The May issue of Architect Magazine has come out with two lists: its second annual Architect 50, listing the nation's top firms, and a separate list of the top green architecture firms specifically.
Portland firms had a substantial presence on both lists. Most notably, SERA Architects was listed at #3, just behind the giant Chicago firm Perkins + Will and EYP Architecture & Engineering of Albany, New York.
Also on the top 10 green firms list was Portland firm ZGF Architects at #10. And DLR Group, which is based in Omaha but has a Portland office, was listed at #9.
Then there was the Architect 50 list, which had ZGF listed as the #7 firm in the country. "ZGF is as green as its Pacific Northwest roots would suggest," the listing text reads, "while its strength in health care, infrastructure, and government work has kept it chugging through the recession." New York-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which previously operated a Portland office and designed local landmarks like Memorial Coliseum, the US Bancorp Tower ("Big Pink"), Autzen Stadium and the Standard Insurance Center, was listed as the nation's top firm.
The Architect 50 list is a little different from other lists of top national architecture firms in that it "recognizes ecological commitment and design quality as much as profitability when measuring the country’s very best A, AE, and AEC firms."
Meanwhile, yesterday I spoke with SERA Architects' principal Clark Brockman about the listing as America's #3 green architecture firm.
Brockman likes the fact that Architect Magazine didn't just add up the number of LEED-rated projects and LEED-accredited professionals to compile the list; also included was a "firm culture" metric, for which SERA earned a high ranking. "I’d hope we keep finding new measures," Brockman said. "What we really want is to inspire more and more firms to be going green faster and faster. But this is a move in the right direction."
Today SERA has about 85 employees, which is about the same number the firm employed two years ago, when the Great Recession was beginning to take its toll. Just breaking even in terms of employee growth during the worst economic climate since the 1930s is pretty impressive. The obvious conclusion to draw is that SERA's focus on green is what allowed the firm to prosper amidst the tough times.
But Brockman says it's not that simple. He points to SERA's diverse portfolio of both public and private clients. The firm is also an employee-owned company, which he says helps them retain talent and keep people motivated. "I sure wouldn’t want the message to be that SERA thinks we are where we ware because of green," he says. "I think of being sustainable in a broad sense. We want to be financially sustainable, protecting and saving staff, and working on green design."
Another key for SERA, Brockman argues, has been the development over the past two years of the firm's in-house Sustainability Resources Group (SURG), comprised of employees with specific areas of sustainable expertise. "We’ve got a mechanical engineer, skin experts, daylighting and lighting experts," he adds. "Two years ago we had two people in that group amongst 85 people on staff and now it’s seven. We’re busy as heck and providing a lot of service to all the projects in the firm. But it’s constantly changing."
Right now SERA is engaged in three major projects: the Oregon Sustainability Center (in partnership with GBD Architects) and a renovation of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building (in partnership with Cutler Anderson Architects), both in Portland, as well as an extensive sustainable master-planning process for the city of Liwa in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
The Oregon Sustainability Center, as its website describes, is "a first-of-a-kind synthesis of unparalleled environmental performance with an integrated sustainability agenda, serving both as a technological model and as a hub for sustainable practices, policy, education, research and entrepreneurship." Located on the edge of the Portland State University campus in downtown Portland, the OSC will bring together academic, government, nonprofit and business sectors. It is being designed to achieve triple net-zero performance in energy and water use and carbon emissions, and to meet the world’s most stringent green building criteria, the Cascadia Region Green Building Council’s Living Building Challenge.
The OSC would be upon completion perhaps America's greenest office tower, and that is a hugely impressive achievement for SERA, GBD and developer Gerding Edlen. The only criticism I would personally make is that, to my eyes at least, from a visual, aesthetic standpoint it seems ugly, like a banal office building with a mismatched top. But this is also not a final design, so there is still time to change that. And if I'm critical of the look of the building based on the renderings released so far, let me be absolutely clear in saying that doing any Living Building office is hugely impressive. It's just that architecture is, at its ideal, a marriage of the practical and scientific with art and beauty.
I also wonder if an even greener move would be to build the Oregon Sustainability Center in an existing building, such as the empty US Customs House, which the GSA is currently seeking a tenant for via online auction, or the nearly empty Gus Solomon United States Courthouse downtown on Broadway, just a few blocks from the OSC site. But this is neither SERA's decision nor GBD's to make. That said, SERA has extensive renovation experience with landmark projects like City Hall in Portland. What better way to combine the firm's talents?
For the Abu Dhabi project, SERA and the other firms involved have engaged in what's called "energy-mapping", which Brockman says has "allowed us to map climate effects at a city scale. We’ve been siting and massing the buildings in a way that creates a comfortable place in a harsh environment. To be creating district scale tools that function in real time and allow us to design in real time based on climate and comfort, that’s a whole new world. Which I also think is a theme. It feels more and more like the projects we’re working on are all research, and they’re feeding other projects. The city-scale tool we're using in Abu Dhabi is going to be invaluable with all the eco-district work that will be happening in Portland."
The $133 million Wyatt building project (pictured at the top of this post) has been high profile, earning a feature in the Washington Post. The ultra-green retrofit will include rooftop solar panels supplying up to 15% of the building’s power needs, a new overhanging roof to provide shade, and a water collection and reuse system combined with low-flow fixtures that will reduce potable water consumption by as much as 68%. The big buzz surrounding this project, though, is a 250-foot vertical green wall that will cover the entire western facade of the office tower. Plants will grow on facade ‘fins’ that act like garden trellises during the spring and summer, shading the building to reduce energy bills. In the colder months, the plants will naturally drop their foliage and sunlight can once again penetrate the building to provide warmth.
Hopefully the green wall will actually happen, though. A May 4 report Daily Journal of Commerce report by Nathalie Weinstein suggests the GSA may wind up scrapping the wall due to budget concerns.
Brockman says lessons learned on the Oregon Sustainability Center and the Wyatt building are influencing each other. "We’re designing a new building a few blocks from an existing building retrofit a few blocks from each other, so we can share lessons back and forth," he says. "We learned something on OSC and took it to the Wyatt a week later. And the façade research on Wyatt will very much inform the way we move on the OSC's envelope design. It’s a huge privilege but exciting too."
Published with permission of Portland Architecture