A Super Building for Fragile Times

Salem, Oregon. — A giant earthquake. A huge flood. Wildfires followed by choking smoke. An ice storm that cut power for days.

Four years ago, a group of Oregon State Treasury employees sat down and compiled a list of every conceivable disaster that could befall a government building.

And last month, the Treasury, which is responsible for paying government workers in Oregon, unveiled its answer: a new two-story headquarters. It’s a great building inspired by these thoughts of calamity. It’s an office for our fragile times.

The building, which took less than two years to complete, is barely tethered to the ground – it sits on so-called base insulators, capable of reducing the violent shaking of a earthquake by up to 75%. earth.

The building can be fully disconnected from the grid – “full island mode”, one employee said – with battery backup, a backup diesel generator and backup water and sewage systems. In the event of civil unrest, the building’s large windows, designed to maximize natural light, are made of “vandal-resistant glass”.

“No matter what happens in the world around us, no matter how many natural disasters, our employees will want to come to work and provide services to the people of Oregon,” said Byron Williams, executive director of the Treasury, which led the design and construction of the project.

The Oregon building is part of a broader trend toward disaster-resistant buildings spurred by extreme weather events, often linked to climate change, that have haunted residents from California to Florida. It is one of the most extreme examples of a desire for security, continuity and peace of mind achieved through architecture and engineering.

Serious and intense Mr. Williams is obsessed with disaster mitigation. Oregon, like other parts of the West Coast, has seen many in recent years, including wildfires, ice storms and of course the coronavirus pandemic. Just in case his employees were stranded in the building after a disaster, Mr. Williams purchased hundreds of ready-to-eat military meals that are now stored in giant filing cabinets.

The Treasury did not have a pandemic on its initial list, Mr Williams conceded during a tour of the building. Even so, the ventilation system, like that in a hospital operating room, is capable of pumping out indoor air and replacing it entirely with fresh outdoor air at the rate of one complete cycle every 30 minutes, which helps to mitigate the transmission of the virus.

Evan Reis, a California-based engineer and resilient building expert, said he didn’t know of any other office building in the United States designed to withstand so many different natural disasters.

“Of course there must be some sort of military installation, a bunker somewhere,” said Reis, who studied the Oregon project but was not involved in it. “But I can’t think of anyone who has achieved this level of multi-hazard protection.”

In his advocacy work, Mr. Reis uses the building as an example of a structure that achieves two things at once, energy efficiency and resilience. The Treasury does not expect to pay any electricity bills: Equipped with banks of solar panels and high insulation, the building produces more electricity than it consumes. With plenty of natural light entering the space during the day, the building’s lighting system uses half the energy of a typical building, according to Chris Lowen, who oversaw the installation of the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and ventilation.

And on the resilience side, the building is a reminder that building codes in places like California, Oregon and Washington are only designed to save lives; many buildings and houses will probably be unusable after a big earthquake. The Treasury headquarters, on the other hand, should be operational as soon as the shaking stops.

The contrast between the old Treasury offices and the new headquarters could hardly be more stark.

The old offices were located two miles away on Capitol Mall, a phalanx of towering white marble buildings built during the Great Depression. It’s a place meant to convey the grandeur and elegance of government: in the spring, rows of cherry trees burst with a riot of pink blossoms framed by the white marble facades glistening in the sun.

The new Treasury building, on the other hand, is behind a Denny’s parking lot and a chain hotel near the freeway. It could be confused with an insurance office.

But in practical terms – and practicality was the main driver of this project – moving to the new building could be compared to swapping a motorcycle for an armored car.

The Capitol building is widely recognized as poorly designed for an earthquake. A 2013 report didn’t mince words.

“The Capitol has serious seismic problems,” the report said. “If a major earthquake strikes, the Capitol will likely be destroyed and lives lost.”

Although some government buildings in Salem have been retrofitted for seismic safety, most were built before 1993, when Oregon changed its building codes to account for the Big One threat. These buildings are considered particularly vulnerable.

The old Treasury offices faced more than just earthquake risk. The computer servers that processed checks for millions of Oregonians were located under the building’s main water pipes. Technicians once had to hold buckets over computers when pipes leaked. Smoke from nearby wildfires was so intense several summers ago that workers scooped up ash that had accumulated in air conditioning system filters.

Officials were told that renovating the old office would cost $10 million, prompting a decision in 2018 to build a new headquarters.

Those involved in the project say they are preparing for criticism that the new building could be overkill.

“On the surface, people look at it and say, ‘It’s too shiny, it’s too beautiful,'” said Steve Freeburg, a Salem real estate developer who owns the building. Under the terms of an agreement with the Treasury, he leases it to the State for several decades.

“This is built for a totally different purpose,” Mr. Freeburg said.

Mr. Freeburg paid around $31.5 million to construct the building, with its 35,805 square feet of office space – more than double the cost of a conventional office building of the same size. The Treasury will pay just over $2.5 million in rent each year.

Mr Williams, the head of the Treasury, says that in addition to zero electricity costs, the main justification for the relatively high rent is that the work of the Treasury will be able to continue unhindered during and after a disaster. In addition to paychecks for firefighters, police officers, teachers, and a host of other government employees, the Treasury processes unemployment benefits, food stamps, Medicare payment, and state pensions. State.

“If our building collapses, we’ve just created a statewide disaster,” Mr Williams said.

Engineers say they have addressed as many building risks as technology allows.

For seismic risk, building base insulators essentially decouple the building from its foundation. Like an ice cube on a plate, the building would remain relatively stable while the ground below would shake. A similar system is used at Apple headquarters, San Francisco City Hall and thousands of buildings in Japan.

For an era of ever-increasing wildfires, engineers installed a non-combustible liner and an air filtration system, separate from the heating and cooling system, which can completely shut off outside air to seal the building from wildfire smoke.

For flood risk, an ongoing concern in the Willamette Valley, engineers constructed the building several feet above the level at which there is a 1 in 500 chance of flooding each year.

And to guard against contamination of tap water — as happened during an algae bloom in a reservoir serving Salem several years ago — the building will use its own 100-foot-deep well. as backup. An emergency septic tank is available if the municipal sewer system becomes unusable.

In recent years, when disasters have seemed both more frequent and less predictable, planning for the worst has required much more contingency. But Mr. Williams seems to have answers for all eventualities.

Asked about Internet service during a disaster, he mentioned a multitude of backups: two separate high-speed Internet cables connected to a government data center; another connection that goes through a private Internet service provider; a contract with a company that will provide two mobile trailers with satellite dishes if needed; and a bunch of satellite phones in the office.

What if all that doesn’t work? Then there’s a back-up back-up, a place on the roof reserved for an old-fashioned radio antenna.

“Worst case scenario,” Mr. Williams said, “is that I’m sending e-mail over ham radio.”