The Fifth-Annual Smart Environments Awards – Port of Portland Headquarters

The agency’s new offices—a model of sustainable design—are also something else: a tool to remake its formally hidebound culture.

Port of Portland Headquarters
Portland, Oregon
Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects

To the horticulturally untrained eye, the Monstera deliciosa, rush, bird of paradise, and water iris growing in the lobby of the new Port of Portland headquarters might be mistaken for innocuous flora found in corporate offices anywhere. But bathed in eastern light and raising their slightly messy bouquet in balmy air, the plants are less about aesthetics than function. Their roots are part of a so-called Living Machine, a carefully engineered system that mimics the action of tidal basins to clean the gray and black water arriving from the headquarters’ myriad sinks and toilets. “As you walk into the building,” notes Steve Reidy, a principal of PAE Consulting Engineers, “you’re walking into its waste-treatment plant.”

Developed by Worrell Water Technologies, this is the first commercial office application of a Living Machine west of the Mississippi. And it’s merely one of many sustainable features in the $85 million, 205,000-square-foot building. But though developing a building that “would be as green as we could afford” was one of the main objectives of Port’s executive director, Bill Wyatt, nearly every green element also serves a more ambitious goal: to transform the 436 employees of the Port’s headquarters into a more convivial and productive organization. “This is the 100 percent corner of the state,” says Wyatt of the headquarters’ location at the gateway of the Portland International Airport. “We wanted the building to be a positive icon about the place where we live and work.”

The Port tapped the local ZGF Architects to design the building, but the ambitious social and sustainability goals quickly met with two formidable challenges: the Port’s insular culture and the crammed site. Founded in 1891 to develop and maintain Willamette River’s navigation channel, the Port of Portland now manages the airport, four freight terminals, and $1.6 billion in assets. Scattered across four offices, the agency’s administrative employees had been sequestered into bureaucratic fiefdoms that, to Wyatt’s thinking, had become too inefficient, slow, and cautious. Bringing them under one roof would certainly help, but the new building also needed to become a tool for reorganizing the agency’s culture. Wyatt’s biggest move was getting rid of private offices, starting with his own. He recalls how his inbox filled with staff members’ lengthy memos, each arguing for an exception. “I’d tell them, ‘You need to add a section explaining why it’s more important for you to have an office than me,’” Wyatt chuckles. “I wanted fewer meetings, more quick interactions and decisions. This was an effort to address the structural challenges that enclosed offices can often impede.”

About half of the agency’s administrative staff already worked at the airport, but finding room for the rest required the kind of bold pragmatism more often found in Dutch or German architecture than in U.S. buildings (Wyatt cites Lufthansa’s elegantly spare headquarters in Frankfurt, designed by Christoph Ingenhoven, as his chief inspiration.) Even more than most airports, Portland’s site—cut off from surrounding neighborhoods and river-locked—is a tight jigsaw puzzle of terminals, roads, and parking structures. The best site had long been earmarked for a major parking garage, so Wyatt and the Port decided simply to put the new headquarters on top of it. Thus the site and the cultural and sustainability goals all met in a striking building that ZGF’s Eugene Sandoval describes as “almost more about engineering than architecture.”

Seen every day by the 43,000 people who drive to the airport to drop off and pick up passengers, the headquarters turns out of the side of a 3,500-car parking garage with a dramatically arcing, canting curtain wall that recalls the prow of a ship. Developed with Benson Industries, the custom curtain wall rises in faceted bands of laminated clear and opaque glass, the proportions of which ZGF carefully modeled to balance energy performance, natural-light infiltration, and noise reduction, while maximizing the stunning views stretching to the Columbia River and Mount Hood.

The interiors are divided into three parallel bars of offices, oriented east-west to maximize daylighting and divided by two atria topped with skylights to draw natural light deep into the interior. The south-facing skylights are fitted with large indoor baffles that diffuse direct sun to avoid glare. On the south and west sides, windows feature German-made Warema venetian blinds fitted with concave slats that bounce light off the ceiling. Ambient artificial lighting is controlled by computer according to the time and cloudiness of the day. Individual workstations feature supplemental task lighting.

Within the larger volumes, ZGF’s Sue Kerns developed a series of office “neighborhoods” with open workstations arranged around two kinds of conference rooms: “shared collaboratives” (open to anyone needing meeting space) and “dedicated collaboratives” (for managers). Workstations are a roomy 81 square feet, and to avoid what she calls “Dilbert Land,” Kerns aligned them in no more than three rows to a cluster. Whereas 85 percent of the staff had dedicated offices in the Port’s old facilities, now only the legal and two human-resource staffers do (approximately 15 percent of the employees). Even managers sit in the open. That includes Wyatt, who has arguably the best view but no doors; he’s within direct sight of his administrative staff. (He also has a “dedicated collaborative” nearby.)

The two atria recall the proportions of a ship’s hull, with the surrounding railings of the three open-office decks further fortifying the maritime theme. But Kerns gave these formidably sized spaces a human scale with a series of small, freestanding wood-and-glass boxes featuring conference rooms inside and lounges on top, all connected to the various office levels by enough stairs, bridges, and landings to assure ample passing interactions. A stroll through the offices finds most desks empty but the conference rooms and lounge spaces filled with meetings large and small.

The office spaces are heated and cooled with radiant panels suspended below approximately 40 percent of the ceiling space. Fed by water from 200 coils drilled more than 300 feet beneath the headquarters, this is the first coupling of geothermal heating and cooling systems in the country, according to Reidy. It uses 51 percent less energy than typical commercial spaces and allows the new headquarters to operate without using fossil fuels. It’s also more efficient than the more widely used in-floor radiant heat at producing comfortable ambient temperatures. A separate system circulates fresh outside air through the building (at a rate that exceeds code requirements), moderating humidity while capturing heat to help power the geothermal system’s heat pump.

Without having to rely on the displacement of air for heating and cooling, the HVAC system is so quiet that the Port added a white-noise system that rises in volume when voice levels in the office areas reach potentially irritating levels. Even so, given that the building sits atop a garage rumbling with traffic and between roads packed with traffic and the airport’s busy runways, the Port’s headquarters is uncannily quiet.

Wyatt’s goal was for the headquarters to use far less energy than Oregon’s already aggressive energy code mandates. But since moving in last spring, the Port has yet to reliably measure energy usage, let alone the rise in worker productivity that Wyatt hoped would accompany it. But he left no opportunity for energy savings unexplored. Frustrated that the quarter-mile-long moving walkway connecting the airport’s main terminal to the headquarters ran full speed 24 hours a day, Wyatt had his staff petition the state’s office of building codes for an exception to rules forbidding anyone but a licensed electrician to turn the escalator off. They succeeded, making the Port’s moving walkway the first in the country to be activated by users—a common device in Europe.

But most important to Wyatt, his staff’s “water-cooler decision-making” has in-creased exponentially. So too, he concedes, has his own workload—the price he’s paying for his greater accessibility. Port employees, he says, resisted the open-office concept “mightily until the day we moved in.” But despite their worries about dust-ups over noise, food smells, and light and temperature levels, tensions have been rare. Wyatt credits the humorous training videos the Port developed about conflict resolution distributed over the office intranet.

The green spirit of the building has even brought the employees closer together. On Day One, the Port’s lobby sewage-treatment plant became the unlikely source of staff bonding. The Port’s lead engineer, Dan Gilkison, laughs about how the sudden moving in of 400 workers actually “killed the Living Machine,” overwhelming it with waste. The building switched over to its backup system while he and other staff members regrew the waste-eating microorganisms with regular doses of powdered milk. As Gilkison describes the two-month process, “We had
to bring the baby back to life.”

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