State of Change: Building Our Shells

“The attitudes of Oregonians toward climate change are somewhat unknown, but small-scale surveys indicate that many residents of our state would consider it a problem worth attention by policymakers.”
Oregon Climate Assessment Report

For Oregon BEST, Johanna Brickman brings university researchers and businesses together to develop new solutions to environmental problems. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum, OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications)
For Oregon BEST, Johanna Brickman brings university researchers and businesses together to develop new solutions to environmental problems. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum, OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications)

By Lee Anna Sherman

PORTLAND, Oregon – Oysters and clams build their shells locally. Using only the most immediate minerals, chemicals and organic compounds to craft their shelters, the mulluscs are masters of waste-free, energy-efficient, life-sustaining construction.

A group of humans led in part by the Oregon University System has embarked on a similarly molluscan task: to construct a “living building” that taps directly into nature. Like a biological organism, the Oregon Sustainability Center in downtown Portland is designed to create energy from the sun, capture water from the sky and recycle outputs to the Earth. Workspaces will be alive with sensors giving continuous feedback to tenants on the fundamental questions driving the project: How are we protecting the planet? How can we do better?

“The built environment, as a form of both art and problem-solving, is a real, tangible expression of human connection to the Earth,” notes Johanna Brickman, an expert in sustainable architecture and a key participant in the endeavor. “It’s the shell that we build for ourselves.”

State of Change

State of Change

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The center’s planned use of 100-percent local, eco-friendly materials is just the beginning. More broadly, its creators envision it as a crucible for innovation. A “triple-net-zero” building — one that emits no carbon, generates its own energy, and produces no waste — it could showcase the world’s most advanced technologies in green construction.

The center is the serendipitous brainchild of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education, the City of Portland, the Oregon Environmental Council and Earth Advantage Institute, all of which were heading down the same built-environment path in 2008 when they bumped into each other and decided to join forces. The university researchers, architects, engineers, urban planners, environmentalists and entrepreneurs leading the project anticipate its role as an internationally recognized seedbed for life-sustaining technologies when it opens, possibly as early as 2013. But with a price tag of $62 million, it has hit a stumbling block: strapped state and city budgets. Financial support for the project will remain uncertain, The Oregonian reported in December 2011, until the Legislature votes in February and the Portland City Council votes in the spring.

Synergies of Energy

Johanna Brickman is all about the synergies of design, construction and adaptation to a rapidly changing environment. When she arrived in Portland in the late ‘90s, her resume featured degrees in studio art and environmental studies, four years of organic farming, and a stint as an artist for a Southern California architect. It all coalesced in a new position created for her at one of Portland’s leading firms, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects, to “inform their design from a sustainability perspective.” She began digging into alternative materials. “Organic farming taught me a lot about systems thinking — the interconnectedness of things,” she says. “In my work, I’m always looking at the intersection of culture and natural systems — anthropology, policy, biology — and how all of that merges with self-expression.”

With LEED certification just emerging as the “industry’s catapult” toward sustainability, Brickman grew her team at ZGF to eight before taking on her current challenge: speeding up commercialization of emerging technologies and spurring technical solutions to environmental problems by bringing university researchers and private businesses together. “If you push these two groups together as much as possible and force that interaction, you’d be surprised at what pops out,” says Brickman.

Brickman manages the Sustainable Built Environment Program for Oregon BEST (Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center), a legislatively created research center that drives innovation in green building and renewable energy by connecting businesses with more than 200 researchers from Oregon State, Portland State, University of Oregon and Oregon Institute of Technology. Nearly half are from OSU. Rick Spinrad, OSU’s vice president for research, sits on BEST’s board of directors.
“Of the folks who have been involved in our research team, OSU has been disproportionately represented,” Brickman says.

“They’ve had a lot of interest and a lot of engagement. In terms of doing applied research, it’s been really rewarding to work with the OSU folks.”

Extending Resources

Scott Shull is Intel’s liaison with Oregon BEST. “We’re looking at closing the loop with the office worker, with the individuals who are in the building,” says Shull, a director in Intel’s Eco-Technology program and a member of Oregon BEST’s university-industry research consortium. “Intel, having spent 30 years making computing personal said, ‘Well, we can lead the way in making energy personal, too.’”

The “concept vehicle” Intel has developed is a PC equipped with light- and climate-sensing devices. “We call it POEM — personal office energy manager,” says Shull. “It detects ambient conditions — What’s the light? What’s the temperature? What’s the humidity? We’ll be able to integrate all this information, report it to the user and coach them if they want to do better.”

Oregon’s preeminence in life-sustaining policies, especially in transportation and land-use planning, is unquestioned, Brickman says. “We’re a state that has long relied on its natural resources for its success. Along with that comes an awareness of the need to preserve, to extend, to care for those resources — and an understanding of how that’s tied to your own sustainability.”