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Change agents

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Articles - June 2012
Tuesday, May 29, 2012

BY BRIAN LIBBY

0612 Tactics 01
From left: Kurt Schultz, Clark Brockman and Tim Smith head SERA's architectre, sustainability and planning teams. The Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt building in Portland is in the background.
// Photo by Eric Näslund

Ten years ago architect Clark Brockman and his wife took a year off to bicycle through Asia, a “bucket-list” experience that changed his career outlook. When he returned to Portland, Brockman wanted to make a difference. “I knew that meant sustainability,” he recalls. When he began looking for a firm to join, “It was clear SERA was the greenest firm in town, and I wanted to help grow that.”

Brockman arrived in 2002 amid a wave of change at the firm. First, there was a generational transition: founding partners George “Bing” Sheldon and Don Eggleston were beginning to think about retirement. Instead of selling the company, they created an employee stock option program. The move gave employees a sense of ownership — figuratively and literally, helping Portland-based SERA attract and retain talent. As Brockman came on board to head a new sustainability team, two more principals — Tim Smith and Kurt Schultz — had also recently been hired to oversee planning and architecture. SERA even had a new headquarters in the works: a renovated storefront in Old Town teeming with natural light. The project was designed in accordance with ecological principles laid out by The Natural Step, an environmental education nonprofit. It seemed to represent the marriage of Sheldon and Eggleston’s focus on renovations (including Portland’s City Hall) and the new commitment to sustainability.

The Great Recession, with real estate at the center of its storm, has been especially unkind to architects. Yet even in the darkest days of 2008 and 2009, when virtually no architecture firm in the city had much new business, SERA never laid off employees. The staff collectively decided on furloughs and pay cuts. Today its staff of 114 is nearly triple what Brockman encountered in 2002.

SERA is involved in some of the highest-profile work in Portland, such as the Oregon Sustainability Center (in collaboration with Portland firm GBD Architects), the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt federal building downtown, a new Central City Concern facility on Broadway, and the upcoming Collaborative Life Sciences complex (with California’s CO Architects) for Oregon Health & Science University in the South Waterfront district. Those are all public projects, a ray of hope to many firms when the condo bubble burst. But the firm is also busy in other regions such as China and the Middle East where economies continue to grow. SERA worked on the creation of Liwa, a whole city from scratch in the United Arab Emirates.

After surviving all that early in the 2000s, SERA’s leaders came to believe there was a competitive advantage in a culture of continuous adaptation to change and suppressing ego. “We’re the opposite of a ‘starchitect’ firm,” says Schultz. “We want as many smart people in the room as we can.”



 

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