The Portland Building Reconstruction

The Portland Building Reconstruction

As the Balfour Beatty/DLR Group team worked to improve the efficiency and functionality of the Portland Building with novel construction materials and methods, their overarching goal was to protect the integrity of this culturally and artistically significant building while making lasting contributions to the local community.

As the Balfour Beatty/DLR Group team worked to improve the efficiency and functionality of the Portland Building with novel construction materials and methods, their overarching goal was to protect the integrity of this culturally and artistically significant building while making lasting contributions to the local community.

Portland, OR
City of Portland
Year Completed
Market Type
Civic, Green Building
DB Contractor Led

Iconic Portland Landmark Receives New Lease on Life

Originally constructed in 1982, the Portland Building is an award-winning icon of post-modern architecture recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the most renowned works of internationally revered architect, Michael Graves, the Portland Building helped define the post-modernist aesthetic in the U.S. Groundbreaking at the time for its use of bold and symbolic colors like off-white stucco and green tile and reinterpreted classical elements such as pilasters, garlands and keystones, the 15-story Portland Building only grew in its allure over time. 

But the Portland Building was not without controversy. “It is more significant for what it did than how well it does it,” observed architecture critic Paul Goldberger. For many Portland residents and municipal employees, that critique rang true in both form and function. 

Awarded in 1980 via an international design-build competition, the Portland Building was designed and constructed with the goal to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Over the building lifecycle, cost-effective but lower quality materials led to significant remediation needs such as water intrusion. Small, dark and tinted exterior windows were another problematic vestige of the building’s original design. A common architectural solution during the 1970s oil crisis, the windows successfully minimized energy consumption but made its interiors an uninviting place to work void of natural light. 

Additionally, the 11 City Bureaus occupying the building operated as independent entities with their own reception desks, conference room facilities, dated technology and FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) programs. This siloed and uncollaborative management structure contributed to inefficiencies in public services and facility operations.

For a time, the Portland City Council considered demolishing the legendary structure but ultimately opted to preserve it. The City entrusted this $140 million reconstruction to Howard S. Wright, a Balfour Beatty company, and DLR Group in a collaborative design-build delivery. The scope of renovations was significant: envelope repair/replacement, seismic upgrades, MEP systems replacement, and a full interior remodel. 

As the Balfour Beatty/DLR Group team worked to improve the efficiency and functionality of the Portland Building with novel construction materials and methods, their overarching goal was to protect the integrity of this culturally and artistically significant building while making lasting contributions to the local community. 

Transforming the Building Exterior

Addressing the building’s water infiltration and daylighting issues was a notable challenge on the project since solutions were limited by the building’s landmark status. The design-build team overcame these challenges by partnering with curtainwall trade partner, Benson Global, to develop a new high-performance exterior rainscreen system. The system maintains the original design intent of the building while significantly increasing daylighting.

The Balfour Beatty/DLR Group team developed details, engineering and mockups to obtain unanimous design approval from the Portland Landmarks Commission. They subsequently procured and fabricated the system while navigating the newly imposed steel and aluminum tariffs, which presented potential project cost and schedule impacts. With teamwork, the new façade system was installed on schedule and on budget and was deemed a resounding success by the design community, public and building occupants.

The building’s historic design also prompted the team to innovate and push the limits of a Unitized Aluminum Curtainwall (UCW) system technology. To replicate historic design features such as reveal locations and mullion spacings, the team designed and engineered a suite of highly customized, unitized panels. The team spent countless hours developing technical strategies for replicating the building’s existing keystone tile and multi-plane panel within the constraints of high-performance UCW. Laser scans of the building’s exterior façade were also used to address tolerance and alignment issues between surfaces. Additionally, light shelves and window trims were fitted with custom millwork features to seamlessly transition old to new. 

Today, Portland Building occupants can experience and touch the new exterior UCW system as it aligns with openings in the existing concrete wall structure. Pushing the UCW technology to respond to complex design requirements paves the way for future architects to enhance their designs when leveraging this proven unitized curtainwall technology.

Exposed Structural Aesthetic 

A fundamental principal of the Portland Building Reconstruction project was the sustainable reuse of the existing building. Because the building’s existing cast-concrete exterior lateral system was significantly under-designed for current standards, Balfour Beatty/DLR Group were tapped to identify and install an upgraded structural system that met current seismic code requirements. 

When considering the building structure—a design feature in its own right— Balfour Beatty/DLR Group utilized Building Information Modeling (BIM), collaborative balancing of cost, integration with the interior and the analysis of scheduling constraints to develop an innovative structural solution: exposing the concrete waffle deck floor slabs as ceilings and exterior concrete structure for perimeter walls.

Since these concrete surfaces were not originally constructed to be exposed, the design team guided concrete finishing craftworkers through a careful patch and aesthetic repair effort to ensure the surfaces met our high-quality expectations. Combined with an intricately designed up-lighting system that reflects light off the exposed waffle deck slab above, Balfour Beatty/DLR Group created an interesting and engaging workspace for building occupants.

Part of the seismic upgrades also included a shotcrete shearwall that surrounds the building’s core, which in some areas is 30” thick. The shearwall was hand-ground, sack and patched, sealed and left as exposed gray concrete as a reflection of the City’s reinvestment in the building and to demonstrate the building’s structural integrity.

A Reimagined Interior

Much in the same way the Portland Building’s new, high-performance exterior maintains its historic design intent while solving past performance deficiencies, its reimagined interior has transformed municipal employees’ workplace experience. The new interior significantly increases daylight and creates an open and collaborative public service experience that also benefits the local community. 

The project included installation of new MEP systems, which required relocation of air handling systems from the second floor to the roof and creative re-use of existing mechanical chases within the building. To achieve a coordinated and functional aesthetic, design-build trade partners dimensioned and modeled all MEP and technology system routings and device locations, while DLR Group modeled all architectural systems and FF&E.

Kristin Wells, construction manager for the City of Portland, said of this project, “It’s an opportunity to re-think the workplace for city employees. It’s part of the city’s history. It’s part of the story of the city. This is more than just fixing a building. There’s something important about doing this right.”

The enhanced interior aesthetic extends to an improved pedestrian experience. An expression of the City’s commitment to open public government, visibility to the interior public spaces was achieved on all four sides of the building. This includes a new, two-story glass window into a new, public pre-function
lobby area where the existing building once contained a large opening to an underutilized loading dock and parking level.

A Lasting Impact

A project as monumental as the Portland Building Reconstruction required not only an innovative design and construction approach but also a progressive strategy around the selection of team members. Although some City of Portland stakeholders were initially skeptical about the collaborative design-build delivery model, the Balfour Beatty/DLR Group team’s success in completing the project ahead of schedule and under budget will influence their approach to capital construction projects into the future. 

Considering the project’s unique challenges, the City also determined that qualifications of key trade partners/vendors and the timeliness in which they were selected presented a significant risk. To mitigate risk, the City leveraged an approved Alternate Delivery procurement approach which allowed Balfour Beatty to selectively use a qualifications based/best value procurement process, on an expedited basis when compared to traditional public procurement. Through this process, the Balfour Beatty/DLR Group team exceeded the City’s social equity subcontracting goals, achieving MWDBE participation of 27% PTE (professional, technical, expert) and 33% construction firms. 

The Portland Building, which is currently pursuing LEED® Platinum and WELL Building certifications, is a shining example of how contractor and designer can come together united by a shared mission, to preserve history while carving out a piece of their own. Although the Portland Building may have originally been designed as a beacon of post-modernism, thanks to the Balfour Beatty/DLR Group team, it is indeed an edifice for the ages.