Recycling is an intrinsic value for most Northwesterners, ingrained as part of the culture. It is by no surprise that Northwest architects jump on any opportunity to upcycling a building. As part of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 several Northwest firms received money to do just that, and do it in a big way. This year one of those projects, the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building (EGWW) in Portland, received the high honor of being one of the American Institute of Architects’ Top Ten Projects in the nation. The existing 18-story, 500,000 sq. ft. office tower needed a remodel and modernization, as its 1974 design was lackluster at best and had notoriously bad working conditions. After the Cutler Anderson and SERA Architects rehabilitation, however, the LEED Platinum building is now a poster child for modern government buildings. The year before in 2013, another Recovery funded federal building in the Northwest also attained the AIA’s Top Ten Projects designation, the new home of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE): the Federal Center South 1202 building in Seattle, a building that should not be overshadowed by its larger counterpart to the south.
The new USACE building, known as the ‘oxbow,’ sits next to their old headquarters on a small federal campus in the industrial area of the Duwamish River south of downtown Seattle. The former offices, located in a century-old Ford automobile factory, are currently undergoing renovation so that other government agencies can consolidate onto the campus. The new USACE building was originally intended to be a remodel project similar to the EGWW, but the cost of reusing the existing warehouse turned out to be too high and was deemed unfit for their programmatic needs. Instead, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects proposed a new, energy-efficient building that would reuse as much of the old warehouse’s structure as possible.
The architects decided on the oxbow form in part as a reference to the old Duwamish River’s curvacious path that was straightened by the USACE long ago for shipping purposes. The oxbow shape also allowed the design team to wrap the program needs around a central core, a core that would contain all of the conference rooms and informal gathering places. After inventorying the reclaimed wood, there was not enough pieces to build the entire 200,000 sq. ft. of offices, so they chose to focus all of the reclaimed material in the core area only, and made the surrounding offices distinctly different in materiality to further accentuate the 100-year-old timbers. Other than a few steel girders, the entire core’s framing structure is comprised of the rehabilitated timbers that were repurposed on-site.
The immense amount of detailing and craft that has gone into this project is truly inspirational; each and every post and beam had bowed, kinked, crooked, cupped, or twisted over time, the design team had to come up with a sophisticated means of straightening them out. After an arduous process of categorizing every piece of old-growth Douglas Fir, a simple solution was found to use customized knife-plate steel brackets and a corresponding cut in the end of each timber. In doing so, every timber was utilized, even the damaged and split pieces were used as angle ties. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the perfectly-flat, concrete radiant floor slabs were poured on top of reclaimed wood siding resting on top of those warped and checked timbers as well.
The atrium that separates the core from the outer offices is crowned with a glass roof and clerestory windows, allowing natural light to penetrate the wall-less interior spaces. The glass above only allows 25% of the light to penetrate its opaque surface, which creates a perfectly shadowless aura down below, similar to the diffused light experience of a Northwest forest on a bright sunny day. The walkways and staircases to and from the core were left to be developed organically, as connections were needed from one department to another. This created a seemingly haphazard array of sky bridges and stairs, but is in everyday use it is harmonious and incredibly efficient (I have never seen such an underused elevator in my life).
The 1202 Oxbow building is incredibly beautiful to photograph, but pictures will never do this building justice. As it is a federal building, it has extremely tight security and a structure designed to withstand a bomb blast, but you would never know it from the inside. The open floor plans, gentle circulation, diffused light, reclaimed timbers, and natural surroundings would make any office worker, in any profession, drool. The EGWW tower in Portland has a lot of really great moments and unique characteristics in its rebuilt design, but if I had to choose, I would much rather work in the Oxbow building. From its sustainable design to its evocative natural elements, the 1202 is an embodiment of contemporary Northwest Architecture.