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Sense of Place

Portland Community College's Downtown Center

Linking administrators, bringing in the public
University Business, Mar 2011
From the porch (left), a wall of the red glass conference/classroom is visible. Bold letters advertise the college's presence downtown and establish the building as an iconic PCC landmark

The renovation of an historic building in downtown Portland, formerly owned by the University of Oregon, has brought Portland Community College (Ore.) administrators together.

FUNCTION: The four-story, 44,000-square-foot building houses five departments; a multipurpose room could serve as a classroom. Current or new prospective students can walk in and register.

CHALLENGES: With three main and eight satellite campuses, PCC administrators were spread out in several locations. Having to do everything remotely or by traveling was "not the most effective way to work with each other," says Cherie Chevalier, associate VP of financial services. PCC has grown in enrollment by 32 percent in two years, so space needed to be freed up for classrooms. It also lacked a downtown Portland presence. An 1882 building was purchased using bond funds, with a plan of moving several administrative departments in after a renovation.

One design challenge was the need to keep the landmark's exterior while identifying it as a PCC building, especially since it was formerly U of Oregon's, says Gregg Sanders, the senior project manager and an associate at SERA Architects. Also, with 10,000 to 15,000 people passing by every day, PCC desired public areas. Yet "safety was a huge concern," shares Chevalier. Sanders adds, "We didn't want the building to look like a secure building but it has to be." Sensitive business such as payroll and financial aid happen on site.

SOLUTION: When people walk, bike, drive, bus, or ride the light rail past the building, they see a dramatic red glass room on the first floor. Inside, the red glass theme appears at the reception desk and in a three-story atrium connecting the upper floor offices. The atrium's open stairs offer casual stopping points for impromptu meetings. Chevalier says it has become a favorite spot. With departments sharing common areas, staffers are likely to bump into each other. Formal collaboration is much easier, too. One example: the $4 million Title III grant just put together by three departments to update PCC's financial aid system; that kind of collaboration would've been difficult before.

Administrators had formerly been in various qualities of space from very cramped quarters up to spacious offices with views. The solution, Sanders says, was having only cubicles on the outskirts, promoting a sense of equality. "If you wanted privacy you didn't get a window."

The public spaces are spacious but separated from other floors with a swipe card system. Two of those floors have very low ceiling heights, and a radiant panel system not only saves energy and contributes to the building being on track for LEED Gold certification, but also takes up just about one foot?compared to three feet of vertical space required for a traditional HVAC system, Sanders says. It's just another way the project team worked with the historic building's features.

COST: $14.3 million

TIMELINE: Occupied February 2010; final commissioning September 2010

DESIGN: SERA Architects (Ore.)