Scott Edwards Architecture renovates East Burnside headquarters
COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE
When Scott Edwards Architecture purchased a circa-1947 former warehouse on East Burnside Street and 25th Avenue shortly before the firm's 10th anniversary in 2007, its 8,000 square feet seemed limitless.
"We were like, 'We'll never outgrow this,'" recalls firm principal Peter Grimm.
But outgrow it they did, as Scott Edwards over the ensuing post-recession years became known for some of Portland's best houses, not to mention brewpubs, libraries and health clinics, all underscored by a collaborative firm culture devoid of prima donnas. It was only reluctantly that in recent years the firm went shopping for new space, its staff having grown fond of East Burnside's mix of blue-collar businesses, new restaurants and old homes. There was something about the creative energy the old warehouse inspired.
Thankfully, an even older building next door, a former pet hospital completed in 1928, became available for purchase, giving Scott Edwards the extra space they needed without abandoning the roots they'd put down over 15 years — or their favorite barbecue spot across the street. The resulting firm headquarters is a successful fusion of two buildings as well as a hybrid of old and new. Quite simply, it's a potential magnet at a moment when that matters more than ever.
As office workers are tentatively, partially returning to their desks, commercial interiors must do more now to attract and retain employees, not only in competition with other companies but in competition with their homes. It's not just architecture or convivial neighborhood that makes the best attractor. It's both. With downtown still only slowly coming back, spots like these make sense to double down on.
"We always loved the neighborhood," Grimm says. "When this opportunity presented itself, everyone went, 'OK, we can choose our own adventure now.' We could chart our own course."
After losing firm co-founder Kelly Edwards to cancer in 2016, the headquarters could mark a new era for Sid Scott and colleagues.
Not every architecture firm uses its office as calling card. Most occupy spaces they didn't design, and are there for practical reasons: location, square footage, cost. But sometimes firms seize the opportunity to tell their own architectural story. Take ZGF, the city's largest firm, which occupies a several lower floors at 2009's 12 West, the glass-ensconced, 23-story downtown condo of its own design. Or Mahlum Architects, which in 2020 retrofitted a portion of the Custom Blocks, a century-old industrial property in the Central Eastside, into its office, along the way becoming first in Portland to meet rigid Living Building Challenge guidelines for sustainable design and construction.
From outside, the expanded Scott Edwards headquarters blends in, the only giveaway that behind its storefront lies something more being a series of thin strips of pine to shading the vet-clinic building's upstairs glass. Above is a rooftop amenity space that allows employees to take in a 180-degree view looking west toward the Cascades and east toward downtown, over the treetops and the nearby auto-body shop.
Passing from the lobby into the wide-open main former warehouse space, it's hard not to gawk at the original Douglas fir bowstring ceiling trusses. The architects smartly left this beautiful engineering and craftsmanship exposed, merely adding to its array of original skylights, while inserting into the middle a series of small stand-alone, cube-shaped meeting areas as well as a tech-equipped open space in the middle with room for the whole firm to gather, both in person and remotely. Yet even the trusses arguably play a supporting role now, to the wide-open stairway and gathering spot between these two buildings. The space is flooded with natural light, and the mini-atrium it's part of creates on the west wing of the building — in the former vet hospital — a multi-story open space adjacent to the warehouse.
None of these moves are revolutionary. Yet as Scott Edwards marks its 25th anniversary, the building's 75th anniversary and the 15th anniversary of moving into this modest East Burnside office, as the milestones seem to indicate, maybe it's more than two buildings that are converging.
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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