Conservation economy

An historic warehouse is renovated into a living example of how green-minded companies can flourish within a sustainable environment

June 01, 2002 |

The $12.5 million renovation of an historic warehouse into a mixed-use office and retail building that opened last September in Portland, Ore., is reflective of the renewed emphasis in the U.S. toward energy and resource conservation.

Once one of a dwindling number of rundown buildings in the city's warehouse district, the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center now stands as a shining example of sustainable design as applied to existing and historic buildings. The project also is a showcase for how commerce can be conducted in consort with sustainable business practices.

As the economy slowed during the past year, businesses switched from new construction to renovation and reconstruction to conserve capital, says Daryl Delano, Reed Business Information economist (See Market Data, page 25). At the same time, the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program introduced a pilot program that sets guidelines for documenting sustainable design practices for existing buildings.

Though rare until recently, existing buildings are being renovated and reconstructed into sustainable structures across the U.S., from Portland and Seattle to Chicago and Baltimore. And cities too are forming policies supportive of sustainable design, with Portland, Seattle, Austin, Texas, and Chicago among them.

"Green building is not only achievable and desirable, it is the standard for the future of development in the Portland," says Dan Saltzman, the Portland City Commissioner who oversees the city's sustainable development agency. In keeping with this trend, this fall R.S. Means, Kingston, Mass., will publish "Green Building: Project Planning and Cost Estimating."

On an international scale, Europe, with its scarce natural resources and available land is well ahead of the U.S. in employing sustainable design. In an attempt to catch up and play a role in the establishment of global sustainable design guidelines, the U.S. is again joining its European counterparts and other countries around the world for an international summit on sustainability — the Green Building Challenge — in Berlin next month. During the conference, buildings from each participating nation will be evaluated based on their sustainable design.

Center takes home the gold

Back in Portland, the 106 year-old Vollum Center was a gold mine from the start for its owner and redeveloper, Ecotrust, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to building a conservation economy along North America's rain forest coast, from Alaska to northern California. Formerly a two-story warehouse that was named for a founding Ecotrust board member who financed the 1998 purchase of the site, in January the center became the first building in the western U.S. to receive a LEED gold rating.

Depending on a the number of points obtained during project review, buildings submitted for LEED certification may receive no certification or one of four ratings: general certification, silver, gold or platinum.

The center's 17 retail, office and agency tenants, all are doing well, according to Ecotrust, whose offices are in the building. Other tenants include Patagonia, an outdoor retailer known for its environmental ethic; the Certified Forest Products Council, a trade association promoting sustainably harvested wood; the nonprofit Wild Salmon Center; Shorebank Pacific, the nation's first environmental bank; World Cup Coffee, a maker of state-grown coffees and teas; and Hot Lips, a pizzeria that uses its ovens to heat its own water supply.

"The green restoration is part of a larger vision of bringing people together to encourage a conservation economy, one that is respectful of communities and the natural world," said Spencer Beebe, Ecotrust founder and president, after the center's September opening.

"Our goal is to create a marketplace for the natural, restorative [environment] so that people can come and see what the conservation economy might look like, primarily through the tenants, but also through the building itself," adds Bettina von Hagen, Ecotrust's project manager for the redevelopment. "All the tenants in the building speak through that community of goods and services that enhance the environment and community as a whole."

In accordance with its goal, Ecotrust chose to renovate the 70,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, built in 1895. The building is located in the Pearl District north of downtown Portland, which is being redeveloped, says von Hagen.

Because many of the warehouses have been demolished in recent years, Jeff Stuhr, principal in charge of the project for local designer Holst Architecture, says there was a desire by the building team, which included the Portland office of contractor Walsh Construction Co., Chicago, to preserve the historic building.

The addition to the building team of environmental design consultant Green Building Services, Portland, Ore., to manage the LEED certification process came as the project was nearing completion. This required the team to backtrack through records and translate them into LEED documentation, a process that was sometimes daunting, Stuhr recalls.

At the time the project was being renovated in 2000 and 2001, however, the LEED certification program was in its infancy, says Stuhr. "We were wrapping up the project when LEED was coming into its own as an industry standard. It was challenging, particularly when you're trying to do it at the end of construction. The contractor is busy and the bulk of the architect's fee already has been passed through," he notes. "But we were able to make it work because it was understood from the beginning that the project was going to use sustainable design practices."

Reused and renewed

During renovation, though many sustainable techniques were used in water and energy conservation, and materials recycling, the reuse of the existing structure was perhaps the project's single biggest sustainable feature. "One of the most important decisions we made was to renovate an existing warehouse instead of building on a green field," says von Hagen, citing the building's location adjacent to rail transportation and bicycle paths as additional benefits.


A large skylit atrium and welcoming office lobbies were designed to invite public participation in the conservation economy. Brick and lumber were reused on the project.  Photocell sensors continuously adjust the brightness of fluorescent lamps in correspondence to the amount of daylight.

The brick and timber building, however, was not in good condition. "It was a brittle old building that had settled in a lot of areas. It had dry rot and pigeons had been living in it," says Stuhr, adding that numerous parties had looked at it previously and concluded that it wasn't economically feasible to renovate.

A great deal of structural and seismic strengthening was performed on the building, with KPFF Consulting Engineers, Portland, as the designer. The condition of the building and the fact that its design called for the interior to be exposed, made the seismic upgrade and structural renovation the most challenging, as well as some of the most expensive ($2 million), parts of the project, says Carrington Barrs, Walsh's superintendent on the project.

Still, Ecotrust remained insistent on preserving the building. "They posed a lot of challenges for the design team," says Stuhr, referring to the many national sustainable experts from which Ecotrust sought advice. "The project went in a lot of different directions and we had a budget and a schedule to meet."

Managing Holst's first sustainable project, Stuhr says, was "an education right off the bat. The good thing though is that this region has a well-established environmental outlook. There was a good community dialogue going on that enabled us to talk with others who had been following sustainable design for years."

Green and eco-friendly

Holst concentrated on four areas of green design: social equity, water, light and air. To promote public participation, a large atrium and other public spaces were designed into the renovation of the structure. A 10,000-sq.-ft. third floor addition to the center, which contains a 3,000-sq.-ft. roof terrace with an open-air deck and fireplace, and a 7,000-sq.-ft. eco roof, was built with salvaged timber, mostly taken from the demolition of an annex. Ecotrust conducts weekly tours of the center and more than 120 events have been booked at the building since it opened.

To protect the salmon-filled Willamette River, a system was devised to reduce stormwater runoff. The system is comprised of the eco roof, which can be seen by visitors to the third-floor terrace, and bioswales, which resemble drainage ditches, but contain native, drought-resistant plants that filter runoff from the building and parking lot before returning it to the earth. "Stormwater runoff is endangering the river and the salmon in it," says von Hagen.

Portland's aged sewer system combines stormwater runoff with the sewer. During heavy storms, the runoff diverts into the river, says Stuhr. The Vollum Center's stormwater management system reclaims 95 percent of the runoff, says Ralph DiNola, Green Building Services' senior design consultant for the project.

The eco roof, which contains groundcover and native, drought-resistant plants, offers many benefits, according to Stuhr. It reduces heat-island effects, slows down runoff, and acts as a carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.


The center’s structural makeup limited the amount of weight that the 7,000-sq.-ft. eco roof could apply to the roof structure. A German-made system was installed that used only 2 inches of soil instead of the more typical 5 inches.

A city record 98 percent of construction debris from the project was recycled by the construction team. "We set out with a goal to recycle 75 percent of the debris to get the two LEED points available. But we wanted to see how high the bar could be raised," says Barrs, adding that the construction team was "blown away" at the end result of its recycling effort.

Debris was source-separated onsite into seven dumpsters. In all, only nine-and-a-half dumpsters were hauled away during the nearly two-year project. DiNola credits Barrs for his championing of the recycling effort by "dumpster diving" at lunchtime to further separate incorrectly sorted material.

Because the warehouse's window apertures were small, the team took license with the historic building by adding new apertures to its west side. One large atrium skylight and 12 smaller skylights above the second floor work spaces were installed.

"The general lighting concept for the building was to have low lighting levels, a minimum number of fixtures and to have the lighting be responsive to the daylighting," says Robert Dupuy, lighting design team leader for Interface Engineering, Milwaukie, Ore., the project's M/E/P engineer.

Photocell sensors save energy

In the skylit atrium and outside the building, photocell sensors adjust the brightness of fluorescent lamps in correspondence to the amount of daylight. The sensors in the atrium continually adjust the level of electric light in response to the amount of daylight. Outside, the photocells are timed to go on and off. In the building corridors, two compact fluorescent T8 lamps in each fixture are controlled by occupancy sensors and automatically respond to the presence of people. When no one is in the area, one of the lamps is switched off automatically.

Lighting levels in the tenant spaces are 30 foot candles instead of the typical 50 foot candles for an office. Upper floor offices are equipped with direct and indirect fluorescent luminaires.

The air component of Holst's dictate dealt primarily with low-toxic and recycled interior materials. The team used low-VOC and recycled paint, installed wheatboard cabinets, used recycled carpet, and flooring made from recycled tires. FSC-certified sustainably harvested wood was used throughout, on the outdoor terrace, in construction plywood and in new windows and office furniture.

A 30 percent energy savings was achieved through the use of energy-efficient operable windows, fixtures and a heating ventilation and air conditioning system, according to Green Building Services. Minimizing the mechanical cooling system also saved the project $25,000 to $30,000 in first costs, says Andy Frichtel, project manager for Interface Engineering. "We saved money and energy because the system isn't oversized and runs more efficiently," Fichtel says.

"We're thrilled with the building," says von Hagen. "Its performance and people's interaction with it have far exceeded expectations."

Construction Costs

General conditions $493,000
Site work 902,000
Concrete $268,000
Masonry $661,000
Metals 1,048,000
Wood/plastics 968,000
Thermal/moisture protection 235,000
Door and windows 387,000
Finishes 428,000
Specialties 64,000
Furnishings 3,000
Conveying systems 86,000
Mechanical 669,000
Electrical 454,000
Site purchase 2,500,000
Tenant improvements 1,373,000
Miscellaneous costs 2,261,000
TOTAL $12,500,000

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