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Green Building for All
Sarah Kuck, 21 May 09

Three Examples of How to Achieve Equity While Building Green from Portland, Ore.

Green buildings: their designs grace the covers of architecture magazines; their rooftop gardens win awards for environmental friendliness, and their overall efficiency and beauty help them go for top dollar on the market. But who can afford to live in them?

In order for buildings, especially multi-family apartment buildings to be truly bright green they must be within the reach of average people. But how?

To investigate this question and other issues surrounding green building and design, "deep green" professionals met at the third annual Living Future unconference in Portland, Ore., last week. On the first day, attendees had the opportunity to visit three of Portland's best examples of affordable, green buildings: Central City Concern's Richard Harris Building, Reach Community Development's Station Place Tower and the Turtle Island Development LLC's Sitka Apartments.

These buildings are located in Portland's River District, a City designated Urban Renewal Area. In all of these areas, 30 percent of the money raised from taxes must be spent on affordable housing. The rest of the money that is brought forward from the tax pays for street and storefront improvements, parks and alternative transportation. This initiative has been hugely successful, and has brought equity to a rapidly developing district.

"Over its history, the district has maintained and built 7,500 housing units, of that 3,000 units are affordable," said Ben Gates, a project manager and in-house architect for the nonprofit Central City Concern. "Herein lies what’s really interesting about this district -- by creating this priority for affordable housing they were able to achieve an equity of income ranges across this whole neighborhood that is representative of the city of a whole."

The Richard L. Harris Building
8NW 8th Ave
Central City Concern


A project of Central City Concern, the Richard L. Harris Building was completed in 2004 with public funding as a way to invest in Portland's homeless drug addicts and alcoholics to help them become productive, active members of society.

The high-rise building has 180 units, and hosts several social service offices so residents can receive on-site care. Men and women live on the single room occupancy floors when they first arrive, and move up to the studio apartments once they have been clean and sober for a period of time.

The building was developed on brownfield, using quality materials, and was designed to last for 100 years. It features passive solar design and UV tinted windows, which will keep energy bills down. This was an essential goal for the developers, not just for environmental reasons, but also for the success rate of the building's tenants -- if tenants default on their utility bills, they have to leave the complex.

On the tour, we were told that all of the common areas were designed specifically to encourage community interaction. Due to this, peer interaction continues to be a significant reason why the people who live here continue to have a high success rate (88 percent are clean and sober within six months). Additionally, Gates said, this atmosphere of community interaction also helps to keep the neighborhood clean and drug free.

"All the drug dealers are off on a different street because the residents here know who to look out for, they don’t want them in their backyard," Gates said. "They get rid of anybody who is selling. The residents here pick up needles from the neighborhood play park and in general look out for the neighborhood."

As we left the building, we took note of the building's entryway. The face of the first two floors are all glass, designed to create a sense of transparency and trust between the tenants and the community.

The Station Place Tower
1020 NW 9th Ave
REACH Community Development


A project of REACH Community Development, the Station Place Tower was completed in 2004 as affordable housing for mixed-income seniors.

The high-rise building has 176 units, and offers residents a variety on on-site services, including financial planning assistance and free computer and Internet use. Men and women above the age of 55 are allowed to apply.

Similar to the Richard L. Harris building, the Tower was also developed on brownfield, using quality materials, and is expected to last for 100 years. It features passive solar design, three green roofs, and one rooftop community garden. The building is walking distance to many amenities, including public transportation, parks and grocery stores. This proximity has nearly eliminated the need for residents to own their own cars, said Dee Walsh, the Executive Director of REACH. Currently, only 19 of the 176 unit's residents have requested one of the building's available parking spots.

The building was the first in the city use a rainwater harvesting system to fill many of its toilet tanks. Rainwater is collect in a cistern located in the parking garage, and delivered to 80 tanks on six floors. Although there are laws against this (as tank water is to remain potable in case of emergency), the developers were able to sidestep this barrier by placing locks on the toilet tanks and labeling them as unsafe for drinking (mental images of this elicited several giggles from the tour group). In addition, Walsh mentioned that all toilets in the building are dual flush.

To end the tour, we traveled up to the building's community garden, where lettuce leaves were growing alongside tulips. Although, the building's tenants are obviously not dependent upon the produce grown on the roof, the vegetation made for a lovely green space where residents can relax and enjoy the view of the city center.

The Sitka Apartments
1115 NW Northrup
Turtle Island Development LLC


Of the three buildings, the Sitka Apartments was the only for-profit, mid-rise venture featured on the tour. Located on a full city block, the apartments hold 210 units, of which 198 are affordable to families earning below 60 percent of median family income, said Ed McNamara, of Turtle Island Development, LLC. As an additional feature, one of the 210 units is a guest unit where tenants can house out of town visitors for $50 a night.

The Sitka Apartments, which opened in 2005, offers tenants proximity to city parks, public transportation and many local amenities. The building was developed with energy and water efficiency in mind. To help residents save money and fossil fuels, Turtle Island installed 100 secure indoor parking spots for bicycles, and have outfitted the building with quality insulation, windows and ventilation systems, which are so efficient that it has lowered the average tenant's electric bill to about $14 (after the utility's surcharge) per month, McNamara said. In addition, the developers installed water saving devices throughout the building. As a result, while the average Portland resident uses 68 gallons of water per day, the average Sitka resident uses only 40.

With nearly 95 percent of the building available as affordable housing, the Sitka Apartments truly does live up to its moniker as the neighborhood's first workforce housing development.

After leaving the steps of the Sitka Apartments, the tour group strolled back through the park toward downtown. On my walk, I couldn't help but notice how calm and organized this area of town appeared. Once home to polluting industries and unsavory characters, the River District now boasts clean streets, lush parks and tidy shops. At first glace, one might assume this area is a homogeneous area, accessible only to the neuvo riche. But thanks to the City, this district has become an upper-class neighborhood by design, while maintaining an economically diverse population.

Redeveloping and retooling our cities means investing upfront to insure quality materials and sustainable development plans. This includes thinking about how to improve a neighborhood for all residents. Although there are costs that come with these investments, a dedication to equality and durability ensures long-term sustainability for the entire community.

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Posted by: David on 22 May 09

Love the new green buildings. I would like to hear more about the ways in which old buildings are renewed. The ulitmate green building is an old building that functions like a new green building. It is a big challenge and we can do it.

Posted by: Chris Pratt on 26 May 09

Thanks for this story. Portland Oregon is leading the way in so many departments! Here at Home Energy magazine, we like to see perfomance data on buildings like this. So 6 months down the road, or a year down the road, how are the investments in energy efficicency measures paying off? Are the buildings fully occupied? Have green jobs been created by the building itelf, or encouraged for the residents? Etc.
I'd like to hear similar stories, with performance results post-occupancy...Keep up the good work!
Leslie Jackson, Home Energy magazine

Posted by: Leslie Jackson on 26 May 09

Hi Leslie,

On the tour, I think the manager said that the Sitka apartments are above 90 occupancy, and there is a three year waiting list to get in. The other two buildings serve communities in great need of affordable housing. It is my assumption that those buildings also have high percentages of occupancy.


Posted by: Sarah on 26 May 09

These are obviously great projects. . . Unnlike market rate housing in which the investor typically has a very short ownership timeline, durability and energy efficiency have been a major factor in construction of affordable housing for some time. Green building became more main stream after the enterprise foundation 'green communities' program and now many states including Washington require all state funded affordable housing to meet a green standard.

As a developer, it's easy to develop green hosing when you have no other choice, the real question is how market rate housing (multi-family and single) can be adapted or rehabed for increased sustianability.

Posted by: Max on 26 May 09

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