The Sun Shines Again on Portland Sustainability!

At the turn of the century, Portland was the envy of burgeoning sustainable cities. We were paving bike lanes, recycling, constructing LEED-certified buildings, and planning for the greenest future possible. Then, in 2008, the recession hit. Half of my fellow Architect friends lost their jobs! Those of us who could hold our passion for sustainable design persevered by volunteering for professional organizations such as the American Institute of Architects Portland chapter of the Committee on the Environment (AIA Portland’s COTE), International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Portland Collaborative, and Portland Materials Transparency Collective. We turned towards new careers that were still associated with architecture such as green building consulting, photography, construction, interior design, and teaching. As the market fell, we maintained our vision of Portland as the leading city in sustainable design.

Early into the recession, we were still making ambitious plans for projects such as the Oregon Sustainability Center (OSC) and the city’s first EcoDistrict. The OSC united us as we envisioned the world’s largest Living Building Challenge (LBC) building, an urban high-rise prepared to house the best of Portland’s green designers and thinkers. But when the OSC project deflated two years later, so did our green hearts. Without any visible signs of the building’s construction or other projects that matched our sustainable design values, many in the industry began to take any available design work just to make enough money to put food on their tables. Sustainability be damned.

Portland’s recent construction boom demanded local design and construction firms to add more jobs than the city had architects, engineers, and contractors. New-to-Portland designers with other value systems  started to flood our firms and our green heart has been slow to re-inflate to support innovative sustainable design. Was it because Portland’s green designers were still in famine mode? Was our brush with sustainable design just a fad? Did the out-of-town designers not pick up our environmental ethos?

Regardless, Portland’s pre-recession sustainable designers are still here and we are resilient. We’re working on out-of-state projects and we are heading up great professional organizations. With a concentrated effort, we can keep Portland green.

The idea of Sustainable Building Week (SBW) came about from frustration – as chair of American Institute of Architects Portland chapter of Committee on the Environment (AIA Portland’s COTE), I found it difficult to organize a green building to tour amid all the cranes dotting the skyline. Sure, there were LEED buildings and there was the lone 50% energy reduction building, but this was all I could find.  Shouldn’t designers be pushing the envelope beyond LEED and explore designing a zero energy building? Shouldn’t we have more than one LBC project building? Shouldn’t we be able to get the June Key Delta building to full LBC certification by now?!

Last year a meeting with five professional organizations all which provide similar opportunities to Portland’s design community (building tours, green bag educational sessions, “green drink” happy hours, and other networking and educational events) discussed how we could work together toward a common goal of promoting sustainable building with the aim of cross promoting each other’s events instead of competing with them. The idea grew into a focused week on sustainability. It continued to expand to include additional organizations that are supporting design and construction professionals.

SBW’s aim is to put sustainability back into the forefront of Portland’s design conversations. Environmental values must be fully integrated into the design process and not tacked onto a building as an afterthought. Our city’s professional organizations must collaborate to illustrate the importance and the feasibility of sustainable design to Portland’s design and construction community and one week of discussions, tours, and education is not enough. It’s the start of more to come.

If we can show that true sustainability is an integration of ideas, best practices, and ideas we can reclaim the throne as the greenest city in the world!


by Webly Bowles, Portland Sustainable Building Week Executive Committee Officer

Note: Portland Sustainable Building week is run by three Executive Committee Officers with support from the 14 collaborating organizations.