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.