Combating climate change, comfortably
Can Tillamook Row in Northeast Portland save the planet? Maybe not, but it's a step in the right direction.
When the U.S. government released its once-every-four-years National Climate Assessment last month, based on findings from 13 different federal agencies, the 1,700-page document confirmed what scientists have long been telling us. From ever-more extreme temperatures and catastrophic storms to food shortages and forest fires, centuries of burning fossil fuels has dangerously transformed our climate and continues to. Unchecked, it could lead to vast swaths of the planet becoming all but uninhabitable as soon as 2100. (For my money, Las Vegas is already there.)
Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of all electrical consumption, so there's no better way to combat climate change than with energy efficiency and alternative power sources.
Enter Tillamook Row, the first multi-family residential project in Portland available to renters that achieves net-zero energy usage. Designed and built by Green Hammer according to Passive House standards (using lots of insulation and multipaned windows to create an airtight, Thermos-like effect), Tillamook Row gets all of its electricity from an 82-kilowatt rooftop solar array. Residents won't pay a penny for power.
The five-building, 16-unit development, which includes both rental and for-sale units, is designed to fit easily into its Eliot neighborhood context. None of these structures are more than three stories, and their pitched roofs match those of nearby single-family houses.
Ranging from 750-square-foot single-bedroom units to 1,430-square-foot, four-bedroom townhomes, the development is oriented around a large landscaped courtyard and open space, where there is also a separate 2,000-square-foot building that can be enjoyed by all tenants as a place to share meals, host gatherings or even exercise. The secondary building also stores a battery backup system that can store power generated from the five buildings' rooftop solar system. When the rest of us lose electricity, these residents will still be cooking dinner and watching TV.
Inside, the units abound with natural light and with their airtight construction and natural materials feel naturally warm and cozy. And yet, because of how the buildings, landscaping and courtyard are configured together, I suspect most residents will regularly feel tempted to step outside and converse with their neighbors. Because the units vary in size, hopefully there will be a corresponding diversity of families, singles and seniors forming a community within a community.
While the overall forms are handsome, viewed from certain exterior angles — particularly the courtyard, where there are a series of awnings and balconies — the aesthetic details can feel a little bit cluttered or in need of an edit. (This was also the case with Green Hammer's comparable Ankeny Row CoHousing project from 2015). Yet this quibble comes in the context of an otherwise successful, smart and sensitive act of highly sustainable placemaking that I hope other developers will learn from.
Reversing the nearly irreversible threat of climate change won't be easy, but living here certainly would be. Tillamook Row reminds us that today achieving net-zero energy doesn't require radical approaches or astronomic costs. Someday soon, net-zero has to become the default, and these designer-builders prove that this future can feel just like home.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com