In 1999, the United States General Services Administration’s (GSA) Southern Service Center of the NW Arctic Region began an extensive interior renovation of the historic Gus Solomon Courthouse in downtown Portland. Responsible for real estate management and building construction for federal agencies, GSA took advantage of this opportunity to incorporate sustainable building practices in its own office. Project Manager Kate Betz knew it was "important for GSA to show initiative in sustainable design and to demonstrate successes so that when working on other projects, we could point to what we’ve done and say – we’ve used it and we know it works."
Though the 1933 Courthouse is an historic federal building, several conversions, including one in the 1980s, removed some of the building’s older elements. Consequently, the GSA remodel did not need to adhere to strict preservation guidelines and was free to employ modern technology and materials. Once used as a work room by the United States Post Office, the approximately 10,000-square-foot ground-level room boasts tall ceilings and an open floor plan without many interior partitions. The main goal of the project was to upgrade the mechanical systems and provide flexible office space for GSA’s 22 staff members and another federal agency’s 12 permanent employees.
Working with John Smith and Don Eggleston from the Portland firm SERA Architects, Betz identified access flooring as a product that would match the objectives of the renovation. Access flooring is a system of raised 2’x2’ panels that rest on another floor surface, usually a concrete slab in new construction. Four steel posts elevate these individual panels and then attach the existing floor to a lightweight, yet reinforced square of concrete, aluminum or even steel, depending on the weight-rating needs. When connected together, the raised floor creates a plenum to run mechanical services (including HVAC, data, telecom and electrical) under the finished area. The use of access flooring is becoming increasingly popular because the removable panels make it easier and more affordable to reconfigure work spaces without disturbing walls and ceilings. In addition, when used to accommodate the heating and cooling system, there is more flexibility to move vents to where the people are, improving comfort while saving money and energy.
Even though the high ceilings in the GSA space would accomodate the addition of the raised panels, the main obstacle to using the product was that the initial cost was higher than other flooring applications. For GSA, the price of a new access floor was not within the range of its budget. While doing research on the product, however, Smith contacted Tate Access Floors, one of the few manufacturers and suppliers of the raised-flooring system.
After describing the needs of the project, Tate alerted Smith to a system that Intel had used in one of the computer chip clean rooms that it recently upgraded, returning the used flooring to Tate. Although not often advertised, some building material companies offer take-back programs as a way to develop a long-term relationship with their customers. In this case, Tate took back the old floor system, sold a newer product to Intel, and then sold the used product to GSA. This win-win arrangement is not only an affordable way to acquire more expensive products while keeping to a budget, but also an important component of fulfilling a construction waste management plan. With a little extra effort, this three-party exchange kept reusable materials out of the waste stream, reduced costly disposal fees and extended the useful life of the flooring product.
In order to ensure that the general contractors bidding on the project utilized the reclaimed flooring product, Smith wrote the design specifications to prefer the salvaged material. Smith also gave the option for combining the used product with new materials, in case the availability did not meet the quantity demand. In many instances, stipulating the use of salvage building materials in commercial development plans differs little from standard specification practices. Fred Herbold, member of the Construction Specification Institute and an architect at SERA, suggests that the main distinction in specification language includes what performance standard is expected, how the materials should be finished, and what is an acceptable alternative product if availability is limited. For a product such as access flooring, the specifications also set forth that the floor needed to meet the same seismic requirements as a new counterpart. Since Tate was able to certify that the used flooring would meet the standard, the project’s general contractor, In-Line Commercial Construction, could then install the flooring according to the manufacturer’s instructions without concerns about liability.
After six years of use, the salvaged flooring product has successfully met the test of time. Betz states that the used floor performs as well as a new product and the ease of moving the data and HVAC systems helped save GSA money when reconfiguring the office space three times. The raised floor also reduces energy costs. When air supplies were located on the high ceilings, much of the heated air failed to descend to warm the occupants, using excessive energy to meet comfort needs. As if predicting the future, a newspaper article from the time of original construction (quoted on GSA’s website dedicated to historic federal buildings) boasted that the new courthouse building was "a symbol of Portland’s progress." While there are no new federal buildings scheduled to be built in Portland in the near future, GSA’s commitment to sustainability and reuse in its own office sets a solid (if not elevated) foundation for the years to come.