Oregon: state of green

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Articles - June 2013
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Building: Innovation vs. implementation

Number of green jobs: 6,067

For decades the state has been at the forefront of green construction trends aiming to reduce emissions from building activity. (Residential and commercial building accounts for about 35% of greenhouse-gas emissions in Oregon.) Yet other states are fast catching up.

In the mid-1970s, Oregon was among the first in the nation to incorporate energy conservation into its building codes. The rules have been tightened regularly, with the most recent code resulting in new buildings 10% to 15% more efficient than those built under the 2008 and 2007 rules. In recent years, though, such regulations have become less exceptional in a national context. Spurred by requirements attached to $3.1 billion in federal stimulus money through the 2009 State Energy Program, all but nine states now have an efficiency code, and many others meet the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code that formed a baseline for Oregon’s current standards.

Under Senate Bill 79, passed in 2009, Oregon also developed a “reach” code that builders can meet to exceed mandated efficiency standards. However, the Oregon Building Codes Division could not identify any commercial buildings certified under the voluntary standards.

Oregon ranked fifth for new LEED-certified space per capita in 2010 but then fell out of the top 10 states in 2011 and 2012. Building experts pointed to a surge in federal construction projects in the D.C. area, as well as regional variations in the U.S. construction market and changes to Oregon’s incentive programs in explaining the change. Still, Oregon’s green-building sector generates about $27 billion annually, according to the Cascadia Green Building Council.

Much of Oregon’s prominence in the sector resides at the project level. Last year Painters Hall in Salem became one of a handful of buildings worldwide recognized by the International Living Future Institute for net-zero energy use. In Portland’s South Waterfront district, the SERA Architects-designed Collaborative Life Sciences Building incorporates a 50,000-gallon rainwater tank for toilets and other non-potable use.

Not all ambitious buildings have left the drawing board. The Oregon Sustainability Center, a public/private partnership, was intended to be the country’s first office high-rise to meet the zero-impact aspirations of the Living Building Challenge. Efforts to get the center off the ground fell apart last fall after the legislature and the Portland City Council failed to support the $50 million project.

Oregon continues to lead the country in green-building innovation, says Nick Hartrich, Cascadia’s community engagement manager.

He pointed to Portland’s pioneering work on “ecodistricts,” which take a neighborhood, instead of building-based, approach to reducing energy impacts. The city is home to five designated ecodisctricts: communities working to coordinate waste management, transportation, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and district heating and cooling to improve sustainability. Despite these advances, roadblocks to green growth persist, and “capital is always at the top of that list,” Hartrich observes.

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