Architecture Magazine

Oregon Sustainability Center Team Seeks Feedback on Schematic Design

By Brianlibby

Oregon Sustainability Center final schematic design


The design team for the Oregon Sustainability Center, led by GBD Architects and SERA Architects with Gerding Edlen Development, has released schematic designs for the approximately $64 million, eight-story project. They are seeking public comment for the design, including an event this Wednesday (May 11) 6PM, at the AIA Center For Architecture. The final design is expected to be approved in August or September.

As highlighted in the OSC's executive summary, the project’s mission is "to create a world-class center of excellence in sustainability that celebrates and nurtures the values and strengths of Oregon’s leadership in climate change, land use planning, smart growth, green building, environmental stewardship, civic engagement and social justice." It will be home to a variety of non-profit, government, academic and business tenants who are working to promote sustainability. Public spaces on the first and second floors will also serve as exhibit space, to "tell the story of the region’s innovations in sustainable technologies, policies and practices. Lecture halls, classrooms and conference rooms on the second floor will support higher education, as well as networking for public, private and academic purposes." Lower levels will also include a visualization lab, which will "bring together researchers and community groups to solve regional issues in an experiential way."

Lobby of OSC as rendered in schematic design

Jill Sherman, project manager for Gerding Edlen, told Sustainable Business Oregon that comments collected will be considered and incorporated during the design and development process before construction begins on the building. "There's still quite a bit of design work to do before we're through," Sherman added.

The project is designed to meet strictures of the Living Building Challenge, although it will not be the first in Portland. That designation goes to the vastly less expensive June Key Delta Center in North Portland.

Besides finalizing the design, the OSC is still ironing out a number of agreements, such as co-ownership between the Oregon University System and the City of Portland, and added fundraising for the project from corporate sponsors and other  sources. Financing for the OSC will  come from tax-increment financing and bonds, new market tax credits, Energy Trust contributions, as well as the various parties' budgets.


Oregon Sustainability Center final schematic design

Given that the designers explicitly have asked for feedback, readers here are extra encouraged to write in with likes and dislikes about the project.

Personally, I like the look of these schematic designs vastly, vastly more than what earlier renderings showed. In the past, the Oregon Sustainability Center seemed as if it was destined to resemble a gigantic lipstick container with a fake leaf on top. The cringe-inducing aesthetics seemed like a threat to the entire endeavor, undermining all the innovative work done by a talented integrated design team with some of the best sustainable building expertiese and experience in the world.

Aesthetics, when extrapolated and considered only on their own, can sometimes seem superficial. But they're just not. We have to be inspired spiritually and emotionally by both our natural and physical environments. It's why beautiful regions like the Northwest with young cities like Seattle and Portland are so much more attractive to millions of Americans who have decided to leave rust-belt cities like Cleveland and Detroit. Similarly, if you build the greenest building in the world and it's inescapably ugly, people won't want to congregate there.

Oregon Sustainability Center final schematic design

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview one of the pioneers of the green building movement in America, Bob Berkebile of BNIM Architects in Kansas City, for an upcoming profile in Architecture Week magazine. Berkebile was a contributor to the formation of the US Green Building Council's LEED system that is commonplace today, and a leading thinker about design who regularly speaks to architects and builders all over the world. Berkebile, to my mild surprise, agreed that the importance of aesthetic beauty has in the past been too eschewed, as if the fundamental balance of form and function no longer mattered in the quest to end global warming. But that's changing.

"I think we can no longer accept either side of that equation," Berkebile said. We just have to define design and beauty more holistically than we did before. The starchitects have to accept doing beautiful buildings with high performance. And the people in the green building community have to realize if a building doesn’t touch your heart and soul, you’re not going to get the level of change we need."

"A lot of the early high performance buildings were ugly," Berkebile adds. "And so there was, for a  time, a reaction from great designers saying, 'See? Who wants that? We want a beautiful building.' I hold the belief that if a building is designed such that it does damage upstream or downstream, if it doesn’t generate its own energy and so forth, it’s not beautiful. The trick, I think, is how can we design in such a way that the first reaction someone has is to say, ‘beautiful.’ Then they discover that it’s a great place to be. They get all the data and discover it generates more energy and clean water than it needs. The transparency allows you to see more of the building’s operating systems than we do. It would be a little like the difference between being on a powerboat versus a sailboat. You see all the moving parts on a sailboat and you get a real sense of the relationship to the water and the wind. In a way I think that’s the kind of elegance we’re reaching for."

An earlier-stage design rendering of the OSC

The Oregon Sustainaibility Center now has a chance to more fully complete and live up to the promise of its innovative functional capacity. It's not only set to be one of the most energy and water-efficient buildings in the world, but its schematic design shows a much more compelling form. Gone is the impression of a rote office tower with stilts at the bottom and an oversized roof on top.

Now the renderings illustrate a conglomeration of offices and public spaces draped in glass and a living wall, each side different from the other in order to address different solar orientation and other aspects of climate and topography. It incoporates a streetcar moving through its base not with the sense of something removed to make way, but instead as a kind of nimble dancer that is perched and placed tightly yet elegantly. And one gets a stronger sense of a center to the building, particularly on the ground floor, that floods the building with natural light.

There may still be room for improvement. The curves have given way to some sharp angles, and the overall composition is still busy. And I remain disappointed that the OSC didn't select an existing building to renovate instead of favoring new constrution - somthing  like the Solomon Federal Courthouse or the US Customs House, both of which could have been had for cheap and are gorgeous historical works of architecture in need of saviors. After all, renovating existing buildings will always be more sustainable than starting from scratch. In that respect, even upon receiving the coveted Living Building designation, the OSC will not be as sustainable as it could have been. Would there have been perhaps fewer innovations to make technologically in that prescribed old-building shell? Maybe. Yet this project, after all, is supposed to be about innovation. Why not figure out how to re-imagine our existing building stock as net-zero? And besides, between historic buildings rigidly preserved according to how they were built, and old buildings that get torn down, there needs to be a happy medium wherein aged architecture is reconfigured as a hybrid of past and future.

Yet the OSC team has already shown a remarkable openness to feedback and an ability to improve, and for that kudos are due. Even if we get architecture more impressive in its performance than its look, the OSC has made impressive strides in more completely fulfilling the equation that Berkebile cites, one that remains, as ever in architecture, an indivisible relationship between how it works and how it touches us.

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