|Building 'Green' Reaches a New Level|
By John Ritter
July 26, 2006
Portland's latest project is a high-density
redevelopment of a decaying industrial waterfront that
eventually will be home to 5,000 residents, linked to
city center by a new streetcar line. A construction
worker here works on a landing area for the new streetcar line.
Walsh revels in it. She and her husband, Edward, proudly wear "urban
pioneer" buttons the builder handed out to early move-ins at the nation's
first large-scale redevelopment to go 100% "green."
Call it "eco-friendly." Call it "sustainable." Portland's $2.2 billion
South Waterfront project, rising on a decaying industrial site south of
downtown, signals a watershed in the green-building boom.
A trend that has taken hold across the USA in the past few years is
evolving to a new level. What has been a patchwork of green buildings in
many cities is expanding to whole communities, whole neighborhoods.
Portland, well known as an urban-design innovator, particularly for its
transit-oriented developments, is leading the way again.
The green ethic — energy-efficient, water-stingy buildings full of
features that stress the natural over the chemical, the recycled over the
new and the renewable over the finite — is firmly mainstream.
"The big developers, the people who build America, are slow to move," says
Charles Lockwood, an environmental and real estate consultant based in
Southern California. "They still see a hint of tie-dye and wind chimes in
green building. That's changing quickly. There's critical mass."
Even in suburbia, home of large-production builders of single-family homes.
"There's a lot more consumer interest. It's starting to be a groundswell,"
says Calli Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Home
Builders in Washington. A McGraw-Hill Construction survey in March
predicted that green building would reach a "tipping point" next year and
that two-thirds of builders would be building green homes.
Common features now found in green buildings include: non-toxic paint and
finishes, wheatboard cabinetry, low-flow showerheads and toilets, wood
floors of Brazilian cherry, Caribbean walnut and other plantation-grown
varieties, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, recycled and
locally obtained building materials, rain and wastewater captured for
toilets and landscaping, and panels that double as sunshades and solar
The Walshes went green house hunting after they sold a home in Arlington,
Va., that they'd owned for 30 years and came to Oregon. They bought a
condo knowing it was temporary until the Meriwether, twin South Waterfront
high-rises, opened. Both towers sold out during construction, except three
"Eco-friendly was very important to us," says Michelle Walsh, 63. "We knew
seven years ago this project was happening, and we watched it. We wanted
this place." The couple paid $790,000 for a 10th-floor, two-bedroom,
three-bathroom unit with a den — plus those killer views.
Developers and builders aren't joining the green revolution purely out of
a sense that it's the right thing to do. They can't afford to be left
behind. By year's end, at least 6% of the nation's non-residential
construction, a $15 billion chunk of the industry, will be green, says
Greg Kats, a green-building consultant in Washington, D.C. Six years ago
it was less than 1%.
"If you're not embracing green, you won't be at the table," says Homer
Williams, one of South Waterfront's developers. "We do a lot of
public-private work around the country, and it's the first question that
comes up now."
The federal government, 15 states and 46 cities require new public
buildings to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards
(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which require non-toxic
building materials, among other things.
Four states and 17 cities offer incentives for LEED-rated private
buildings. Chicago, Pasadena, Calif., and other cities now fast-track
permit procedures for builders who commit to green standards.
Raising the bar
Developers find that green technologies and construction materials add no
more than 1%-2% to costs, a premium quickly recaptured by energy savings.
"Critics will say, 'Why should we pay upfront for these things?' " says
Ethan Seltzer, director of the Toulan School of Urban Studies at Portland
State University. "They'd also liketo believe global warming doesn't exist."
Green building, he says, "is no longer confined to capital-intensive
office towers. Green technology is to the point where these are valid
questions for Home Depot shoppers."
The Green Building Council has certified nearly 550 buildings across the
country since 2002. Developers only recently have sought to stamp as green
larger, multistructure projects such as South Waterfront. Same with
single-family homes. The council is working on LEED versions for both.
Cities interested in LEED for large ventures include Pasadena, Milwaukee,
Austin, Des Moines, Boise and Spokane, Wash.
Multibillion-dollar redevelopments on the Camden, N.J., waterfront and in
New York City's Meadowlands are going green. Seattle's High Point
neighborhood has the nation's first green public-housing project, 600
apartments and town houses surrounded by green houses selling at market
rates. At least 5,000 units of green low-income housing in 25 states have
gone up in the past 18 months.
Corporate America was the first to see the value of green beyond energy savings.
Companies noticed less absenteeism, less time lost to asthma, allergies
and other illnesses aggravated by mold, stale air and chemicals found in
many conventional buildings. But to Ford, Bank of America, Target, Toyota,
Honda, Genzyme, Starbucks and Adobe, green also was about image.
"In the 1980s it might have been acceptable to do a trophy building and
say, 'Oh, look at us, we're green,' " says Rick Fedrizzi, president of the
Green Building Council.
No more. "The products you make should be green," he says. "The
manufacturing process should be green. The factory should be green.
Employees should work in a green building. You live this message all the
way through and then someday you can call yourself a green company. Until
then, it's just green-washing."
The city and developers are committed to top-to-bottom green at South Waterfront.
That means winning high LEED ratings on every building. It means streetcar
and light-rail connections to downtown that cut auto travel. It means a
mile-long, 150-foot-wide greenway between the Willamette and tall building
clusters — not plain grass but restored natural habitat for birds and
wildlife, bike and pedestrian paths included.
"It sets a much higher standard than what we've seen in many cities across
North America," says Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director at the
Audubon Society of Portland.
Condo and office towers will have smaller footprints to preserve views of
the river and downtown in the neighborhood behind South Waterfront. The
skinny, or pencil, high-rise design was pioneered on the Vancouver,
British Columbia, skyline, and San Francisco, Sacramento, Las Vegas and
other cities are copying it.
"We can do a much more elegant building by making it feel very tall and
very vertical," architect Phillip Beyl says.
South Waterfront will be the densest neighborhood in Portland, already a
transit-friendly city of small blocks and compact urban districts.
Developers calculate, for instance, that if condo owners in a 31-story,
oval-shaped tower now going up were put in single-family homes, they'd
consume 55 acres of land. South Waterfront's first phase will house 3,000
people and provide 5,000 jobs on 38 acres.
Many South Waterfront streets will be narrow to invite walking and
generously landscaped, with "bioswales" — grassy trenches that catch and
absorb storm runoff.
"Eco-roofs" of soil and native plants slow runoff and curb the "heat
island" effect of sunshine beating down on conventional roofs. The skin on
most buildings will be glazed glass to maximize energy saving and interior light.
Finding value in 'green'
South Waterfront's anchor, an Oregon Health & Science University
bioscience center opening in November, is the nation's first large
building to use chilled "beams" instead of conventional air conditioning.
Picture a car radiator on its side on the ceiling. Chilled water passes
through and cool air falls into the room, requiring no power to run fans
The university aims for the top LEED rating — platinum — which would be
Medical buildings that combine research labs, surgery and a lot of daily
traffic to doctors' offices aren't easy to make green. The 16-story, $145
million building will produce a third of its electricity and treat its own water.
A two-story trombe — a narrow glazed-glass atrium that soaks up the sun —
will make heat for the building's hot water. Heat pumps that use water
instead of chemical refrigerants are costlier than standard units, but
quieter. Therefore, the builder could spend less on soundproofing insulation.
"Not only will they have bragging rights on the first and largest platinum
building of its type, they'll also get a very high-performance building
that saves money over the long haul," says Dennis Wilde, a partner in
Gerding/Edlen, a principal developer at South Waterfront.
Cost premiums on green building have shrunk "but were never as significant
as people were afraid," Wilde says.
The university's outgrown main campus atop Marquam Hill is 30 minutes by
car for doctors traveling back and forth to the new facility. Williams
suggested a tram to cut the ride to 3 minutes. It will open in December.
Criticism of South Waterfront has been muted. Developers took heat when
tram costs ballooned to $57 million from $15 million, but they say
pre-design estimates were unrealistic. Taxpayers' share will be 15% of
what some think is a landmark-to-be on a par with Seattle's Space Needle.
Condos range from one-bedroom, 700-square-foot units for less than
$200,000 to two- and three-bedroom spaces for up to $1 million and a few
penthouses at $3 million-plus.
The buyer demographic is diverse — empty-nesters, single professionals,
well-to-do retirees, young couples looking for urban starter homes and
guys such as Venice Tunnitisupawong.
An analyst at Intel west of Portland, Tunnitisupawong, 28, wanted out of
the suburbs, even if it meant a longer commute.
"I'm a single guy and that lifestyle doesn't really fit me right now," he
says. He'll move into a third-floor, one-bedroom when a third tower, the
John Ross, is finished in May.
Early South Waterfront buyers have seen their condos spike in value already.
Miles Morgan, a United Airlines captain, bought a one-bedroom with an
alcove for $404,000 in December 2004, when the Meriwether was nothing but
a hole in the ground. He estimates it's worth as much as $550,000 today.
"This is poised to be the premier neighborhood in Portland," Morgan, 36,
says. "It will appreciate faster than any property in Oregon or Washington."