The city's first Living Building Challenge-certified project is about not just sustainable materials but cultivating a sense of place.
On a recent weekday visit to Mahlum Architects' new office in the renovated Custom Blocks, the silence was inescapable. What should have been a hive of activity was instead an empty vessel, awaiting the staff's post-pandemic return.
Yet amidst the concrete floors and exposed old-growth timber trusses of this 90-year-old cluster of former warehouses, you could see not just the mark of generations past but a way forward for workplace designs.
Although the desk area provided more than six feet between workstations (a social distancing-friendly move planned before the pandemic), it was still only a fraction of the larger space. Much of the square footage was given to small collaborative workrooms, a large community gathering space, and a kitchen.
Mahlum's office has also become the first Portland project to earn Living Building Challenge certification for sustainable design, perhaps the industry's most rigorous. The skylights and salvaged materials aren't just aesthetically pleasing. They're chosen responsibly and honor the building's gritty heritage.
For the past several decades, passers-by on Southeast Main would hear the rhythmic clangs of the Custom Stamping company's massive machines, which shaped thin metal sheets into airplanes and automobile parts to order. Decades before that in the 1930s, a Chevrolet showroom, and several car repair facilities were the original tenants.
The block-sized complex was renovated for developer Capstone Partners by Scott Edwards Architecture in 2018, including a seismic upgrade that's evident in huge X-shaped cross-braces inside. An easy walk from downtown, there is a burgeoning sense of community from the group of creative companies headquartering here, centered around a 200-foot lobby that cuts across the middle of the entire block.Achieving the 'Petal' level of Living Building Challenge certification, it met a combination of environmental design requirements centered around material selection without achieving full LBC status, like the better-known Bullitt Center in Seattle. Even so, no Portland project had ever met these requirements before, which included extensive outreach to companies all over the world to make sure their carpets, paints and other products were free of damaging chemicals.
Even after a Covid-19 vaccine, chances are offices will never be quite the same. While it may be difficult for schools and other institutions to operate remotely, many white-collar workers have found they prefer working from home, liberated from the commute. As a result, future offices are likely to devote higher percentages of spaces to meeting spaces, freed from providing every employee a desk. This trend was building even before the pandemic, but will only accelerate now.
Along the way, post-pandemic office design will become not less but more important. Surveys have found that while people appreciate the option to work remotely, they miss the synergy of in-person collaboration. So creating places where people actively want to be, like in this warehouse amidst the skylights and the sofas where the stamping machines used to be, means they won't remain silent for long. Soon the energy here will have a rhythm of its own.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.