EcoDistricts—Rethinking Water at Hassalo on Eighth

Tetra Tech’s High Performance Buildings Group worked with Biohabitats to implement a Natural Organic Recycling Machine (NORM) to clean the sewage from three new buildings and recycle the water to use within the neighborhood.

Earned LEED Platinum for Homes Midrise in its three residential buildings and LEED Platinum Neighborhood Development for the entire development

Portland has a water problem…

Exponential growth in Portland, Oregon’s downtown area over the last two decades has transformed this Pacific Northwest city into a model of development for the rest of the country. In the late-1990s, the development of the Brewery Blocks in the Northwest part of town helped transform the Pearl District from a largely blighted industrial area to one of the most attractive and sought out locations in the city. It also showed the sprawling impact an investment in sustainability can have.

Revitalizing on a district scale...

The concept behind the project has become known as an EcoDistrict. EcoDistrict—that is, a method of connecting multiple buildings via a series of sustainable systems that streamline operational efficiency and lower the development’s impact on the environment. Since its completion, the sustainable innovations that maintain the Brewery Blocks EcoDistrict have begun to support development in other nearby neighborhoods ripe for revitalization. This is perhaps most notable with Indigo@Twelve | West, which was able to tap into Brewery Blocks’ cooling plant and share its capacity, reducing the need to further invest in infrastructure development. However, as sustainability-minded developers begin to look east across the Willamette River for new opportunities, they’re facing an out-of-date infrastructure that, in some cases, dates back to the 19th century and is wreaking havoc on Portland’s beloved waterway.

The Lloyd District—a low-residential, high-commercial neighborhood anchored by one of the city’s largest malls—has long enticed developers looking for space where plots are available for purchase en masse. Such was the case when American Assets Trust purchased several plots—what then were known as the Lloyd ‘Superblocks,’ due to each block being essentially the size of four regular city blocks in one—and began to imagine the possibilities of what a redevelopment might look like. However, the desire to reinvigorate a community with mixed-use commercial and residential projects was tempered by several of the blocks operating with a combined storm water/sewage system that was functioning at capacity with components first installed as far back as 1893. And despite city improvement efforts over the last decade, this system has inadequately handled stormwater runoff from the heavy rains common to the area—causing sewage to spill into the river. Any increase in population would further strain a system that is already unable to consistently prevent waste (sometimes thousands of gallons of it at a time) from leaking into the Willamette.

The Willamette River is perhaps Portland’s most defining characteristic. Bridges crisscross its waters and connect residents on either side of its shores. In the summer, kayakers and dragon boaters paddle the length of downtown. And it is where countless families escape to relax on hot days. Not wanting to degrade this treasured natural asset any further, American Assets Trust looked to staff its project with engineers and architects who could design a vibrant community self-sustained in regards to water and with potential to expand and inject life into the Lloyd District while not further damaging the river. To realize this vision, Hassalo on Eighth was born.

Located in the middle of the Lloyd District, the development was previously an office tower surrounded by three blocks worth of parking—a relic of a bygone era when gas was cheap, commutes were light, and suburban sprawl was a mark of civic pride and achievement. But 50 years of steady population growth have created a housing squeeze, slowed commutes from outer neighborhoods, and taken the aforementioned toll on the sewage system. Three new mixed-use commercial structures were envisioned for that space. GBD Architects and Tetra Tech’s High Performance Buildings Group collaborated to design one of the Northwest’s most innovative communities, bound together by the idea of capturing and filtering its own black water—another phrase for sewage water—and using it to facilitate a truly sustainable community.

Tetra Tech worked with Biohabitats to implement a Natural Organic Recycling Machine (NORM), an onsite artificial tidal wetland that uses its own bacteria to clean the sewage from the three new buildings and use the resulting water for cooling systems, toilet flushing, and irrigation. NORM now transforms as much as 45,000 gallons of sewage per day—sewage that would otherwise be flushed to a treatment plant that is already at capacity, and negating the possibility of it running into the river during a day of heavy rain.

The need for this type of solution was so great that the city deeply discounted its sewage system development fee, which it usually charges such projects for the necessary improvements to any surrounding infrastructure. If further development were to take place in the area, a new treatment plant would need to be constructed. NORM not only conserves water for the area, but it is also a cost-saving solution that frees the city from any further strain on its infrastructure. In all, the reduction in system development charges, operations and maintenance, required testing, and capital investment is expected to result in a less than three-year payback.

The benefits of Hassalo on Eighth reach beyond preserving the environment around it, offering its occupants the opportunity to lessen their own carbon footprint. Specifically, Hassalo has earned LEED Platinum for Homes Midrise in its three residential buildings and LEED Platinum Neighborhood Development for the entire development.

A successful EcoDistrict goes beyond the buildings’ mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. It considers access to public transit, the walkability of the community it creates, and access to amenities like grocery stores and parks. It’s the concept of the 20-minute neighborhood, which Portland has led the nation in developing. Hassalo on Eighth sits right along Portland’s MAX train line, which provides it access to all the jobs and amenities of downtown within 15 minutes. And its 1,000 bike parking stalls further lessen occupants’ need to rely on traditional single car transportation and ease surface street and freeway congestion. Combined, these amenities not only contribute to a high quality of life, but also give residents the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint by as much as 30 percent.

Hassalo on Eighth may only comprise four blocks and be sufficient in and of itself. But, as has already been demonstrated in other areas of Portland, this type of project has potential to scale up and expand its functionality beyond its existing borders. With this direction, Hassalo on Eighth can be the keystone for not just modernizing an outmoded neighborhood, but helping Portland continue to set the bar for sustainability in American cities.

Images courtesy of Lara Swimmer