Twelve West

“At the end of the day, we are a performer,” Eugene Sandoval, the lead designer of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca’s new offices, says as he walks through this spectacular—and spectacularly open—space. It’s a four-floor tour de force of the adaptive-reuse aesthetic—exposed concrete, vertically connected spaces—that Portland, Oregon’s, other great architect, Brad Cloepfil, rendered culturally significant with the home he designed for Wieden + Kennedy, the ad firm located down the street. As he talks, Sandoval points out the single-leaf door to one of the few enclosed conference rooms that dot this 85,000-square-foot space. And as he talks, he performs—in this case, the last roles he played: architect responsible for turning what all 240 members of this Portland office needed in a workplace, and project leader of one of this year’s Smart Environments winners.

When ZGF realized that it needed a new headquarters, the multicity firm, with offices in Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York, first looked to its own history. ZGF was founded in 1959 and spent much of its time in a 19th-century brick building in Portland’s Old Town, now the nexus of Chinatown. “It was the height of Ms. Huxtable”—the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, whose pronouncements mattered—“so we moved into a historic warehouse,” Sandoval says of those heady days of what amounted to loft living. “We put a skylight in and made a historical building.” Decades later, after expanding, and cramming employees into the original building (which held only about 150) and an adjunct that Sandoval describes with great finesse as “not the same quality as the original building,” the firm decided that it was time to move.

Portland being a treasure trove of industrial architecture and ZGF being such a performer, it wasn’t enough to find another killer warehouse and move in some work spaces. ZGF decided to do something different. “We wanted the right place, the right partnership, and the right neighborhood,” Sandoval says. “But as an ethic, we wanted to make sure that what we do is representative of what we think makes Portland a special place—there are always partnerships.” It’s a good way of describing a city that currently reverse-boasts one of the most depressed economies in the nation, a town that runs on partnerships because trade often gets you further than waiting for the never-answered promise of printed green bills, but Sandoval’s right. A big part of what makes Portland special, and what makes it run, is that nothing is done alone, nothing is done without a committee, and, most important, nothing is done without a clear focus on how it relates to the city as a whole. “Partnerships are cast not only in paper but also goodwill and good faith,” Sandoval says.

The neighboring towns of Beaverton (home to the tremendous Nike campus) and Vancouver (Portland’s across-state-lines stepchild) came to ZGF and offered incentives to the firm if it moved its offices—and all its parking-ticket-paying, lunch-and-dinner-buying employees—to their urban centers. ZGF considered it, but ultimately the firm landed on a site in Portland, in the evolving west end. There was precedent: 28 years ago, ZGF’s managing partner, Bob Packard, and a partner, Greg Baldwin, had written a paper arguing that the west end was the most under-leveraged place in town. And on paper, it has everything: a mix of institutional and basic necessities built into a district that’s not artificial. There are day-care centers, churches, grocery stores, and mom-and-pop shops. “The South Waterfront or the Pearl, you have to wait for it to come,” Sandoval says, citing two recent, fully planned, and mostly empty large-scale urban redevelopments that puncture the city’s typically low-rise urban fabric with great shiny behemoths of mistimed condo developments. “Here, when you plant a building, it’s really in a neighborhood.”

The building ZGF planted is Oregon to the core, which, given the state’s recent evolution into an intellectual and design center, means much more than a reliance on its woodworking and metal-crafting traditions. “Now, buildings are not only well crafted,” Sandoval says. “They’re high performance.”

And that’s where the success of ZGF’s interior lies. This is a space that manages to combine old-world Oregon craftsmanship—the reception desk was constructed out of a single reclaimed walnut tree that had been infested by a particularly virulent strain of twig beetle—with absolutely cutting-edge technology. Four experimental wind turbines, built with equipment from Southwest Windpower, have been so successful as an R & D project that Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited the engineering team to New York to talk about possible projects. All of this in a space that, with its exposed concrete columns and floor-to-ceiling windows, just feels cool.

Much of the underlying aesthetic of clean lines and changeability is the product of an intensive round of meetings, arguments, and experiments in which a group of employees—selected for their diversity in gender, longevity, job description, and personality—operated as clients while the design team operated as, well, the design team. “That allowed us to galvanize thought instead of having a singular direction,” Sue Kerns, director of interiors, says of the charrette, which was ZGF’s way of addressing the often conflicting needs of more than 250 architects. The largest group was the furniture committee, which worked with every architect to produce mock-ups of the desks. “They sit at those desks every day,” Kerns says.

And the desks work, particularly because of how they’re laid out, with glass-walled bookshelves on the top of each cubicle divider. They can be either filled with books (creating a private workspace) or left open (creating a sense of continuity and flow). “Some people like to see their neighbor,” Sandoval says. “Some don’t.” This flexibility is first introduced in the lobby, where slatted wood screens can be rolled around the space, creating a series of intimate pockets or one massive open room.

Temperature is controlled throughout the building by chilled beams—exposed cold-water-carrying beams popular in Scandinavia that are slowly coming to the States. The beams bring 55-degree water into the building and cool the space through natural convection. “The sensible thing is putting air at the edges,” Sandoval explains. Does it work? Last summer, during a heat wave, “it was seventy-two degrees on the south wall at three o’clock.”

It sounds like magic, but it’s just good engineering, and much of that was handled by the firm’s sustainability guru, John Breshears. “We wanted the building to be an urban catalyst, to show twenty-four-hour life on the street, which means a lot of glass,” he says. “We also want this to be a paragon of sustainable performance.” The catch? “Those two don’t always go together.”

A little company in the Portland boonies, Benson Industries, helped with this challenge. It had already worked on Renzo Piano’s recently opened New York Times Building. “Did you know that the curtain wall for that building was built out here in Gresham?” Breshears says. It was a hometown advantage that let ZGF figure out how to choose not only the right glass, frames, and reflectivity but also how to have operable windows. “There are about 373 reasons not to do operable windows,” Breshears says. “There’s one reason to do them.” People wanted them.

The public doesn’t see the chilled beams, the concrete floor that renders the interior completely nontoxic, the reflective white-painted ceilings. What they do see is what’s on the roof, which is why the building is known to locals as “that wind-turbine building,” something that raises environmentally sensitive hackles the city over. (And everyone here is

an environmentalist, to an extent completely unimaginable on the East Coast.) The turbines have been criticized for being symbolic but useless. “Wind turbines are very popular right now,” Breshears says, calling them the solar panels of the decade. He doubted that wind moving in from the coast and hitting Portland’s hilly urban topography would be harnessable, but the building’s ownership committee—a consortium that included the gigantic downtown developer Gerding Edlen as well as ZGF itself—was thrilled with the idea of visible environmental sensitivity, and pushed the turbines. The design team demurred, claiming they wouldn’t actually help the building’s operability, until the idea arose of doing them as a research project. After Gerding Edlen put together seed money, ZGF hooked up with a Dutch expert and then, as Breshears says, got into a “shack with the finest aeronautical engineers in the world—they’d just take off their shoes and climb in the wind tunnel.”

And the team has been successful, not necessarily in changing all that much about the technology but in taking an urban-turbine project seriously—so much so that the Energy Trust of Oregon ended up funding much of the project, as did the state Department of Energy. Both organizations frequently reject similar proposals.

Breshears is equally excited about the smaller environmental moves, like composting. “How long have we been doing worms?” Kerns asks Breshears as they discuss the small size of a central trash bin (the designers removed individual trash cans) that they’ve never seen full. Then there are the sensors on every desk that turn off lights and monitors after a period of no movement—a potential downside for an extremely focused architect—and the exposed concrete columns. The latter were chosen both for the hipster-firm aesthetic and because Portland concrete, due to the local land composition, is essentially silver and thus takes a very long time to warm up or cool down, lending temperature stability to the entire interior.

When Sandoval started working on the building, he wanted to tap Oregon’s natural resources—wood, silvery concrete, a temperate climate—and highlight those that are more coveted in this rainy corner of the Pacific Northwest: daylight, a connection with other people, a sense of openness. Vertically stacked offices connected by stairways work here because of a right-left stitching on every floor that satisfies both the fire marshal’s need for safety and the firm’s culture of creativity, in an era of many unsuccessful attempts at vertically stacked offices.

When Sandoval finished the building and everyone moved in at 2 p.m. on a Sunday, he was relieved, happy, and, most of all, glad to be still employed. “The dreaded job is always remodeling an architecture firm’s own office,” he says. “You’re going to get fired afterwards.” Not this time. Here the show will go on.

The 2009 IIDA/Metropolis Smart Environments Awards winners:

CCS Architecture

Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects

Hopkins Architects and Centerbrook Architects and Planners

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