The Eco-Friendly Architecture of Portland, Oregon

Ahead of Earth Day, we look at the responsive design and sustainable building practices of a city that has green in its genes

With its close proximity to nature—including Mt. Hood and the spectacular Oregon coastline—and a solid reputation as a foodies’ paradise, Portland consistently ranks as one of the top 10 most desirable places to live in the United States. Thanks to its forward-thinking spirit, the city is also one of the nation’s leaders in green building and sustainable architecture. “It’s now more of an expectation than a demand,” says Nicholas Eckelman, an agent at Luxe Christie’s International Real Estate.

Portland skyline in fog by Mount Hood
Rising out of the fog and overlooked by Mt. Hood, the Portland skyline comprises architecture designed to work in harmony with the surrounding natural landscape. Image: Getty Images

Portland’s long-held relationship with its natural surroundings, and its willingness to embrace pioneering environmental policies along with eco-friendly infrastructure, has made green architecture an indelible part of the city. “It’s always been in Portland’s DNA to strive for a healthy balance of urban development and environmental protection,” says Richard Woodling, principal architect at Portland-based Green Touch Architecture & Planning.

Portland has blazed the trail for alternative transportation, particularly for cyclists, light rail, and streetcars—Chris Chatto

The result is a vibrant metropolis that makes energy-efficient homes and LEED-certified buildings the standard. In fact, it’s the American city with the highest concentration of LEED-certified buildings and is home to the U.S.A.’s first ever LEED Platinum-certified high-rise condominium building, The Casey.

Portland Waterfront Trail
Cycling is encouraged on the Portland Waterfront Trail, with safe paths making it easier to leave the car at home and keep pollution to a minimum. Image: Getty Images

“Partly because of its remoteness and topography, the Pacific Northwest was one of the last areas in the United States to be settled and developed,” says Chris Chatto, principal and high-performance building specialist in the Portland office of ZGF, an award-winning sustainable architecture and interior design firm. “So the region has retained its characteristic coniferous rain forests and an appreciation for, and dependence on, nature,” he explains.

Forested mountain by the sea
The beautiful, forested Pacific Northwest coastline, within easy reach of Portland city center, offers hiking opportunities for those looking to get back to nature. Image: Getty Images

The use of natural materials, along with architectural elements that make the best of the region’s climate—from large overhangs that provide protection from the rain to vast windows, which let in light during overcast days—speak to a celebration of place. “This responsiveness to climate and place promotes strategies like daylighting and natural ventilation, which work well in our climate,” says Chatto. “It’s led to buildings that are more energy efficient, comfortable, and more interesting and pleasant to inhabit.”

It’s always been in Portland’s DNA to strive for a healthy balance of urban development and environmental protection—Richard Woodling

From its inception the city has forged its own path. “One area where Portland is distinct from our Pacific Northwest peers is in our approach to urban placemaking,” says Chatto. Early on, Portland laid out an urban grid composed of smaller blocks. “This approach is one of the reasons that Portland has blazed the trail for alternative transportation, particularly for cyclists, light rail, and streetcars.”

Portland streetcar tracks
Streetcar tracks wind through Portland’s streets as part of the city’s drive towards eco-friendly public transport. Image: Alamy

And Portland has consistently stayed ahead of the curve. In 2001 it adopted the Green Building Policy, making it one of the first U.S. cities to implement green building standards. Under the current policy, all new buildings and major renovations must attain at least LEED Gold certification, while existing buildings must strive for LEED Silver for operations and maintenance. “There are many contemporary examples of clean, modern buildings that have achieved LEED Platinum or Gold,” says Chatto. Among them is Portland’s Oregon Convention Center, one of only two convention centers in the country to have achieved LEED Platinum status.

Statues outside Portland's Oregon Convention Center
Portland’s Oregon Convention Center, also pictured in the banner image, is a groundbreaking LEED Platinum-rated building with sustainability at its core. Image: Alamy

“There’s also a growing recognition of the sustainability of repurposing existing buildings rather than tearing them down to build something new,” says Chatto. ZGF recently transformed a former Art Deco bank into modern offices for the Portland branch of Expensify, the expense management software brand. The more than 100-year-old building was adapted for the 21st century, while meticulously preserving its rich past. As Chatto points out, the city has retained a “healthy appreciation for the patina of history and elements of beauty that these structures can bring.”

Old bank building
An old bank building has been reimagined to house the Portland branch of expense management company, Expensify. Image: Alamy

Organizations such as the New Buildings Institute, which promotes and supports energy-efficient buildings and homes, are also based here and the city is a leader in high-performance construction and in adopting sustainable materials and building trends.

For example, as a more sustainable alternative to concrete and steel, the region is tapping into its natural resources through the development of mass timber products. “Portland is not the only city to recognize the untapped potential of timber in creating the new buildings of today,” says Woodling. “But it is another example of what makes it the greenest city in the United States.”

On the Market

Innovation and Heritage in Portland, Oregon

Red-roofed house
Not only is this magnificent European-style home now ecologically friendly, it is also perfectly equipped for entertaining, with a grand dining room dominated by a glittering chandelier—ideal for formal gatherings.

This Dutch-influenced Revival Period Home—on the market with Luxe—was extensively renovated in 2013 and brought into a more energy-efficient present. All windows were replaced with energy-efficient glass, and hydronic radiant heat flooring was installed along with ductless air conditioning units. Many of the nearly 8,000-square-foot (743 sq m) home’s original elements were preserved and repurposed, including an original door—made new with the addition of a custom stained-glass panel—that now divides the full bath in the main floor guest room.

Sleek, Sustainable Townhouses in Portland, Oregon

A luxurious master suite overlooks the front of the home and—along with an ensuite master bath and two walk-in closets—features a view over the leafy neighborhood.

Eight eco-friendly and elegant town house units are available for sale through Luxe, ranging in size from 1,951–2,184 sq ft (181–202 sq m). Each unit boasts three bedrooms, three full baths and one partial bath and is designed with sleek lines, refined textures and a seamless flow to offer a truly modern living space. These homes are made for entertaining, thanks to a private ground-floor garden and rooftop deck with views of Mt. St. Helens and downtown Portland’s city lights.

Banner image: Alamy