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Architect overseeing renovation of Michael Graves's famous PoMo post box says it was $195 milion well-spent

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - Architect Carla Weinheimer of DLR Group in front of the Portland Building, which reopens March 19 after a $195 million remodel. Weinheimer says the designers, the city and the contractor collaborated ably on the project.

Carla Weinheimer, a principal architect at DLR Group, is a justice and public project specialist.

She's used to designing everything from prisons to colleges — and some prisons that look like colleges. So Michael Graves's postmodern Portland Building was in good hands at DLR. The leaky, dingy box on Fifth Avenue between Main and Madison streets was work-home to a thousand city workers for nearly four decades until it was cleared out for a $195 million renovation. Now, as it approaches its grand reopening on March 19, Weinheimer talks about what it was like working on an architectural landmark, how the team of city, contractor and architect collaborated, and how prisons should feel.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Although Michael Graves' small windows remain small, the tinted glass has been replaced with more thermally efficient triple pane clear glass, letting a lot more light into what was a notoriously dingy building. A new ceramic skin should keep the rain out.

Business Tribune: Now that city workers are moving back in, what changes are they seeing inside the building? Will the public still be wandering the halls looking for parking permits and summer camp sign-ups?

Carla Weinheimer: What we worked on was giving the bureaus more flexibility and how they wanted to have their staff sitting. What kinds of collaborative spaces they wanted to have. It's really about adding that sort of layer of flexibility in the workplace. We now have shared meeting space in the building so that the bureau spaces are very much focused on the workplaces. The first floor is now a reception desk. They're really going to be using that level to engage with the public.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - Architect Carla Weinheimer of DLR Group in front of the Portland Buildings revamped loggia, which now has big windows looking in to the new reception, symbolic of open government and ease of access to services.

BT: The dark loggia, the overhang where the shops used to be on the southwest corner, has been brightened up, with big new windows that look straight into the reception. Why?

CW: So, when the public comes down here, they know what's going on inside.

There's a reception. It's more open. It's kind of expressing the idea of open government and the fact that you're welcome. (In 1982) it was a big part of urban design thinking, the small retail vendors at the base of the building. That was considered at the time the best way to handle an activated streetscape. There's come to be a good understanding that a civic building really wants to open itself up to the street.

BT: What's the plan if people start pitching tents here and staying the night?

CW: I can take you to the regulations for this area, they're posted. The city has security.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The ceramic tiles are the last piece to be completed in the Portland Building renovation. The interior is done and 600 city workers had moved back in by mid-January. The official reopening is March 19, 2020.

BT: This was a design-build project, where the architect and contractor work closely together, and the owner (the city) doesn't have to act like a mediator. How did that work out?

CW: Design-build means that the contractor has the primary contract with the owner, and then the architect and the designers contract with the contractor.

So, we come together as a single entity, the design-build team, that then contracts directly with the city. Kristen Wells is the project manager with the city, and Todd Miller was the project manager for the contractor, Howard S. Wright. The three of us were a core team of the contractor, owner and architect … for this sort of progressive design-build project. This is one of the more exciting things. I think we did a terrific job in terms of the workplace (reconfiguring) and the whole story of the historic preservation is amazing. But the progressive design-build, it's one of the first large-scale ones done in Portland and certainly the first one done by the city. It's been a showcase for collaborative delivery, with the kind of results that we saw in terms of being almost a year early and within our budget.

BT: What is progressive design-build?

CW: It is a fairly new model. Progressive design-build has to do with the contracting timing, and the fact that the first contract is not the entire design-build contract, it's just the scoping contract. Once the parties all agree on the scope of the project and the feasibility of the project, then the contracting goes into more traditional design-build forums.

In the scoping contract, we come together as a team with the owner and we work together on what to do with that $195 million to get the best value for that project for the city.

Then when we get to that point where we've understood how we want to proceed, and that the project makes sense, then it transitions to a more traditional contract for construction that includes the designer and the contractor.

BT: Why did the city want progressive design-build on the Portland Building renovation?

CW: Because they felt that there was a lot of unknown aspects of the project. It wasn't obvious how to fix the exterior or what level of seismic we wanted. We needed to do a lot of studies together to understand how we wanted to spend the money.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The Portland Buildin'g loggia (walkay) now looks through big windows into the new reception, inviting the public into the home of many city government services, such as water, parks, parking, environment etc.

BT: As the core team, how did you relate to each other? Was everyone equal?

CW: We each had our areas of responsibility. Everybody had things that were not just important to them, but that was our role and our responsibility. It's really a three-legged stool. We (DLR Group) have a responsibility for design quality, and that it meets the requirements of the project that everyone's expecting. When we would work together, we had a great understanding of the importance of each of our roles and learned to be respectful of each other.

When there were issues that needed to be addressed, we could be addressing it from our perspective. This is what this process is doing for the design. This is what it's doing for the construction. This is what it's doing for the city.

All of those things were important. The city engineer was thrilled to see in the BIM process, which is the three-dimensional modeling process, what he was going to get in the building, and who could advise us about some things that maybe were maintenance issues that we wouldn't have been as aware of. So everybody had a role in the conversation. When the building is done, there's a sense of pride of ownership on all the parts — not that we own the project.

One of the really important conversations had to do with what was the best way to do the exterior? It shouldn't leak anymore, and light should come into this building. And that it shouldn't be a 10-year solution. And the city said it needed to be very respectful to the historical integrity.

Because that was so complicated we actually put together a decision matrix chart. They were lined out, scored, and evaluated in a very rigorous way with the whole team.

BT: Was it a piece of paper, the kind of thing you pin up on the wall?

CW: No, it's more like an Excel-type analysis, with some Word files

BT: How much collaboration was virtual? How much was being in the same room?

CW: One of the things we did on this project is what's called a co-location. We were all in the same room for three and a half years. You know, not the whole team, but at different times there would be a lot more there. The three of us were very much there.

That certainly contributes to a healthy atmosphere and communication, for sure. Probably the biggest differentiator in terms of the success of projects is having people working together that trust each other, and can be honest with each other.

BT: Would you recommend it for any other projects in the future?

CW: Oh, absolutely. I think it has been proven how projects truly succeed, is when they get that spirit of collaboration, regardless of the delivery model.

I personally think it's suited to almost every type of project. And there are certain types of clients that maybe aren't as comfortable with it. And so they'll choose a different model.

BT: We hear a lot about how schools are trying to foster collaboration. Have you seen this? Are younger architects more collaborative?

CW: I do think our younger architects are very interested in being part of the conversation. And that's one way maybe to define collaboration is that more people are in the conversation. I don't think any of us were, coming up. But maybe we didn't have a choice when people were just telling us what to do every day and we didn't have the opportunity to share our thoughts.

BT: The Portland Building is basically a box that was poorly executed, and if it wasn't famous and Graves hadn't made it look cool, it would have been replaced with something taller.

CW: You know, actually, I can't say that. Because I believe they put all thoughts aside and did an analysis before any of us came on board. They made a decision that the most cost-effective and prudent way to spend public dollars was to renovate the building. It had the benefit of preserving a historic icon, but I'm told financially it was the better solution.

PMG:  JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The Portland Building's cartoon-like neo classical touches, which made the building so post-modern, have been restored.

BT: What was it like dealing with the city? Was it different because the city's the client?

CW: No, no, we had the same permitting process. And of course, because we're the client, they were probably even more making sure they did the right thing. Erica Cedar, who's one of my senior architects on the project, she took on that sort of direct relationship. I really enjoyed it very much. We got to work with bureau directors. They really did a terrific job getting together at the beginning and participating in the visioning for how the workplace should be in the future. It was fun to hear what they cared about and figure out how to make it happen.

We really were listening to the interests of the city. I don't think there's anybody that doesn't know that it wasn't one of the more pleasant places to work just because of the physical lack of light and so on.

BT: What's the last thing an architect does at the end of a project?

CW: The last thing I'll probably do is be a participant in the grand opening on March 19. I need to move on to other projects. I've got a project down with Benton County and a project with Lane County, helping them figure out the bond for their big courthouse.

BT: You make jails and courthouses that are good to look at?

CW: Sure, I always like things to look good, but we're very much interested in improving the experience of a detention facility.

I worked on one with a different firm Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility in San Diego, a woman's jail. They asked that it'd be like a normal place to be, so we made it more like a community college campus with landscape and views to nature. This sense of treating people humanely, and environments that make them feel comfortable that they will have a better outcome … Because there's more of an attitude that we really need to help people get better instead of just having them get worse and go back in.

COURTESY: DLR GROUP - The MacLaren housing building by DLR. It was designed to give guests of the Oregon Youth Authority a more humane place to work on their issues, compared to conventional juvie.

BT: Have you seen that reality show "Jailbirds" set in a claustrophobic women's prison where they all communicate through the toilet?

CW: No. This would be the opposite. We also completed the McLaren housing in Woodburn with the Oregon Youth Authority. It's new housing that is more therapeutic. It's become looked at nationally as a model. It's really just the housing unit, the way that it sets on the land and the way that it feels to be inside. The views to nature which are so key, and natural light. It's very secure.

When we get a new client, we talk about the opportunities for doing something a little different than what they might have expected. And because we have examples from all over the country, we can say here are the outcomes that you know. With the San Diego project between the old facility and the new, there was a significant reduction in violence on campus. So, there's real stuff. And staff retention: If it was a horrible environment as a staff person, it doesn't matter that you aren't incarcerated, you are in that building for your shift and you know if there's no light and it doesn't smell good and all those things, it's not good for staff retention.

My partner Erica Ceder is just a terrific architect. We presented at the National AIA conference this year in Las Vegas (about the Portland Building).

For the architectural community, the story that's especially interesting is the preservation story, because there's so many buildings from this era that are starting to need to be corrected.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The colocation space where the city, contractor Howard S. Wright and architect  DLR Group worked on the 'progressive design build' delivery of the renovation of the Portland Building. Being in the same room meant they could solve issues quickly, and the city didn't have to constantly mediate between the designer and builder. This space will probably be contracted out to a childcare business for the office workers. Note the wooden model of the building in the center.

BT: Do designers get real world help from the trades as they do their work?

CW: With the progressive design build model we are able to bring on the trade partners into the design process very early. Benson Industries was our trade partner on the exterior, it's the enclosure specialist that built the exterior.

It was a very complex part of the job. And so having that support from the trade partners early on (helped), and that included early support from mechanical, electrical and plumbing trade partners…to get the pricing right. We also did a very aggressive BIM (Building Information Management) modeling process with the trade partners so that we knew exactly what was going to happen, and there wasn't a lot of redo during construction.

In the traditional model of delivery we do the design, it goes out to bid and the trade partners come on. So we go through an entire design period with no input from people that do this every day in the field. Designers are specifying equipment and they're specifying the performance but the actual product itself, they kind of know the size of it, but the installer knows so much more about it.

(In progressive design build) you have a group of people with all the expertise set the table to make really smart decisions earl, and you're not learning things later when the trade partners come on.

BT: So it's about collaborating sooner?

CW: If we can get everybody to collaborate in the design phase with the design thinking on the on the engineering for the systems, and the installation, thinking coming together, and the architectural design thinking and having all that come together in a really healthy collaborative environment, then it's a more efficient process, and it yields better results. Because you don't learn things in the wrong time, like discover that you have a coordination problem in the field. You discover it before you get to the construction.

BT: How do you push a point through? Do you have a particular style?

CW: That's very dependent on the audience. I'm really trying to understand if there's something that's important that needs to be communicated, or an important decision needs to be made, rather than just saying 'It's got to be like this because blah, blah, blah, blah…' It needs to be explained in a way that matches and refers back to the values that the project team had developed together. It's not about us. It's not our project. After it's done, it's their project.

BT: Where did you learn this skill?

CW: I guess I would just say, being an architect and caring about not only the built environment and also caring for our clients, I genuinely do like to make clients feel good about the result. There's nothing worse for me than doing a building and maybe it's famous but no one likes it.

(We ask) what does it feel like to be somebody coming to a building and trying to find services? How do you want people to feel? So, what is a building doing to help with that? What if you want more collaboration between the people that work in the building? How do you set up the floors to make that happen?

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Hear from Carla Weinheimer in the BizTrib podcast.


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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