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Portland's 'Green' Building Finds New Life, Purpose - 2004-09-19

An historic 19th century warehouse in downtown Portland, Oregon, has found new life and purpose in the 21st century. Responding to demands of a new era, the building has been restored using renewable and recycled resources. Visitors are encouraged to take a self-guided tour of the building. At the front door, VOA's Rosanne Skirble picked up the free field guide for a closer look at the green makeover.

One hundred years ago the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, this two-story brick and timber structure was McCracken's warehouse, a place where builders came for sand and limestone. Later it served as a central shipping hub for dozens of independent trucking companies. It was also a great place to get a cup of coffee or buy a cigar.

Field guide in hand we walk across the parking lot to a wall marked with a small round icon that designates the landmark as a stop on the tour.

We are joined by Howard Silverman, a spokesman for Ecotrust, the environmental organization that owns and restored the building. "This former warehouse is on the streetcar line, which runs through downtown Portland, and so often visitors arrive on the streetcar and step off here, and then one of the first things that they would see is this remnant wall," he said. "This is an annex that sat on this spot to the original building. We deconstructed this annex and then used a lot of the materials here in the redevelopment.

"In fact this building set a city of Portland record for 98 percent of the materials that were from the reconstruction were either recycled or reused," continued Mr. Silverman. "The next plaque you would come to is on the wall there and it talks about bioswales. Bioswales are depressions that surround this parking lot. The parking lot itself uses permeable paving. The City of Portland encourages all residences and businesses to capture the water on site to relieve the burden on the river."

Skirble : Show me what you mean by that.

Silverman: Sure, these depressions that surround the parking lot are vegetated with various native plants and they drain not only this parking lot area, but on top of the roof the last stop on the tour is a garden rooftop and that absorbs rainwater and releases it back into the air. So probably the majority up to 80 or 90 percent of the rain that falls on this lot is captured on site. And what is not captured by the eco-roof is captured by these depressions, these so-called bioswales, instead of into the sewer system.

Skirble : So this is doing a job to keep the river clean.

Silverman: Right. You drive your car in the street. Drips of oil come off of your car. That flows into the curb and into the sewer system and that goes directly into the river. Whereas if you capture it on site through these bioswales then it can be filtered into naturally by the ground.

Howard Silverman leads us inside to a vast open space with a huge overhead skylight. Two dozen smaller skylights are arranged over the offices on the second floor. He points out other eco-features too. The flooring is made of recycled tires. Fabric on the armchairs comes from recycled fiber. He says the retail shops like Hot Lips Pizza are committed to sustainable building practices.

Silverman: This pizza shop uses wheat that is organic wheat. It comes from a farmer from eastern Washington [state], ordered specially. Hot Lips Pizza is also using the heat from the ovens to heat the water. They are reusing their energy from their ovens.

Skirble : It is a lot of fun to look at this building because there are so many interesting spaces the new and the old and how you have integrated both.

Silverman: That's exactly what we have tried to accomplish. It is through the open spaces that a building can develop a community among the tenants. So you have places where people can sit together, meet together, interact with each other.

Visitors are invited to come in and stay for a while. There's a public atrium, a resource center and an outdoor terrace with a fireplace. Howard Silverman of Ecotrust hopes visitors learn more about green building innovations and support putting them into practice around their city and elsewhere around the country.