Land | Ecotrope

Sprouting A Living Building From A Gas Station

Ecotrope | Dec. 24, 2012 12:42 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:27 p.m.

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Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters Althea Chavis, left, and Chris Poole-Jones have poured more than a decade of energy into turning an old gas station in North Portland into a certified living building – the highest in green building standards.

Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters Althea Chavis, left, and Chris Poole-Jones have poured more than a decade of energy into turning an old gas station in North Portland into a certified living building – the highest in green building standards.

How did a group of retired women raise the money to turn a contaminated gas station into the greenest of green buildings?

Well, it took more than a decade, a ton of volunteer work, a mountain of donations and incessant thriftiness. But they’re nearly there.

The story of the June Key Delta Community Center is the first in a series about thinking outside the box on environmental issues. In this case, the sisters of Portland’s Delta Sigma Theta, an alumni chapter of an African-American service sorority, are demonstrating an innovative way of achieving the rigorous Living Building certification: Slowly, in phases, and using the most affordable materials.

The group started with an old gas station on the corner of North Ainsworth and North Albina that was purchased by a sorority sister, June Key, in 1992. It was a designated Brownfield site that had to be decontaminated before it could be redeveloped.

It’s now a well on its way to being a community center with a Living Building certification – the highest environmental performance standard.

The June Key Delta Community Center still has the remnants of the former gas station it once was, but the site has been overhauled using green materials and native plants.

The June Key Delta Community Center still has the remnants of the former gas station it once was, but the site has been overhauled using green materials and native plants.

After years of holding garage sales and fund-raisers, soliciting donations and enlisting volunteers, the June Key Delta Community Center has most of the qualifications needed to become a Living Building – an ambitious green building standard that calls for net zero energy and net zero water, non-toxic, recycled and locally sourced building materials, as well as a litany of other low-impact building measures.

This gas station at the corner of North Ainsworth and North Albina in Portland was designated a contaminated Brownfield site before the Delta Sigma Theta sorority took it on as a green building project.

This gas station at the corner of North Ainsworth and North Albina in Portland was designated a contaminated Brownfield site before the Delta Sigma Theta sorority took it on as a green building project.

Green building often means more expensive building. The Delta Sigma Theta sorority didn’t have deep pockets or expertise in green building.

“We’re not green or building industry people,” said sorority member and project coordinator Chris Poole-Jones. “We’re retired women, mostly educators and social workers.”

In contrast to another proposed Living Building in Portland, the grand but unfunded $62 million Oregon Sustainability Center, the June Key Delta project took an existing building and added green features as money became available through donations and grants.

Even now, 13 years after the fund-raising began, the sorority is just getting to the point of installing solar panels, and has yet to begin funding the water treatment system that will be needed to achieve net zero water.

“We finished what we could with funding we had,” said Poole-Jones. “Everything in here was cost effective because it had to be.”

The floors inside the June Key Delta center are made from recycled tires, and the windows were salvaged from a University of Washington building. The lights are motion-censor to save electricity and the heating and cooling system is powered by geothermal energy.

The floors inside the June Key Delta center are made from recycled tires, and the windows were salvaged from a University of Washington building. The lights are motion-censor to save electricity and the heating and cooling system is powered by geothermal energy.

Sorority members pledged $180,000 of the $900,000 the group has spent on the project, and Poole-Jones, a retired Portland Public Schools library administrator, saved on spending by doing all the administrative work for free.

“I was learning as I went,” she said. “Whenever the city would hand me something, I would go research it and give it back to them. They confessed to us two weeks before our grand opening that they really didn’t think we were going to do it.”

Architect Mark Nye designed the building around what the sorority had on-hand: The existing gas station, old cargo containers, salvaged glass, and donated building materials. He used the existing footprint and added 1,200 square feet of space for a kitchen and bathrooms with the cargo containers.

The remodeled building officially opened in August of 2011 with two bioswales and a patio of permeable brick to capture and filter storm water, a community garden, a geothermal heating and cooling system, flooring made from recycled tires, salvaged cedar siding, sinks and other materials from the Rebuilding Center and recycled paint from Metro.

“The building is like recycle heaven,” said Poole-Jones.

The rooftop of the June Key Delta Community Center will soon be lined with solar panels that will allow the building to produce all the energy it needs.

The rooftop of the June Key Delta Community Center will soon be lined with solar panels that will allow the building to produce all the energy it needs.

The center will soon get the solar panels needed to achieve net zero energy with a Blue Sky grant from Pacific Power.

“When we were constructing the building, the panels were part of the plan,” Poole-Jones said, “but we didn’t have the money to do it.”

The sorority recently awarded a contract to Synchro Solar, a company that is 50 percent owned by women, to install the panels by spring.

Now, the group faces the last of seven petals in the Living Building Challenge: Net zero water.

Poole-Jones said recycling all of the water used in sinks and toilets on site will be a little more complicated than the work they’ve done so far. It will take a $30,000 to $40,000 treatment system and a special permit from the city of Portland that has yet to be done for a commercial building.

“It’s doable,” she said. “If we work at it.”

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