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The new green giant

• Projects such as Brewery Blocks expand Portland's environmental scene • Beyond buildings, city's dream is to become a hub for the industry itself

Panels of wood harvested from sustainably managed forests dominate the lobby of Gerding/Edlen Development Co.'s new offices in the Brewery Blocks.

Translucent shelves in the glass-filled offices are suspended above employees' heads to bounce natural light onto desks and bookshelves.

Closets of wheat board Ñ a byproduct of harvesting wheat Ñ store supplies. Recyclable carpet, made up of individual tiles that can be replaced if stained, covers the floors.

Outside, solar panels generate 7 percent of the electricity used in the building's common areas.

These features have helped sell office space in this and other 'sustainable' buildings in the developer's fast-rising five-block Brewery Blocks project in the Pearl District. They're likely to win the building a designation by the U.S. Green Building Council as 'green,' or environmentally responsible.

Gerding/Edlen's Brewery Blocks buildings are the latest manifestation of a movement that has begun to change the face of Portland Ñ and has attracted national attention.

In fact, Portland has emerged in the last two years as the Mecca of the nation's green building movement.

The Green Building Council even has selected Portland, because of its reputation, as 'the logical choice' to host the council's 2004 international conference and exposition, which is expected to draw more than 3,000 attendees.

Christine Ervin, president and chief executive officer of the council, a Washington, D.C.-based national coalition of building industry leaders seeking to transform the built environment, calls Portland the 'epicenter' of green building.

In a report to the City Council on Wednesday, the Green Building Division of the city's Office of Sustainable Development fleshed out that boast with hard numbers.

As of the end of February, the division reported, 41 commercial and mixed-use buildings in Portland totaling 3.1 million square feet were implementing green building design and construction practices.

Of those, more than two dozen meet the most rigorous standards of the Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system. The 26 LEED-certified or -registered buildings are more than in any other city in the country, says Rob Bennett, manager of the city's Green Building Division.

The city also harbors dozens of green design and construction firms, the report to the City Council noted, as well as 'a robust cluster of green building-related manufacturers and vendors.'

'High-performance green buildings have become a key strategy to enhancing neighborhoods, mitigating building impacts on global warming, conserving natural resources and protecting human health,' says Dan Saltzman, the city commissioner in charge of the Office of Sustainable Development.

Dennis Wilde, senior project manager for Gerding/Edlen, says: 'We think this is smart business. Buildings that are more responsible and sustainable will stay leased.'

In the past year, more than 400,000 square feet of space in the firm's Brewery Blocks have been leased, while more than 700,000 square feet of space in the central business district have been vacated, Wilde says.

Green appeal may not be the entire explanation, but it's a big help, especially when it can be accomplished at little or no extra cost, Wilde says.

'Tenants won't pay extra for green features, but it adds to their appeal,' he says.

The result is that developers large and small, including Bill Naito, Melvin Mark, Walsh Construction and DPR Construction among others, are embracing the sustainable construction philosophy.

Incentives sweeten the pot

Portland's green building boom is driven by government agencies that appreciate the long-term benefits of environmentally responsible construction, regulations that penalize companies for producing pollution, and city and state incentives for going green, says Tim Smith, director of urban design and planning for Sera Architects in Portland, which designed a LEED-certified wine storage facility for Sokol Blosser Winery.

'Environmental problems have been costly. The regulatory and tax environments are forcing cities and states to look at this from a bigger-picture perspective,' Smith says.

In addition, the Green Building Council's creation four years ago of the LEED system established much-needed standards that allowed people to stop arguing about what was 'green' and to begin developing green buildings, says Greg Acker, architect for Portland's Green Building Division.

The city and the state offer incentives to builders that range from a state green-building tax credit Ñ which amounted to more than $350,000 in just one Brewery Blocks building Ñ and city incentives allowing for denser development if the project features environmentally sound features, Acker says.

Many looks

Green buildings in Portland include:

• Lewis & Clark's new student housing, built of recycled building materials and bathed in nontoxic paints, which is expected to be about 30 percent more energy efficient than more traditional structures.

• A social sciences building under construction at Lewis & Clark scheduled for completion in 2004 that will utilize natural ventilation; 'daylighting,' materials to enhance the use of natural light; and green materials.

• A new Multnomah County library branch being constructed in Hillsdale that will use natural light to reduce energy consumption and will incorporate automatic shades that cut heat gain.

• The Ecotrust Natural Capital Center, a renovated historic warehouse in Northwest Portland that features, among other things, an 'ecoroof' covered with soil mix and vegetation, and bioswales, also covered with plants, around the parking area, both designed to handle runoff that would otherwise pollute the river.

Portland's green building boom isn't being driven by economic considerations alone, says Gerding/Edlen's Wilde.

'There's a growing awareness among businesses that our planet is reaching a crisis point,' he says. 'Our tendency to extract from the earth and throw things away is contrary to the natural system of the planet.'

Even though more businesses in Portland are choosing to protect the planet's natural systems, the city hopes to motivate developers and architects to take bigger leaps, says Bennett.

The city would like more builders to incorporate photovoltaic panels and onsite biological waste-treatment facilities and other environment-friendly technologies in their projects. To encourage that, the city has an emerging technology fund that invests in local green companies that produce low-cost air quality monitoring systems, systems that collect rooftop rainwater for use in flushing toilets and other products.

The ultimate goal, Bennett says, is to ensure that Portland is not only a green-building Mecca, but a center for industries that support the green building movement.

'We want Portland to be a center for excellence in sustainability,' he says.