When a building that was budgeted to cost $3.2 million winds up costing $11.5 million, something is likely to hit the fan. But in this case, the unhappy noise is local and migratory birds smacking into its environmentally-hip, LEED-Certified wall of windows.
Called The Columbia Building, it was commissioned by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) to replace a couple of worn-out trailers that housed office workers at The Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant. So how could a simple office building next to a sewage facility cost $11.5 million?
One culprit is the US Green Building Council, who have invented a yardstick for politically correct architecture called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) According to their website, “LEED is a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings. From individual buildings and homes, to entire neighborhoods and communities, LEED is transforming the way built environments are designed, constructed, and operated.”
The key word here is transforming. If you’re a public official spending other people’s money, dangling a LEED Certificate in front of you has the same effect as waving beef jerky in front of Sasquatch. It certainly had that effect on Dean Marriott, Director of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, was certainly affected. He claimed this building was a perfect opportunity to “showcase the sustainability of City and BES values.”
In 2010, BES hired Skylab Architecture, a new firm with a thin resume, to design a building that met LEED gold standards, which call for a design with lots of natural light. But instead of a simple design, Marriott and his BES team approved plans for a complex, radial-shaped building with a curving back wall of 12’ high glass overlooking a courtyard, an “eco-roof” with at least 13 different planes, and an etched-in-tile photo of the city at the entrance, The courtyard has tall trees, a feeder for hummingbirds, and a nearby pond, all of which make it a bird magnet.
As work progressed, city officials were forced to approve 85 change orders related to “design problems.” During construction, BES updated the Portland City Council on progress nine separate times. But even though the cost more than tripled, the city claims BES hid the real numbers by mixing them with other BES projects.
In April, when the bills became too big a pile to hide, Portland Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the bureau, requested an official audit of the project. Released in October 2014, it blamed insufficient design oversight, elaborate design choices, and an expanded project scope. The audit also highlighted concerns about various conflicts of interest tied to the project.
That same month, Portland placed Marriott on paid administrative leave at his full $200,000/year salary, pending an investigation by outside attorneys, which was reported to cost up to $60,000. Marriott resigned in January 2015, and is now suing the city for wrongful termination. He claims that Portland leaders have seen countless projects go way beyond budget, but only he has been singled out.
Now back to the birds, many of whom have been definitely terminated: An estimated 27 birds have crashed into the Columbia Building’s glass façade since October, with at least eight confirmed deaths.
Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director of The Audubon Society of Portland, theorizes that migratory birds passing through the area stop to perch at trees in the courtyard. The site is just off the Columbia Slough, and Portland is along the migratory Pacific Flyway, making it an ideal stop.
When birds take off from the courtyard, they either think they can fly through the building, or get confused by the reflection of trees in the glass. This leads to thuds, ruffled feathers, and worse. “I can certainly see why there would be a problem there,” Sallinger said. Adding to the embarrassment, in 2013, the City Council unanimously voted to adopt bird-friendly design for city buildings, when it was much too late.
BES employees started working in their overpriced LEED-Certified eco-palace in January 2014, but didn’t start counting the number of bird strikes till October. In mid-January 2015, they decided to create a formal document to track collisions – including what window the bird hit, the species and if it died or flew off. I can only speculate what it’s called, but I’m guessing it’s called a BES-CB 0115 Report.
In situations like this, the next step is always a study. So city and Audubon Society officials will likely study the problem through about June before identifying or recommending long-term fixes. In the meantime, employees in the Columbia Building are making quick, cheap fixes by sticking leaf decals on the windows. You can be sure the long-term solution will cost a lot more.
$11.5 million isn’t as green as it used to be.