second time on the very top, adding another 18,400 square feet of impermeable surface.


Bird’s eye view of the OSC solar canopies (click to enlarge).

Collectively, the PV panels (along with other impermeable surfaces throughout the site) will double as rainwater collectors, sending the water into a 200,000-gallon epoxy lined waterproof concrete storage tank, which will be fitted with circulation pumps to circulate water within the tank, preventing stagnation. The rainwater will be treated via filters and a chlorine injection system before being pumped and/or circulated into a 500-gallon/day tank. A duplex pump system will draw from this day tank and deliver the treated rainwater for potable uses throughout the building.

South Waterfront-source Nevue Ngan Associates

Swales as part of the stormwater management plan for Portland’s South Waterfront. Photo courtesy Nevue Ngan Assoc.

On the ground level, porous pavement, vegetated planters, and bioswales will also contribute to the management of the storm water that is not captured by any of the rooftops. Together these features filter and slow the flow of rainwater as it makes it way back into the ground.

To address Prerequisite 11, Sustainable Water Discharge, the OSC design will incorporate an on-site sanitary sewer system that is known as a Living Machine, chosen both for its low energy use and derivation from biophilic design. Living machines mimic the natural cleansing processes of wetlands, employing plants, bacteria, algae and other organisms to do the hard work of filtering black water. The OSC’s system will include an initial screening and collection of solid materials from black water sources (ie. toilets) for use as compost and fertilizer for onsite landscaping. The treated effluent from the living machine will be reused for flushing toilets and urinals and at hose bibs.

Washington Mutual Green Roof -source Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

Green roof on a Washington Mutual building. Photo Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg.

All excess storm water and treated wastewater that is not used internally will be either infiltrated back into the soil on site, where it will replenish the groundwater supply, or it will be used to irrigate gardens and green roofs throughout the building. Ideally, the excess storm water will also be funneled back to the Montgomery Green Street for irrigation there, as well.

While the OSC itself will do the lion’s share of the work to achieve net zero water, through its extensive catchment and filtration systems, ultimate success still relies on the active participation of the tenants in the building. Metering the tenants’ use of water will be imperative, and the team is looking into metering systems for each office and retail space, to track usage on a daily, or even hourly, basis. Water bills will vary according to each tenants’ level of consumption.

But will that be enough? What if, as was discussed during one recent steering committee meeting, tenants had to swipe a card before using a toilet or urinal, so that every last drop of water consumed was tracked and accounted for?

Sounds crazy to some, but for others such a step would be prescient. Not long from now, will we have any other choice?

(Thank you Kevin Robert Perry of Nevue Ngan Associates for his help with gathering images.)


Filed under: Design Progress, Project History

The Path to Net Zero Energy


Ask Omid Nabipoor of Interface Engineering about energy strategies for a net zero building, and he’s likely to tell you first about a towel.

“Imagine you have a wet towel,” he’ll say, as he did last week during a meeting with OSC tenants, “and you are wringing it out, getting every last drop of water out of this towel.”

For emphasis, he gestures with his hands, twisting an invisible towel, and we imagine a stream of water – all the inefficiencies of a standard office building – spilling onto the floor.


(click on image to enlarge)

Sounds easy enough. Eliminate waste, first. Gone is the soggy (conventional office building) towel. Make note of the inefficiencies that comprise the puddle on the floor, and cut them from the building’s design.

Next, design the highest performing building envelope possible, relying on passive energy systems primarily, and the most highly efficient active energy systems where necessary, and hey presto…a well wrung-out towel becomes a net zero building?

Not quite, but it’s a good place to start.

With regard to the Living Building Challenge, the Oregon Sustainability Center is considered an energy-driven building, much of its design tracing back to the LBC’s Prerequisite Number Four, Net-Zero Energy, which requires, “One hundred percent of the building’s energy needs supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis.”

The intent behind this prerequisite speaks to the most pressing environmental issues of today. As the LBC explains:

“The majority of energy generated today is from unsustainable sources including coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy. Large-scale hydro, while inherently cleaner, brings widespread damaging ecosystem impact. The effects of these energy sources on regional and planetary health is becoming more and more evident, with climate change being the most worrisome of major global trends due to human activity. The intent of this prerequisite is to signal a new age of design, whereby all buildings rely solely on renewable forms of energy and operate year in and year out in a pollution-free manner. Since renewable energy sources are inherently more expensive than energy efficiency measures, efficiency as a first step is assumed.”

Assuming efficiency as the first step…back to Omid Nabipoor and his wrung-out towel. Just how efficient is the OSC striving to be?

According to the 2003 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey on energy use in office buildings, published by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, the average facility in the United States has an EUI (energy utilization intensity) of approximately 92 kBTU/square foot/year.


(click on image to enlarge)

With Oregon’s more stringent energy code and the climate of the Pacific Northwest, the EUI average around here drops closer to 74. The Terry Thomas in Seattle, ranked last year as one of the Top Ten Green Projects by the AIA, has an EUI of 37. The Oregon Sustainability Center, by comparison, has set an EUI goal of 18-20.


(click on image to enlarge)

In order to achieve this unprecedented level of efficiency, the OSC will incorporate the following load reduction and mechanical strategies:

  • Improved building envelope (overall wall U value of .04)
  • A heat recovery ventilator with heating / cooling coils, supply / exhaust fans and air filtration
  • A geothermal, high efficiency water-to-water heat pump to provide heating to radiant floors and a heat recovery ventilator
  • Plate heat exchangers
  • An injection well with regenerative turbine / pump and 3R control valve
  • Radiant heating and cooling integrated into a topping slab on the structure
  • Low velocity underfloor air distribution for ventilation throughout
  • Night ventilation of the building’s thermal mass
  • Carbon dioxide sensors throughout the building
  • 35% vision glass that will be triple glazed with an overall glazing to be tuned to respond to each elevation.  For example, the south side will have a higher shading coefficient and the north side will have a higher U value.
  • Exterior shading devices with integrated photovoltaic panels to generate electricity while reducing heat load on building.  Interior light shelves will help bounce daylight deeper into the interior spaces.
  • Single gender bathrooms on alternate floors, which will make the floor plate more efficient.
  • A higher floor-to-floor height, allowing more light to penetrate the building interior
  • Roofs shaded with photovoltaics to minimize heat gain
  • Daylight controls with continuous dimming for a minimum of two zones (0-15’ from the window and 15’-25’ from the window)
  • Highly efficient fixture optics that allow for individual control of fixtures
  • Occupancy sensors for lighting throughout
  • Individual tenant control of light levels
  • LED lighting for corridors and lobby areas
  • Dual day / night lighting in corridors and egress stairs with occupancy sensors and time clock control

With each of these features and strategies plugged into the OSC’s energy model, the building achieves an EUI of around 23 kBTUH/sf. Bringing the EUI down to its final targeted range requires the engagement of the least predictable component in the building: the tenants themselves.


(click on image to enlarge)

The design team has added to the OSC energy model the following occupant enhancements, changes to typical office usage that are dependent on the building users, and that, if successful, will bring the building’s EUI down to even less than their original forecast, to 17.7 rather than the targeted 18-20.

Occupant enhancement strategies include:

  • Plug loads that are occupancy sensor controlled
  • Cleaning scheduled during unoccupied daylight hours, such as early morning or late afternoon, when there are fewer people in the building but natural light available
  • Hot water use reduced to little or none
  • Computer use limited to 80% laptops with a secondary screen / 20% desktop
  • Printer use reduced by 50%
  • Phantom loads completely removed
  • Personal energy budgets monitored daily

Tenants will be able to actively draw comparisons between different plug loads (from task lighting, space heaters, small appliances) as well as compare their energy usage power metering, with software that provides power quality information and feedback on actual power usage compared to others in the building.

At the individual scale, feedback will be possible with either a plug strip with integral power metering or a plug-in meter for workstations in open areas.

The team is still looking into additional enhancements such as thin client technology and a DC (direct current) loop, which would allow the energy generated by the photovoltaic panels (described below) to go directly to an end use without changing its current type (thereby eliminating the inefficiencies that come with conversion from DC to AC power).


After all energy conservation measures have been included, the nearly final push for the building’s net zero strategy will be the incorporation of photovoltaics (PVs). For the building’s energy model, PVs were analyzed using the most efficient panel on the market today – the Sanyo HIT 205. Bifacial PVs are also being considered, for the soaring canopy panels described in our previous discussion of the ground floor design.

The OSC rooftop, 10th floor canopy, sunshades, and plaza canopies contribute more than 85% of the energy needs of the building, while building integrated photovoltaics at the south facing spandrels account for the rest.  Altogether, the building has approximately 54,000 square feet of PV.

Greatest efficiencies, passive and active energy sources…so what, then, is the final-final push for net zero energy?

As one of only two governing principles for the Living Building Challenge, the priority is clear: Designation of a Living Buildings is “based on actual, rather than modeled or anticipated, performance. Therefore, buildings must be operational for at least twelve consecutive months prior to evaluation.”

As usual, the final responsibility for the success of a Living Building floats back to the people. We won’t know whether the OSC will reach its 17.7 EUI, or its net zero energy strategy, for a couple of years. Planned efficiencies and sourcing from renewables takes us halfway there. The rest is up to every individual who commits to working in the building each day. At the risk of becoming a broken record, we’ll say it one more time: People are (still) the life in a living building.

Filed under: Design Progress, 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

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

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