I got a chance to tour the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal building in downtown Portland yesterday. It’s about seven weeks away from being completely renovated with green building features that should cut energy use by 55 percent and potable water use by 60 percent.
The high-rise housed more than 1,200 federal employees before the renovation – the IRS, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many other agencies have offices there.
They all had to move out during construction, and when they move back their building will have a rainwater collection system, solar panels on the roof and those distinctive vertical bars alongside the windows – designed to block solar heat and save energy in the summer (not to imprison the people inside).
The General Services Administration manages the building, and in 2009 the agency received funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, i.e. the Stimulus Bill, to help upgrade the aging building.
“The building was built in 1975,” said Patrick Brunner, project manager for the GSA. “It was basically worn out.”
But there were some strings attached to the stimulus money. The funding required the GSA to make major reductions in energy and water consumption.
To meet the Federal High-Performance Green Buildings requirements, designers added solar panels that will generate around 15 percent of the building’s energy needs, a 170,000-gallon rainwater collection cistern that feeds recycled water through toilets and into the garden, high-efficiency lighting, elevators that generate energy when they brake and shading devices that reduce energy needs in summertime.
The renovated building will use the waste heat generated by all the servers that house federal computer networks. And it maximizes natural light – even on the ground floor, where the ceiling has been cut open to let in daylight from windows on the floor above.
“This was a total cave before,” Brunner said as we walked through the second-lowest level of the building.
Even the stairwells have been redesigned to save energy. How is that possible? Well, they have cushioned stairs to minimize the sound of footsteps so employees may be more inclined to take the stairs instead of the elevator.
“We’re putting a sign next to the elevator that says ‘Please consider taking the stairs,’” said Jennifer Taylor, project manager with Sera, one of the architectural firm that designed the renovation.
The elevators themselves have “destination dispatch” – a system that tells people which elevator to take for the most efficient trip, and the renovation reduced the number of elevators from eight to six. That means more of the wiring and plumbing can go on the inside core of the building, and the outer offices can have more natural light, Taylor said.
Of course, these renovations aren’t cheap; the price tag for the project is $141 million, and Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., criticized it for wasting stimulus money.
“For $133 million, some may wonder why they did not simply tear it down and start over,” the senators wrote in their list of 100 wasteful stimulus projects.
But Brunner said the GSA did a cost-benefit analysis and found it was “cheaper and smarter to renovate.”
Designers originally considered a completely vegetated facade to shade the building – making it literally as well as conceptually green – but, Brunner said, “the risk of plant failure was too high.”
So they went with the metal shading devices – aluminum reeds fixed along seven fins on the west side of the building that will shade out 40 percent of the heat.
That allowed the designers to use an energy-efficient radiant system to heat and cool the building through coils in the ceiling. The system is so quiet, said Brunner, that the building is also equipped with “white noise” that can be dialed down over time as tenants “acclimate to the quietness.”