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Platinum Recovery

Aided by Boora Architects, the small, timber-rich town of Vernonia, Ore. rebuilds its schools (and itself) to be bigger and better than ever before.


By Kylie Wroblaski | Photography by Lincoln Barbour

Many communities, thankfully, have never had to rebuild after a flood. For the small Oregon town of Vernonia, the 500-year flood it experienced in December of 2007 represented the second time in little more than a decade that the community found itself asking what to do next.

A critical part of that question involved the town’s heavily damaged elementary, middle and high schools. Early estimates of how much it would cost to build new schools on higher ground ran as high as $50 million; some wondered whether Vernonia’s families and businesses—many trying to put their own lives back together—had the appetite for the hefty bond measure that would be needed.

Through community meetings, outreach initiatives and stakeholder engagements, the answer became clear: The residents of Vernonia had no intention of abandoning their schools or town. In fact, they were determined to come back stronger than before. It was in that spirit that district officials soon began planning a new, consolidated K-12 facility on higher ground, and set its sights on nothing less than LEED Platinum certification.

“I think what really brought everybody together in that first phase was two things,” recalls Chris Linn, principal with Portland-based Boora Architects. “The first was the idea that they wanted their town to survive and it could not do so without a school, and second was the way everyone from the left side of the political aisle to the right embraced sustainability as a linchpin for the project. It surprised me that sustainability was the thing that united people, because it can also be thing the thing that divides people. In this case, it was fully embraced by the whole community.”

The district’s ambitious goals pushed both the design team and the project itself into uncharted waters. It would be Oregon’s first large-scale public K-12 school in one building, as well as one of the first public projects to target LEED Platinum. It was also one of the first projects in the state to make use of an innovative public-private financing model.

Each of these “firsts” presented their own sets of challenges, including the requirement that LEED certification be reached on a conventional building budget; when combined, it was clear that a whole new way of thinking about the design process was needed. “We had to develop an approach for continuous value engineering through construction,” Linn says.

Passive design strategies and integrated design proved key to making the numbers work. The design team included features that aren’t normally found in Oregon, including radiant heating and cooling, heat recovery, photovoltaic panels and an innovative biomass boiler that runs on pellets of sawdust sourced from lumber mills in town. (“It’s a pretty innovative way to keep the school heated and an economic development opportunity that created jobs for pellet manufacturers,” Linn says.)

In addition, Boora Architects reconnected the school with its logging roots by featuring locally grown and sustainably harvested wood products inside and out—that includes FSC-certified maple and fiberboard paneling and other wood products harvested within a few miles of the school, and even on site. Those ties are further enhanced by the adjacent woodland; the thorough implementation of daylighting allows for stunning views, no matter where you are located in the school.

“We set it up so wherever you are in the building—even in in the hallways or multi-use spaces—there’s a view,” explains Linn. “When we did the LEED credit calculation, we figured out that there were views from 100 percent of the learning spaces and 90 percent of the entire building. That connection to the outside and daylight was really important to us.”

And while daylighting, views and a connection to the outside make for a light and airy design, it’s the building’s connection to the community that makes it a truly different place. Portland Community College has been given space for classes, and a community-based health clinic operates out of the building as well, meaning the space is open upwards of 18 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“It’s designed to have layers of access, so portions of the building can be used at different times of the year, while other portions can remain secure and off-limits,” Linn says. “Things like the gyms, fitness rooms, libraries and commons are used all the time for non-school activities. There’s a great covered play area with views of the wetlands that’s used for all kinds of community events—picnics and performances and things like that. We thought of a community center as much as we thought of a school.”

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