Redfox Commons: Timber time in Northwest Portland
Anna Langley remembers the rainy day in December of last year when she found herself with one foot in the present and one foot in the past.
She was standing in front of the under-construction Redfox Commons on the edge of Portland's Northwest Industrial District watching workers frame a center portion of a new structure to connect two renovated World War II-era buildings that once served as the home of a company that manufactured farm equipment.
Hard-hatted construction workers hung from safety harnesses as they guided recycled timber beams from the original two buildings into place to create a new glass-enclosed center structure. All of a sudden, the connection between the building's past and its future became clear to Langley, a managing partner of the project developer, L&L Investment Partners.
"I had this moment of, 'Oh, gosh, this has all happened before,'" Langley said.
Redfox Commons sits on a piece of property in an area of Portland that is fast becoming a transition zone between two faces of the city. Located with a side entrance on Northwest 27th Avenue and a main entrance on Northwest Wilson Street, which runs parallel to Northwest Vaughn Street, the new building is behind Meriwether's restaurant and near Montgomery Park. At one end lies Slabtown, where low-slung warehouses are giving way to high-rise apartment buildings. At the other end lies the last remnants of the city's heavy-industrial district.
The two renovated buildings that form the east and west ends of Redfox Commons have been in the area since the 1940s, when they were constructed by a company called J.A. Freeman & Sons. The company, which started in 1889 as The Freeman Co., manufactured and serviced farm equipment, specifically machinery and tools for baling and handling hay.
A former breeze area between the two original structures is now a glass enclosed space — Langely calls it the "jewel box" — that boasts a timber frame, including sturdy beams, made from old-growth wood salvaged from the buildings that were on the property.
The end result is a 60,000-square-foot building with a unique street-front profile.
"It's important that it's not about three buildings," Thomas Robinson, principal of LEVER Architecture, the project designer, said. "It's about an entire urban street space."
The evolution of Redfox Commons was a couple of years in the making. Langley and her father, Scott, also a managing partner at Langley Investment Partners, first toured the property and the buildings on it in 2015.
At the time, the property had a list of positive features. The buildings were "stout," Anna Langley recalls. The scissors and bow trusses in both buildings created a sense of drama. In addition, the area was well connected to the rest of Portland, with a freeway not too far away.
But the property also had some issues. More than a decade after J.A. Freeman & Sons had been acquired by Portland-based Allied Systems, the buildings were being used in a variety of ways by a hodgepodge of businesses. A florist had some space tied up for storage. A small cabinet maker was located in another area. A band was using another portion of the building as a practice space.
Adding to the complexity of the property's story was the fact that the property owner was made up of multigenerational family members who weren't quite sure what they wanted to do with the property.
"We toured the site and found it interesting," Langley said, "but we didn't jump on it right then."
The Langleys were interested enough in the site, however, that after a time, they began to work with the property owner. Eventually L&L purchased the property and began the work of assembling a team to help realize the true potential of the property.
It took the experienced eye of Robinson and his team at LEVER, bought on as project architect, to bring that potential to light, literally.
A walk-through of the buildings on the property by LEVER's team uncovered spots that needed to be improved during a renovation. The buildings were dark, with the only weak illumination coming through small windows on the sides of the structures. While the lack of light was apparent in the flat-roofed west building, it was heightened in east building, where the daylighted was sucked up by the gabled roof space above the ceiling trusses.
In order to bring daylight into the upper portions of the building, the design team included matching clerestories in the east and west ends of the building, to allow diffused light to fill the open spaces.
With an eye toward further creating a sense of commonality between the two sides of the building, the original flat roof of the west structure was replaced with a gabled one that matched the east building.
Mezzanines in both buildings also posed a problem. The mezzanines had previously been used as drying areas for equipment after the machinery had been painted on the ground floor. The mezzanine flooring was uneven without enough room to be useful for any future tenant.
Even with all of those issues, though, the buildings offered bonuses, starting with the abundance of timber trusses and the huge timbers that had been used to build the mezzanines.
Robinsons' team brought in an engineer to grade the mezzanine timber. The determination was that the wood was premium-quality old growth.
"They were predominately (4-by-12) pieces of wood, more than a linear mile," LEVER principal Robinson said.
"It dawned on us that we could build a (connecting structure) from the contents up there in that mezzanine (area)" Jonathan Heppner, LEVER's director of projects, added.
The mezzanines were dismantled and were later rebuilt using glulam and tongue-and-groove decking. Some of the timber from the dismantled mezzanines was used to create new beams and columns for the center "jewel box" portion of the building.
"My favorite aspect (of the project) is the fact that we can ... take what would be considered by most people materials you put in a landfill and make a new building that connects (the original structures)," Robinson said. "It's a new experience with old material."
The project also features a new material that eventually will recreate a sense of the old. On the exterior of the building, the project team worked with Pioneer Sheet metal, to install a cladding featuring weathering steel. Over time, the material will turn a rusty red, the same color as the coat of a red fox.
Building a bridge
Some of the wood from the massive timbers found its way into the steps used for the stairways between the ground and mezzanine levels of the east and west buildings. Some became planks for a suspended bridge hanging over the center portion of the building that connects the east and west ends of Redfox Commons.
Installing that bridge required the project's general contractor, R&H Construction, to take a walk on the innovative side, according to senior project manager Mike Kremers and project manager Zach Rappaport.
The bridge was designed to hang effortlessly from cables attached to the ceiling, giving those crossing it a feeling of being suspended in air. In order to avoid having to use support beams, which would have broken the illusion of suspension, the bridge had to be assembled and then installed in one piece.
Figuring out how the actually get the bridge into the building and then maneuvered into place caused some head scratching, until two R&H crew members — project superintendent Bob Parker and assistant superintendent Brian Drey — came up with an idea.
"We assembled (the bridge) and then swung it in via crane on the second floor of the west building, and then rolled it into place in one piece," Kremers said. "Keeping the bridge as one piece allowed LEVER to realize its design dream."
Ready and waiting
Even as the smell of fresh-cut wood fills the air of Redfox Commons, the building holds reminders of its history. Despite having old paint media blasted away, some of the trusses and beams still bear the ghosts of stenciled messages from the past, including a request to "Please keep balcony clear."
On the ground floor, splotches of red on a wall in an outdoor garden-like area and on the concrete floor of the east building can be seen from the days when the areas were used for painting equipment. Whether those splotches on the floor remain will likely be up to the tenant — or tenants — that eventually fill those spaces.
The building was designed and constructed with flexibility in mind. While the building could easily serve as a campus for a single tenant, it also could serve multiple tenants.
Along that latter line, one possible scenario, according to Langley, would be to find a single tenant for the smaller, 20,000-square-foot west side building and one or two tenants for the larger east side building, which contains a total of 40,000 square feet. That would allow the "jewel box" portion of the building to serve as a lobby with room for a reception desk and even a coffee shop.
L&L Investment Properties, however, is open to any configuration just as the firm is interested in looking at a range of tenant types. The zoning of the area allows for creative office ventures, retail and even light industrial operations, Langley said.
Kremers, Rappaport and the rest of the crew from R&H will likely keep an eye on the building as it settles into the neighborhood. The construction company recently moved into its new offices at Northwest 20th Avenue and Northwest Wilson, just down the street from Redfox Commons.
"From our perspective, we're feeling like this is a (time of) transition of the heavy industrial area into a more office, light industrial area," R&H project manager Rappaport said.