Tuesday, July 20
We spent one full day exploring urban revitalization and sustainability strategies in downtown Portland. This comprises the confluence of visionary planning, development, and design, and in the cases we looked at was very successful. Rehabilitating old buildings so that they can serve changing needs is a successful way to ensure that cities have the necessary adaptability to meet the needs of present and future occupants while preserving the character of the past.
A view of the Brewery Blocks in downtown Portland.
An area of downtown Portland that has been successfully redeveloped. It’s hard to imagine the character of the downtown area without these buildings.
One question we explored, which was teased out more as the week progressed, was the difference between green and sustainable. Green features are tools that we use in a building to make it more sustainable. Sustainability itself is a larger, more difficult question. The traditional definition of sustainability is that we can meet the needs of the present while ensuring the ability to meet the needs of the future. But what does that really mean? Is it a building that uses water, energy and resources more efficiently? Is it a building that creates its own energy, provides its own water, and converts its own waste into more usable inputs? What about a building that creates more energy than it needs, or begins to question the ecosystem services that have been lost in its creation, and begins to restore those as well?
A common green building theme of many projects was the collection of rainwater, and the use of that rainwater to flush toilets. Given the precious nature of water, and the energy required to collect, treat, and move it, it doesn’t make sense to use pure potable water to flush our toilets. Further, it makes little sense to then push our building’s runoff and wastewater out into the larger system.
Another more sophisticated green building strategy is to seriously consider the heating, cooling, and fresh air requirements of our buildings. Using heat recovery ventilators to capture the energy in the exhaust air, and to precool or preheat incoming fresh air was a common theme. In this process, the heating and cooling systems were separated from the air delivery systems. Many buildings had “chilled beam” radiant cooling panels mounted on the ceiling, which then allowed the cooled air to fall to the floor while the displaced hot air moved up to be cooled in turn. Heat was delivered in a few ways, one was through floor based radiant systems, either as radiators or radiant floor systems. Another option was low velocity raised floor plenums. This also allowed occupants some measure of control over their workstation’s temperature.
One thing that I was looking for was in which ways can some of the strategies that are being used for large buildings be employed in residential architecture. I still believe that the simplest effective strategy is the best. Most houses don’t provide fresh air through mechanical systems, but as our houses become tighter this is a consideration. Also worth considering is the best way to provide comfort to the occupants of a house, while at the same time using as little source energy as possible.
Economic and Societal discussion
AIA Portland Interior
One of the more intriguing events of the day was a discussion of the economics of sustainability. Our panel discussed many things, one of which was the current under-utilization of our assets. Car sharing companies are one way to try to correct this. Apparently our cars are used an average of an hour a day. For many people, cars are their largest asset, and command a significant chunk of their income for payments, for insurance and maintenance, and for fuel and other transportation costs such as parking and tolls. Cars represent, and often are, such indispensable items that we will pay significantly for them even though by many measures they are under-utilized. Additionally, typical suburbs have 9 parking spaces for each car. Think about the cost implications, the land use implications, not to mention the roads and other infrastructure requirements, and the general waste that each car represents becomes staggering. Thoughts like this make me think that the electric car is not going to solve the problem, and we might not be asking the right questions.
Exterior of the Portland AIA building
The AIA Portland building is a cool little building, with many green features. One of the things I liked the most about it is that is reuses an existing but not so relevant old building. The interior space was simply finished, and provides for maximum flexibility. The building was designed to treat all its own rainwater and reuse it to flush toilets (this was a very common theme in Portland; I guess the rumors about Portland rain are true).
How can we convert our populace from a nation of consumers to a nation of stewards, of citizens? What role can concepts like eco-districts, or eco-blocks play? We saw buildings that process greywater, blackwater, and storm runoff on site, and generate electricity through turbines, solar panels, or even biogas. Many use green roofs to minimize the heat island effect, to have a small garden, and to reintroduce habitat. One roof we saw was covered in bees. Often these systems level strategies are difficult to employ at the scale of one building, but there should be a way to bring other buildings into the mix and pool resources. Office buildings and residential buildings often have inverse occupancy times, surely there is a way to leverage that temporal flux.
How can we put a value on what are typically considered economic externalities? In order to continue to thrive, our cities and our buildings are going to have to include the costs, and hopefully begin to replenish ecosystem services. Can we begin to place real value and / or costs on things like: Rainfall, Sewage, Pollination, Clean Air and Water, Animal Corridors and Habitat? These are the things that we have either taken for granted, subsidized, or not even considered, and these are the things that will define whether we can continue to have rich and meaningful lives.
One of the systems I think about in Berkeley is storm drainage. All of our impervious surfaces, coupled with the minimization of the natural creeks and watersheds along with the city requirement that all rainfall be diverted to the streets has created a big problem when we have rains. It is a problem for the city’s storm drains to handle this, it is a problem for the bay to accommodate all that runoff, especially with all the contaminants. What if we could do something simple, like have our street parking spaces incorporate permeable paving? Integration and consideration of larger systems should be a big part of our planning and zoning, as well as our public works decisions.
One of the best pieces of advice at this panel discussion was that we all need the courage to act on our analysis. If we think the system isn’t working yet we do nothing to alter it then we haven’t acted with courage.
A 'naturalistic' park in the middle of the Pearl
Tanner Park is an urban park. The metaphor of the park is that it shows, in one block, a cross section of the vegetation that existed in the area before intensive human settlement. The park is nicely designed, with a more traditional lawn and park at the uphill side through the native plants then to a wetland, culminating in a water feature that doubles as a containment pond. The site collects and processes its own rainwater by circulating it through the vegetation on site. The sunken nature of the park allows a brief respite from the urban noise and visual chaos. Apparently some of the osprey have taken to patrolling the pond on the off chance that someone has tried to introduce goldfish / carp to the pond.
Still room for humans to gather
Revitalization of historic buildings
The University of Oregon committed to downtown Portland by converting a few historic but dilapidated buildings into a fine example of rehabilitation.
Entry lobby at the University of Oregon's downtown Portland building
Many people have heard of the 2030 building challenge, with the goal of having our buildings be fossil fuel neutral in 20 years. Another goal is the Living Building Challenge, which extends this concept not only to energy, but to water and materials. The buildings in this framework collect all their own water, even drinking water, and process waste on site. Materials are to be sourced locally, within a certain radius. There is even a provision for bridging the current gaps in feasibility so that perfection doesn’t become the enemy of the good.
A joint between two of the buildings
One question that many architects are now asking is how do our buildings interact with the larger systems in the region, including water, energy, transportation, and human. Can we tell, just by looking, what city our buildings are in? And how can we build in adaptability and flexibility with respect to these systems over time. We often make an attempt to respond to our regional climate, but this is guaranteed to change over time. The typical office building strategy is to neutralize the existing factors and to make a building that ‘fights’ its climate. A glass box with shaded windows and a beefy air conditioning and heating system is not easy on resources and is not a pleasant place to be. The varied climates that we all live in have tremendous value, and if we can design our buildings to work with and leverage the climate then perhaps we can begin to repair some of the disconnection that our buildings have from the natural world. That disconnection filters through society. I’m always surprised when I return to Florida to visit my family that everyone has the air conditioning set to 65 degrees. I always pack my summer clothes but then wind up needing a sweater.
Truss support detail
An interesting question to ask ourselves is whether, or even how much, the environmental degradation we’ve all witnessed over at least the past 50 years has resulted in a loss of meaning, or a lack of care. Does the conversion of farms and wilderness to undifferentiated suburbs create places that we just don’t care about? If so, what effect does that have on us as members of society, as stewards of the land, and as parents of children. The concept of civic ecology is the idea that we are all responsible for the care of not only the structures we inhabit, but for the spaces between and for the larger decisions that our communities make. We are all responsible for the society that we’ve created, and for how our values are handed down to our children. The concept of cultural capital is that value exists in a healthy and vibrant community, and that this value is not dependent on material wealth. We discussed 5 principles that a vibrant community possesses:
Consideration of whole systems
Focus on Place
A New Social Contract
Dynamic, responsive to Constant Change
It is becoming clear that, as important as specialization is, seeking the inputs of others is also important. What can biologists teach us about buildings? How can we get city bureaucrats to become part of the solution? How can we refine the questions that we are asking?
Truss detail, with north facing clerestory
The architecture studios are on the top floor, under these trusses. Not a bad studio space.
An example of how we are not always asking the right question is looking at how we design our mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The typical solution is to ‘force’ air at the desired temperature through ducts. More advanced systems separate out the systems so that each can do its job better. Placing radiant panels in the ceiling where they can function as sound panels and also carry cool water allows the dynamics of convection and radiation to work effectively. Conversely, providing heat low in a room allows the heat to effectively mix through all the air. Even more savvy systems can carry undesired heat from one part of a building to a cool part of the building that needs it, in a way thinking of the entire building as having its distinct microclimates and planning for that.
We ended the formal day by touring the Mercy Corps building. A beautiful new building was added to a beautiful old building. The old building was preserved as a historic piece of architecture, and the architects did a great job blending the new with the old. Each stands separately, yet they feel like parts of the whole. Mercy Corps is an incredible organization, worth exploring further.
Interior volume of Mercy Corps building