Cyan, a High-rise Apartment in Downtown Portland: A Green Building is Building Community

What would green building look like on Easter Island? The question applies to Earth. If people use material resources to define their status, the natural world must provide the monuments to our satisfaction. Portland developer Gerding Edlen takes the long view. From outer space, green building would look blue. That’s the idea behind calling their new high-rise apartment, Cyan. The watchword is sustainable. But what is green building, really?

Green building is people using environmental resources to build in an energy efficient way. Let’s break it down: people, environment, and economics. The building site is the first consideration in developing a green building. It must be central to people’s lives. That makes downtown Portland an ideal place to build green. Cyan is at 333 SW Harrison St. near Pettygrove Park. Both the Max and the Streetcar pass out front, and there’s a nice walk to the Park blocks. Shared spaces near Cyan have enough natural beauty to attract people to relax and enjoy their surroundings. Green building is community building.

To build community, people must be able to see and get to know each other. This happens naturally when there’s a beautiful place to be. Healthy relationships are the essence of a green lifestyle. When our interpersonal and international relationships are polluted with negativity and conflict, naturally our environment reflects this. The health of humanity directly relates to environmental health.

Globalization makes all of Earth’s resources accessible to modern civilization. It’s something of an island from that perspective. Maybe there’s no need to position huge stone heads to glorify ourselves in contests for social standing. There’s a relationship between interpersonal problems and environmental problems. Americans respond well to crisis, and depending on who you talk to, there’s any number of problems to tackle. Environmental problems are overwhelming enough to cause some people to deny their existence. Is the American lifestyle really non-negotiable? We don’t want change because we don’t want to lose control. The change we need is a change of perspective and open communication. We can use our heads. Globalization doesn’t mean everyone suddenly shares everything and there’s no differentiation amongst cultures, but communication is global.

A green approach to life recognizes the seasons: growth, abundance, harvest, death, new growth, etc. Each quarter is not an upward swing with more and more growth. We have to accept the natural recession that occurs to balance out our use of resources. Cultures that focus on youth and power tend to be the most destructive. It’s by honoring our vulnerability and inevitable decline that we become careful and learn to respect life.

We achieve true sustainability by acknowledging life cycles. The model for sustainable growth looks like a wave with regular ups and downs. Our current model favors exponential growth that goes up and up, inevitably achieving balance by crashing downward. It’s obvious that we’ve been on a long winning streak fueled by cheap oil. Whether we reach the limit in ten, fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years from now, the role of our designers and developers is to take the long view: to use cheap oil to build sustainable infrastructure that can maintain civilization for generations to come.

It’s an entire world that makes civilization possible. Looking to Europe and Asia for examples of how density leads to innovative building, the Gerding Edlen team found they thoughtfully reduce the size. Cyan apartments are compact multi-use spaces with energy efficient appliances to fit: freezers with drawers to contain the cold when you open the main door; clothes dryers that condense moisture from warm air cycling through a loop (a typical drier super heats the air, your clothes, and ducts the air out); dual flush toilets; water-efficient showerheads; and water conserving fixtures.

Rainwater filters through ecoroofs and a runnel into a concrete basin to store water for irrigation. There’s a big waterfall down one side and stormwater gardens. The idea was to use the greywater in the septic system, but Portland city codes weren’t updated to accommodate the design in time. Even in a commercial building where you can use greywater in toilets, you have to put a sign that says don’t drink the water. Cyan pushed the envelope just enough that next time, the city can seriously consider recycling rainwater to the septic system.

Gerding Edlen chose building materials with high amounts of recycled content, environmentally benign materials (bamboo cabinetry veneers), and regionally sourced materials. Non-toxic finishes used throughout the building have little or no volatile organic compounds. A waste management plan implemented during construction ensures 50-70% of all construction related materials are recycled rather than land-filled.

Typically, people want a balcony, but the little balconies on a high-rise cost more than their actual use affords. Rather than an extra expense, Cyan’s apartment windows open at the height of a regulation (42″ code requirement) balcony railing. The importance of a balcony is the experience of outside. The 25 square foot opening delivers what you’re looking for in a creative way. And sunlight through a wall of windows maximizes passive heating and lighting (the windows open in to protect against strong winds). Cyan Sustainable Features states: “High performance glass reduces solar heat gain; motion-sensor lighting provides light only when needed; and the efficient lighting design with compact fluorescent light fixtures and metal halides are more effective than conventional incandescent lighting.”

Cyan is a fossil-fuel free building. There’s no natural gas. Even though you buy electricity from coal burning plants, Cyan encourages the purchase of offsets to incentivize wind and renewables. Sustainable architecture is equal parts necessity and expense. Green features are often perceived to be a luxury, an additional expense. Actually, the inherent design is geared to minimize energy consumption, to reduce the use of resources, and to ultimately save money.

There are many considerations that enter the design of sustainable living at Cyan. Over many years, Gerdling Edlen developed the working knowledge to put together the project, choose the architects, the contractors, and the consultants. The development firm worked with top architects Thomas Hacker and GBD to realize the weave of idea and reality at Cyan. Early adopters of technology tend to be well-educated and resourceful, and naturally trick out their spaces. Architecture magazines give the impression of luxury and wealth, though the real satisfactions of a living room are the company of loved ones. It’s a combination of little things designed together from the beginning that make a building green, cyan, or just plain old sustainable. Next there’s the “living building”, but that’s another story.


Thanks to Michael Payne, Beer and Blog, IgnitePDX, Ken Aaron, and Damin Tarlow for the inspiration and assistance putting together this article!