Courtesy Oregon Sustainability Center

The Oregon Sustainability Center seeks to become America’s first project to meet the Living Building Challenge

Leave it to a city both satirized and celebrated for its earnest quirkiness to buck the trend.

While governments from Washington to Athens hack their budgets, and Wall Street’s fervor for solar and other alternative power companies wanes amid bankruptcies and falling stocks, last week Portland’s city council affirmed its commitment to the $62 million Oregon Sustainability Center, a public-private partnership to construct what would be the world’s greenest office building.

If constructed next year as planned, the Center would be the nation’s first mixed-use office building to meet Living Building Challenge strictures, which are far more rigid than even the Platinum-level LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification offered by the U.S. Green Building Council. The building, situated downtown near Portland State University (one of its development partners along with the City of Portland and local private developer Gerding-Edlen), is designed to achieve net-zero levels of electricity and water usage.

But it’s also expensive: $62 million (once budgeted at some $90 million), with per-square-foot rental costs approximately 20 percent higher than market rate for downtown office space. Tenants will have to make a leap of faith that energy savings and the building’s prominence will be worth the added investment. And if they’re all public sector tenants, the building won’t bring any return on investment. In June, the Oregon legislature rejected paying its share of the building’s cost until private-sector tenants were signed to leases and Portland committed to paying for architecture and engineering services. But Portland mayor Sam Adams and the city’s green building community insist that the return on investment can’t fully be measured. Bringing together private-sector manufacturers, university researchers, and city planning offices, they argue, will lead to something greater than the sum of its occupants.

“There’s a premium to this building, but there was a premium for the first Model T,” Adams says. “Because we’re doing something that hadn’t been done before, this is an R&D prototype that will be replicable. In return, the architects, the engineers, the builders and others who will all be part of this—they’ll have expertise that no one else in the world has.”

Clad in ultra-efficient, triple-glazed glass and topped with a massive oversized roof festooned in solar panels, The Oregon Sustainability Center provides a glimpse of tomorrow’s office building. It’s a place where outdoor and indoor spaces become blurred, with plants growing on facades and amid cubicles. An underground tank will capture the 400,000 gallons of water needed annually. A geothermal well system will shoot warm water 200 feet down into the earth for cooling in the summer and warming in winter. More than any one technology, the project is designed for architectural plug-and-play. From heating-cooling systems to even the façade itself, the architects are betting not on any one magic-bullet energy saver but the flexibility to continually improve. “The best spaces are precisely general: they can change over time,” says Lisa Petterson of SERA Architects, one of two firms designing the OSC.

“We’re never going to be the biggest city, but I want us to be the scrappiest, most successful international city,” says Adams. “To do that you’ve got to invest in innovation.”

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