Follow the LEEDer

Portland’s Gerding Edlen Development continues to break new ground in green design.

Ten years ago, Portland developer Mark Edlen and his partner, Bob Gerding, were scarcely known even in their home city. Today, they run the top development company in Portland. Over the past decade, Gerding Edlen Development has been responsible for over ten different LEED-rated condo and office projects, as well as a renovation of a 19th Century armory that became the first building on the National Register of Historic Places to achieve a Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Along the way, the firm helped transform two blighted industrial areas in Portland, the Pearl District and the South Waterfront (which now boasts one of only two aerial trams in a U.S. city.)

The firm has been busy outside their hometown as well, and are active in transforming downtown Los Angeles. In September of 2007, the Elleven project became the first California condominium to receive LEED Gold and was later honored as the Best Multifamily Highrise at the Los Angeles Architectural Awards.

Last year, Gerding Edlen was recognized for their pioneering work, earning the first-ever USGBC Leadership Award. The ceremony was held at the Center for Health & Healing at Oregon Health Science University, a Gerding Edlen project that received a LEED Platinum plaque at the same event. Brian Libby spoke with co-founder Mark Edlen about his burgeoning business and his company’s groundbreaking strides in creating green, mixed use developments.

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How did your development company become focused on sustainability early on, in the days before LEED ratings?

We both grew up here, my partner Bob [Gerding] and I. We both have a big love of the outdoors. I’m a big fan of Yvonne Chounard, the founder of Patagonia. The first thing we give any of our employees to read is his book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. So we kind of morphed from doing a lot of energy-saving things in the early 1990s to, when the USGBC came around, going toward a broader, more full fledged sustainability with The Natural Step and all that.

But you’ve also got to make a profit.

Our priorities as a developer are the same as everybody’s. But a viable product comes from place making. How do you create great places that people want to come to live, work, and play in? Then you also have to look ahead. I personally believe we’ve got a broken national energy policy. I think it’s a national security issue. It’s about speed and scale, and we don’t have a lot of time. As a company, we have an objective over the next five years to figure out how to build buildings that produce more energy than they consume.

How has the building industry changed over time about green products and practices?

In the ’90s, you kind of had to drag the contractors along, the engineers a little bit, and the architects less so. Today they’re just all coming. Here in Portland, we also happened to have a pretty progressive governing body—not that we haven’t run into some challenges, such as trying to change the code to re-use rainwater for our toilets. They embraced it here earlier than other cities we’re working in.

Five years ago, most of our commercial tenants didn’t care much about green. Now I’m hearing anecdotes of other firms calling our tenants and saying, “Is it really working as well as it appears to be? Because we’re losing too many new hires to you.” I think we’ve seen the commercial tenants gravitate more toward it over the last couple of years.

You’ve developed numerous LEED-rated condos in downtown Los Angeles. Is that city really ready to embrace not only green building, but the higher density, transit oriented environments that come with it?

In LA for example, the governing body is very, very hungry for it. But Los Angeles compared to Portland, for example, instead of parking maximums we have parking minimums. The size of the stalls that we’re required to build in LA is huge compared to up here. I think they want to get there. The intent is there. But they’ve still got a ways to go.

What about in Bellevue, a traditionally more suburban locale across Lake Washington from Seattle?

The governing body is very much into it, but in terms of the buying public, we haven’t seen as much interest. But regulations and codes there are very favorable compared to Los Angeles. If you kind of think about it, after World War II from the Mississippi west it was pretty much all about suburban sprawl. You go buy a Chevrolet, put the top down, hit the freeway, and let it rip! And the real urban environment was mostly just office space, not a real environment. That’s changing in Los Angeles and Bellevue just like in most cities now. It’s just going to take time.

Cities like Chicago, Portland, Austin, and Seattle are competing to be seen as the greenest cities. Who wins?

I just got back from Chicago for the CEO’s for Cities conference. There was a planeload full of us from Portland going there to talk about sustainability. But you couldn’t go anywhere in that city without hearing somebody say, “Mayor Daley said, ‘Do this.’ Mayor Daley said, ‘Do that.’” Not only does Chicago’s mayor get it when it comes to sustainability, but unlike Portland, he has the power of a strong mayoral seat, both to act and to get the word out about what they’re doing. I don’t really think they aren’t doing anything that we aren’t doing here in Portland. And in fact, we may be doing more of it. But we’re not out there talking about it aggressively.

How much progress do you think has been made with the average mainstream developer, realtor, or lender in terms of green building and the business case for it?

I think if you’re just building a responsible building or smart at all, basic development practice is such that you ought to at least be doing a [LEED] Silver building. I read about people getting LEED certification and I’m going [cringes], “Oh my God.”

But I also still get plenty of people saying to me, “How much more does it cost?” My sense is that, on a hundred-million-dollar building to go from Silver to Gold, you’re probably talking three quarters of a point to a [percentage] point. To go from Gold to Platinum, you’re probably talking about a couple of points. But then, what’s your payback? And what kind of incentives or tax credits are out there?

When we started doing this stuff ten years ago, it was maybe three percent more cost to get to the equivalent of LEED Gold. But today, because we’re smarter about how we’re doing this, and our architects and engineers and contractors have been doing this with us for ten years, that’s changed.

What advice can you give developers about building green without it costing more?

Whoever is driving the boat has to have their vision, and they need to communicate it to everybody upfront from day one. And they’ve got to put it in their pro-forma from day one. And then they’ve got to bring everybody on the design, engineering, and construction team together and attack those goals as a team.

The US Green Building Council was, for us, a tremendous framework for our projects to work through sustainability. However, ideally in every building we’d try at least one thing that’s new. For example, measures like light shelves and operable windows and dimmable light ballasts got us to about 30 or 35% energy savings. So then we started doing solar, heat recovery systems, and so on, it got us to a Platinum-level building with about 50 to 55% energy savings. But we’ve still got a long way to go to get to buildings that sustain themselves.

In Portland a new streetcar system was key to the success of your firm’s Brewery Blocks development. You’ve also advocated that Los Angeles build a similar system. How essential are they to urban development in the central core of cities?

I’ve come to the conclusion that these developments and these cities are really about creating a framework for social interaction and accidental collisions. It’s one person bumping into another and having the opportunity to talk about their work, their kids’ soccer game, the play they saw last night, or whatever the case may be. Here in the Pearl District, where you’re living and working, you’re always late for meetings because you’re always bumping into somebody. The streetcar’s the same thing. I can out-walk it, but you know what happens when you ride? You bump into folks.

But is it fair to think of streetcars as a development tool or social engineering over its most basic purpose: to move people efficiently?

Yes, it’s a tool for development as well, but these streetcars are moving people through the city, too. Every car we can take off of that street is another gallon of gas we’re not buying from the Middle East and that we’re not polluting the air with. It’s also another car subtracted from congestion.

The condo boom has increasingly come to include the designs of famous architects like Richard Meier. But you’ve gone a different route, working with the same Portland firm, GBD Architects, on almost every project and instead focusing on sustainability. Why?

No matter what we build, we want it to be of the highest quality product. But for me, that goes into detail things like making sure how floor systems are built to reduce sound, or how our mechanical systems provide comfort efficiently. There are some buildings you see a year or two after construction is completed and there’s a big sheet over the exterior because they’re fixing some kind of intrusion problem. You won’t ever see that on one of our buildings.

What about the fact that the overwhelming majority of condos built in America over the last several years are too expensive for most all middle class people to afford?

We’re trying to move toward workforce housing, to create product where younger folks can come in and buy. At The Civic here in Portland, about a third of our buyers were first-time buyers. But project-wise, it’s really tough. Your basic structure costs the same whether you’re going to charge a thousand bucks a foot or a hundred bucks a foot. And sometimes the kind of urban places that Baby Boomers want to spend time in can be very different from places where younger people want to spend time. It translates into location and into design. Trying to interpret those factors into a building is really the most important thing you can do.

Your firm has made its name and success building condos, but nationwide that market seems to be slowing. Here in Portland, you’re now building more offices than condos.

The natural inclination for a developer is, “How can I build the least costly product?” But we really learned from the Brewery Blocks experience. We were digging a hole for this five-building project right when 9/11 hit. The office market went way down. But occupancy rates in the office buildings we did were higher than the rest of the city. I think it’s because we were able to highly differentiate our product and create a great place for people to come. Even the most conservative firm now looks at a competitor’s green office space and says, ‘Those guys are out-hiring us. They don’t have the turnover rate we have. Their people seem to be happier and more creative.” Instead of seeing that it costs a buck a foot more, they’re recognizing that they’re going to get ten bucks a foot more out of their people.

This seems to be the era of sustainable architecture. But do you believe enough is being done to combat global warming in the building industry?

I’ve decided I’m probably going to be frustrated all my life. We’re just not getting their fast enough.

Well, last time I interviewed you I seem to recall you pulling up in a new Porsche. Maybe you can go fast enough in that.

I can’t. I traded it in for Prius!

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