Public-Private Venture to Make City an ‘Icon of Sustainability’

by Michael Burnham

Westward pioneers halted their wagons in Portland, OR 150 years ago, but today’s politicians and planners aim to make recession- battered Portland the starting point for green-economy trailblazers. Mayor Sam Adams and General Electric Co. executives are forging a first-of-its-kind partnership that will include retrofitting drafty buildings with energy-saving technologies and helping local startups sell their clean-technology products abroad.

Triple-Net-Zero: Raising the Bar for Sustainability

GE, the global industrial conglomerate, will also help the “Rose City” bring to life five “EcoDistrict” pilot projects — enclaves that would manage their own energy, water, waste and other systems — as well as build, perhaps, the world’s greenest office building.

The Oregon Sustainability Center, slated for construction at the edge of Portland State University’s downtown campus, will generate all of its electricity, consume only the rain that falls upon it, and process all of its wastewater. The “triple-net-zero” building will have offices for businesses with an eye on the triple bottom line — economic, social and environmental sustainability — as well as space for municipal urban planners, nonprofit environmental groups, and university administrators, faculty and students.

Portland-based SERA Architects Inc. and GBD Architects will begin final design work on the Oregon Sustainability Center later this summer. The initial artist’s rendering, envisions a structure with solar panels on its facade, roof and awnings. The panels would generate almost a megawatt.

“We aspire to this driving Portland as an icon of sustainability,” said Lisa Abuaf, a senior project manager with the Portland Development Commission, the city’s urban renewal agency. “At the same time, we want it to be something replicable, so that the knowledge base created by this building is exportable.”

Model for Ecomagination

GE plans to use Portland as a model for sustainable development deals with other U.S. cities — places the company sees as growing markets for plug-in electric vehicle stations, building energy-monitoring systems and other “ecomagination” products, explained Kevin Decker, who coordinates GE’s public-private partnerships.

“As urbanization and energy-efficiency ramp-ups continue, these are the types of pilot projects other cities will replicate,” added Decker, whose company will announce new municipal partners this fall. “The better we can advise first-movers, the better we’ll be poised for growth.”

A Streetcar Runs Through It

The center’s collaborators, which include the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, aim to build and operate the world’s first mid-rise office building that meets the ambitious “Living Building Challenge.” The performance standard — which is more ecologically rigorous than the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating — considers a project’s actual, rather than anticipated, performance.

Living buildings must be occupied for 12 consecutive months prior to certification and avoid asbestos, formaldehyde and a dozen other materials and chemicals on a “red list.” Such projects must also be built on previously developed land, limit construction waste, encourage car-free living, and promote more esoteric concepts such as social equity and architectural beauty.

Five buildings, ranging from an energy laboratory in Hawaii to a park visitor center in California, are occupied and seeking certification, said Eden Brukman, a vice president with the Portland-based International Living Building Institute, which administers the performance standard. Approximately 70 more projects are in the development stage.

“We are asking project teams to imagine a building, site or infrastructure project that is informed by its ecoregion’s characteristics,” Brukman said, “and that generates all of its own energy with renewable resources, captures and treats all of its water and operates efficiently for maximum beauty.”

The feasibility study envisions a 10- to 15-story building with 60,300 square feet of photovoltaic panels spread across its exterior. The rooftop will capture rainwater for use in sinks and showers, and the resultant gray water will be treated naturally on-site and reused in toilets, mechanical systems and planted ecoroofs.

Excess water, if available, could be treated once more and used to replenish the aquifer and irrigate roadside bioswales that filter oily runoff, explained Lisa Petterson, an architect with SERA.

A streetcar will pass diagonally under the building.

Big Green Stake in the Ground

Lew Bowers, central city division manager for the Portland Development Commission, envisions the Living Building Challenge as the next iteration of LEED. Indeed, the regional Cascadia chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council developed the challenge four years ago as a way to make any type of project environmentally “regenerative,” as elegant and efficient as a rose.

“We believe this building will be a big, green stake in the ground for the next generation,” boasted Bowers, whose local partners will draw upon GE expertise in energy- and water-management technologies.

The center will cost about $75 million to build — about 15 to 20 percent more than the capital cost of a conventionally designed office building of the same size. Portland-based Gerding Edlen Development Co. aims to break ground early next year and open the building in mid-2012.

The structure will have windows that open and close and few interior walls to enable sunlight and air to pass through and reduce the need for artificial lighting and cooling. Solar panels will generate nearly a megawatt of electricity, architects estimate, and a basement cistern will store up to 200,000 gallons of rainwater.

The building’s passive design will help it save about 63 percent of the energy consumed by a conventionally designed office building, Petterson noted. Additional savings needed for the project to achieve net-zero energy consumption must come from behavioral changes — such as having cleaning crews come during daylight hours, persuading occupants to take the stairs and adjusting the temperature set points seasonally.

Project partners are mulling ways to make tenants obligated to each other through leases.

“There will be energy budgets that people have in the building, because there is not an infinite amount of energy,” Bowers said.

Owner-occupants will include the city planning bureau and the Oregon University System, which represents the state’s seven public universities. The tenants will have plenty of incentive to make their “living laboratory” operate as it is designed to, Bowers wagered. After all, they want others to follow in their tiny ecological footsteps.

“The goal is to be able to have a building that wouldn’t require any mission-driven tenants,” Bowers said. “Obviously, to get to Peoria, you have to do that.”

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Bowers and other city officials contend that their pioneering project will bolster the local economy.

The center must get its heavy or high-density materials from within 500 kilometers (approximately 311 miles) in order to meet the Living Building Challenge. Lighter building materials, with the exception of the solar panels, must come from within 2,000 kilometers (approximately 1,243 miles).

The sourcing rules will limit transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions as well as generate business for local manufacturers of building products, city officials contend. And if living buildings begin to sprout elsewhere in Portland or the world, local architects, developers and energy-efficiency consultants can offer their experience.

The center will house about 700 workers, but it’s not yet clear how many indirect jobs and dollars it would generate. That will depend largely upon the building’s corporate tenants, explained PDC’s Bowers, who added that no companies had committed as of late June.

Portland Mayor Adams is courting GE as a tenant or partner that would test its green-building technologies on-site. Adams said he plans to make a similar pitch to Intel Corp., SolarWorld AG and other companies with an established presence in the Portland metropolitan area.

“I intend to be very scrappy in doing whatever it takes to fortify Portland as a living laboratory for sustainable products and practices,” Adams said. “Because of our size and location, we must create these opportunities.”

Corporate Support and Education

GE, which sought out Portland as a partner, plans to help local companies license and sell their products, Decker said.

“Portland is a hotbed for small and progressive green-technology companies that might not have the resources or reach yet to capitalize internationally,” he added. “We’ll leverage our supply chain and knowledge of foreign markets to help local businesses license or sell their technologies.”

International Business Machines Corp. launched a similar partnership last year with another mid-size city — Dubuque, Iowa — as part of its “Smarter City” initiative (Greenwire, Sept. 17, 2009). IBM and Dubuque aim to develop a replicable technology platform that provides cities an integrated view of energy management, including energy consumed by the electricity grid, the water system and general municipal services.

Michael Russo, the Lundquist professor of sustainable management at the University of Oregon’s business school, said GE gains brand equity by working with Portland — which he called the nation’s “greenest” city.

Government smart-growth policies, strong civic leaders and residents with high “environmental literacy” have helped Portland create a “green” cluster of companies — everyone from organic grocers to non- toxic paint manufacturers to green-building consultants, explained Russo, who writes about Portland in his book, Companies on a Mission: Entrepreneurial Strategies for Growing Sustainably, Responsibly, and Profitably.

“GE can learn a lot from being in a place like Portland,” Russo added. “You want to be where the new ideas are coming from the fringe — and they’re not necessarily coming from big companies.”

Sustainability Must Address Financial Weakness

Despite Portland’s diverse green-business cluster — which is composed mostly of small and mid-sized companies — the metropolitan area’s unemployment rate hovers above the national rate of 9.5 percent.

A recent Brookings Institution study ranked the 100 largest metropolitan areas’ economic performance — based on changes in employment, gross metropolitan product, and housing prices — during the so-called “Great Recession” that began in late 2007. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank rated Portland among the second- weakest 20 metropolitan areas.

One theory for Portland’s comparatively high unemployment is that enough people want to live in the land of microbreweries and mountains that they’ll move to Portland unemployed or underemployed. There’s more to it, contends Aaron Renn, an urban planning consultant and writer.

“Portland just doesn’t have an aggressive commercial business mindset,” he explained in an interview. “It needs to be a place more oriented toward business. Period.”

He did his own calculation of federal government data. Of metropolitan regions with more than 1 million people, Portland ranked 19th for job creation between 2001 and 2008, said Renn, who writes about cities on the blog “Urbanophile.”

Just as similar-sized cities Seattle and Austin, Texas, have positioned themselves as information-technology hubs, Portland should position itself as a clean-technology hub, Renn suggested.

“If you’re going to make sustainable lifestyle a priority, you ought to get some commercial value out of it,” he added.

Business professor Russo suggested Portland should recruit more non-Oregon companies as Oregon Sustainability Center collaborators.

“This is a global community, and if we want to be known as a center for all things green, we need to open up to the rest of the world,” he added.

Another big idea Portland hopes to export is the EcoDistrict.

Villages in the City

Portland, like most U.S. cities, relies on large, centralized systems to generate electricity, dispose of waste, transport people and process stormwater. During the next few years, Portland residents will experiment with managing such systems on a smaller, distributed scale in five pilot EcoDistricts, including downtown’s PSU campus and South Waterfront neighborhood.

“We want to do at a district scale what green building has done at a building scale,” said Michael Armstrong, a senior manager with the city’s planning bureau.

The scale of each district will depend upon on which stakeholders are involved and which technologies they want to use to manage systems locally, Armstrong explained. For example, the South Waterfront neighborhood, which sits at the western edge of the Willamette River, might begin with a district-level system to manage runoff from streets, Armstrong suggested. Other pilot areas, such as the Gates and Lents neighborhoods at the city’s eastern edge, might start by weatherizing homes.

GE engineers will offer the districts technological advice, Decker said.

“An EcoDistrict to me would focus on energy efficiency and energy independence,” he added. “It would also be green from a water- filtration standpoint, and it would be about access and mobility.”

Armstrong and his colleagues will begin by assessing the ecological footprint of the densely developed Lloyd District, which sits across the Willamette River from downtown. Building owners, utilities and others in the district — which includes a cluster of condominium and office towers, a shopping mall, a convention center, a park and the Rose Garden basketball arena — would develop their own implementation plan.

Stakeholders will be tasked with thinking creatively about how to pay for and manage district-scale projects, explained Portland Sustainability Institute Executive Director Rob Bennett, whose nonprofit is working with the city on the initiative.

The Lloyd District, PSU campus and South Waterfront are good candidates for district power projects — such as anaerobic digesters that consume beer brewery sludge or boilers that turn urban waste into steam — because the densely built areas have big energy consumers, Bennett suggested.

Investments in cleaner energy, waste and water projects will help a mid-size city such as Portland attract and retain companies and workers, contended Mayor Adams, who has committed his city to slashing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

“Our goal is to be more economically successful and equitable in the pursuit of environmental sustainability,” Adams added.  Φ

Michael Burnham, is a reporter for E&E Greenwire.

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