Just under a year ago, a new medical and dental school facility opened just south of downtown Portland, Oregon. The 650,000-square-foot Collaborative Life Sciences Building and Skourtes Tower overlooks the Willamette River from the new South Waterfront neighborhood, a former industrial area that is undergoing redevelopment.
The field has markedly changed since the 19th century when artist Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, harrowing portraits showing a time when instruction took place in massive amphitheaters— students watching anesthetized patients undergo surgical procedures.
The new building, designed by Los Angeles-based CO Architects with Portland’s SERA Architects serving as executive architect, reflects that massive and rapid evolution of medical knowledge and the methods of teaching our future doctors, nurses, dentists, and other health care professionals. CO’s design unites medical departments from three universities under one roof: the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), Oregon University System (OUS), and Portland State University (PSU).
The facility is divided into two wings connected by a central atrium and stocked with the latest in medical education spaces and technology. There are the requisite lab spaces, two large lecture halls, and an information commons.
The exterior of the facility is ruggedly clad in standard corrugated anodized aluminum and wood veneer. “There’s an industrial feel,” said Fabian Kremkus, design principal at CO Architects. "There are no rich finishes. It’s pretty prosaic.”
Inside, new technologies lead to new types of programs, such as the simulation rooms, which Paul Zajfen, design principal at CO Architects, described as “specialized high-tech requirements that need to feel like an operating room, simulating how a patient reacts.” Exam rooms and areas for briefings and debriefings are equipped with technology to support recording and real-time feedback.
An electron microscopy lab contains one microscope so sensitive that it rests in a special underground foundation, said Kremkus. The foundation, which cost $5 million to build, is designed to block vibrations from the nearby ships moving through the Willamette River.
An open, light-filled atrium at the center connects the Life Sciences Building to Skourtes Tower, which includes a dental school, dental clinic, and labs. “The building relies on spatial dynamism,” said Zajfen. It’s a marked departure from the typical partitioned, fluorescent-lit medical buildings of yesteryear. An installation of multi-colored LED tubes designed by Los Angeles-based artist Pae White hangs from the white atrium soffits, helping to brighten Portland’s drizzly winter days. A large red sculpture resembling a DNA strand by Christian Moeller, another L.A. artist, sits outside at the building’s southeast corner.
Interconnecting ramps with seating areas crisscross the atrium, mimicking those diagonal paths found in many campus quadrangles. Zajfen likened the ramps to being on an active cafe-lined street in NYC or Paris. “We want to make buildings act like great cities.”
There are sensitive efforts to maximize daylight as well. Ceilings in the north wing are higher at the perimeter and angle down toward the center to increase the amount of natural light entering the lab spaces.
While it took years to develop the legal framework to bring the universities together, the design and building timeline was compressed. They started working on the $295 million building with just a permit for the foundation. The concept was accepted within four months and the project took just three years from conception to completion.
The building achieved LEED Platinum, yet the sustainable features are understated. There are three green roofs. There is a 60 percent potable water reduction compared to similar buildings. The designers took the typical 40,000-gallon tank for reserving fire-prevention water, and upped the storage space so rainwater could be used for flushing toilets. “It’s a five year payback,” said Lisa Petterson, associate principal at SERA Architects. “We really designed the building to solve functional issues.” Rather than focusing on the building envelope, they prioritized energy management, such as recovering heat from labs and the atrium.
As is often the nature of an old industrial site, the building lies on contaminated soil. It was cheaper to cap the polluted soil than remove it, explained Zajfen. Building on the site without disturbing the soil was a challenge. “It was a brownfield site,” said Petterson. They devised a solution: repurpose a decommissioned oil rig for the pin piles. “We drove them through the soil to the bedrock without removing the soil,” said Petterson.
The South Waterfront area is growing and there are plans to establish an OHSU satellite campus. The Life Sciences Building is the second OHSU building in the neighborhood. Just under a decade ago, OHSU opened the Center for Health and Healing designed by GBD Architects.
The Portland Aerial Tram shuttles students, faculty, and staff between the two OHSU sites. It opened in 2006 and is the second commuter aerial tram built in the U.S. after the Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York City. “Other than architecture, our transportation is a bigger driver of our sustainable choices—how people get to the building,” said Petterson.