As Net-Zero Building Gains Speed, Portland Tests The Limits

Portland Community College Newberg is America’s second higher education building to eschew the power grid for naturally harvested energy.

America spends almost half of its energy on homes and buildings. We’ve lagged behind Europe in adopting energy-efficient building technologies, especially when it comes to net-zero, the certification given to buildings that consume zero energy and produce zero carbon emissions. The first net-zero building was built in Germany almost 30 years ago; America’s first came decades later.


Still, there’s evidence that net-zero is catching on, even here in our great, energy-addicted nation. The first passive high school opened in Vermont last year, and larger net-zero buildings aren’t far behind. Analysts predict the U.S. market for net-zero will eventually grow to $1.3 trillion. This spring, Portland architects Hennebery Eddy were honored by the American Institute of Architects for their Portland Community College Newberg, the second net-zero higher education building in the country (and the first in Oregon). The school consumes zero energy from the grid–a remarkable feat for a large, institutional building–and it’s providing a roadmap for other architects hoping to achieve elusive net-zero ratings. The AIA and its Committee on the Environment have named the building as one of their top ten examples of sustainable architecture and green design solutions in 2012.

PCC-Newberg was an unlikely candidate for a passive-energy rating. Located about an hour away from the coast, the site sits next to a major highway, far from viable public transportation alternatives. Still, Portland’s educational system has big plans for the school. They want to turn PCC-Newberg into one of the country’s first net-zero campuses. Hennebery Eddy’s 13,500-square-foot building would be the flagship project, setting a precedent for the development of the growing community.

As their first order of business, the architects worked with the City of Newberg to connect the site to bike and bus routes, reducing carbon emissions produced by transportation. Next, by organizing weekly stakeholder meetings between professors, engineers, and contractors, the architects were able to convince the district to invest in fairly unusual sustainable technologies.

For example, PCC Newberg has no air conditioning system, relying instead on ventilation from five massive cooling towers. The iconic towers are powered by huge turbines, which pump fresh air into the classrooms and common areas. The entrance to the school is shaded with a wide awning of iridescent photovoltaic panels, which provide energy for the few parts of the school that require it. 98% of the building is day-lit, thanks to transparent wall dividers that double as whiteboards.

The interesting, and difficult, thing about net-zero is that it requires cultural and behavioral changes that go beyond architecture. For example, the PCC’s computer lab is the first in the country to use laptops instead of desktop computers (they use less energy). The water fountain isn’t refrigerated, and students won’t find any vending machines in the school.

One of the biggest challenges, of course, will be getting used to hot summers. But as so many people have commented during recent heat waves, we tend to dress too warmly when we work in air-conditioned environments. In other words, you’ll get used to it.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.