Portland Living Building to Stand for 500 Years

By David J. Petersen

Portland innovators PAE Engineers and ZGF Architects recently combined forces with several other joint venture partners to show that living buildings are commercially feasible. The new five-story headquarters for PAE at SW First and Pine in Portland is designed to stand for 500 years by surviving seismic events, operating as a carbon sink, generating its own power and water, and withstanding the extreme weather fluctuations of future climate change. The building is the first “ordinary” building to meet the Living Building Challenge, a standard previously met only by expensive homes or trophy buildings.

The 500-year lifespan was key to the financial viability of the project. By building to a standard designed to survive thousand-year natural disasters, the building could be built with smaller setbacks, increasing leasable space. Ultimately, the building came in at a cost about 25% higher than a typical office building, with much of that offset by an 8-10% premium in rents, more leasable space, and alternative income streams such as marketable compost and liquid fertilizer produced from the sanitary waste stream.

First proposed in 2019, the building offers a curious mix of new technologies and tried-and-true techniques. For example, the building does not have air conditioning but instead uses windows to regulate interior temperature, a decidedly nineteenth century method. However, the windows are controlled by a computer that opens and closes them seamlessly in reaction to weather conditions while also managing an onsite system of photovoltaic panels and batteries for energy generation and storage. The building uses a cistern to collect rainwater and has no connection to the City’s water or sewer systems. The building can operate without outside electricity for up to 100 days in the summer. The building’s façade, built with modern energy-saving materials like glulam and cross-laminated timber, meshes comfortably with the surrounding 150-year old historic district.

The developers’ goal was to show that speculative commercial structures that have an ecological benefit are viable now, not in the distant future. The building also demonstrates that Portland’s goal of 100% renewable energy is feasible now, not 28 years from now at the City’s 2050 target date, while still being financially feasible, aesthetically pleasing and a positive community asset.

Had this building been built in 1522, it would just be reaching the end of its designed life. Important world events in 1522 included the Battle of Bicocca and the Ottoman Empire’s second Siege of Rhodes. Looking forward, Ear to the Ground contributors (not me) will be sure to revisit the building in 2522 and report back on how well it has fared. Seriously though, this project represents an important milestone in the mainstreaming of environmentally-sound building techniques that our society will need in spades in the decades to come.