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Edlen & Co. honors downtown district's historic gems while incorporating modern resilience, sustainability.

COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE


It's not often that a building's essence can be found in its utility room. Certainly this was not the story I expected before taking a recent tour of the PAE Living Building. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP IMAGE - Brian Libby

After all, it's constructed from cross-laminated timber, part of a growing worldwide trend. ZGF's design had to fit the scale and stylistic cues of the Skidmore/Old Town Historic District, with its gorgeous 19th-century cast-iron architecture.

And particularly as a developer-driven office project, the PAE Living Building represents a vote of confidence for Portland's pandemic-beleaguered downtown core.

Yet this is not your average utility room. For starters, it's not hidden from view in the basement but located in the back of the ground floor with large windows, making theater from the compost machines, heat exchangers and water pipes at work. COURTESY PHOTO: LARA SWIMMER - The PAE Living Building's ground floor and upstairs window bays mimic the proportion of nearby historic buildings' arches, but in a contemporary, more angular interpretation.

It's all part of the PAE Living Building being just that: the first ground-up building in Portland to meet stringent Living Building Challenge strictures. For now, it's the greenest architecture in Portland, and a reminder that this city was once a world leader in sustainable design.

It's no wonder developer Edlen & Co. and anchor tenant PAE Engineers wanted to make the inner workings visible. After all, 100% of the building's water is collected and treated onsite, with the help of a 71,000-gallon cistern that holds rainwater and the equivalent of a mini sewage treatment plant that includes massive composting machines and a first-of-its-kind, multistory-vacuum-flush toilets.

In a speculative office project, the developers have made sustainability the selling point: an office you can feel good about frequenting in an age when you can work from home.COURTESY PHOTO: LARA SWIMMER - The compost machines, heat exchangers and water pipes at work in the utility room.

The PAE Living Building also uses 73% less energy than a typical office building. Its rooftop solar panels actually generate 105% of the building's needs, turning a modest profit. Which is to say nothing of the Living Building Challenge's stringent requirements for environmentally friendly materials.

Perhaps most important of all is the PAE Living Building's seismic resilience, which means if that predicted massive earthquake comes, you'll be safer here than just about anywhere indoors in Oregon.COURTESY IMAGE: LARA SWIMMER - The PAE Living Building also uses 73% less energy than a typical office building.COURTESY PHOTO: LARA SWIMMER - This is a view into the ground-floor utility room's compost machines. All 100% of the building's water is collected and treated onsite.

Located in a historic district and standing directly across Southwest First Avenue from two cast-iron gems, (1872's Smith Block and 1876's Railway Building), the PAE Living Building had to win approval from the city's Historic Landmarks Commission. It had to fit in.

Though unmistakably contemporary, ZGF's design is crisp and timeless, extrapolating its neighbors' classical and gothic arches into faintly similar rectangular facade forms.COURTESY PHOTO: LARA SWIMMER - The building's ground floor and upstairs window bays mimic the proportion of nearby historic buildings' arches, but in a contemporary, more angular interpretation.

While that ground-floor utility room makes an unlikely display, the rest of the lobby is modest: no grand staircase or living room-like setting. Nor is there a rooftop park, another growing trend.

Yet the top floor, with massive glass walls that fold away like a luxury-home patio, is the kind of amenity that will become a people magnet. Working at home in sweat pants, you just can't get this kind of panorama, with Mount Hood and the Willamette River and the downtown skyline all in view. No one knows yet if we've completely turned the corner on COVID, but when we have, this is the kind of office people will return to.

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 (portlandarchitecture.com).


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