A Neighborhood Rocked
In 1996, Robert and Ann Sacks, a local building developer and founder of Ann Sacks Tile and Stone, sought to build a new residence and commercial space in the heart of Portland’s Nob Hill / Alphabet Historic District. The couple reached out to fellow local Brad Cloepfil and his relatively unknown architectural firm, Allied Works, to develop an innovative concept for this challenging urban infill project. 20 years later, an unplanned event led to this latest phase of design and construction. A gas leak from a neighboring construction project caused an explosion that led to the complete destruction of the original wood frame structure at the corner of 23rd and Glisan and caused major damage to the then well-known 2281 Glisan building. As owners of both properties, the Sacks’ misfortune turned into an opportunity to revisit the original project and propose a new infill building on the prominent corner lot.
Originally built in 1906, the Alfred C.F. Burkhardt House at 500 NW 23rd Avenue was a Queen Anne-style home built at the turn of the century and in 2000 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It housed a mix of residential and retail spaces including the popular Portland Bagelworks. Directly behind the Alfred C.F. Burkhardt House stood the 2281 NW Glisan Street mixed-use building, now known as NWGS. The award-winning building was published in several architectural magazines and widely regarded as a mark of a new standard of architectural style for one of Portland’s oldest neighborhoods. Robert and Ann Sacks resided in the top two floors of the NWGS building. After the explosion, the Alfred C. F. Burkhardt House was left to a pile of debris. Behind it, the NWGS building was reduced to essentially the core frame and foundation. Inside, the once sleek and celebrated interior was severely damaged, leaving the first through third floors that were occupied by Dosha Salon and Spa a complete loss. Only a handful of fixtures and finishes from the original private residence on the fourth and fifth floors were able to be salvaged, several of which carried sentimental value for the owners. Thankfully, the building’s core structure remained intact and was deemed sound for construction, allowing the design and construction team to begin the tough job of restoring this building’s original, award-winning design from nearly two decades prior.
Simple, Yet Elegant
Having traveled, worked and studied in cities across Europe and the U.S.—including Ticino, Amsterdam, New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles—Cloepfil was eager to bring new, contemporary forms and materials into the neighborhood while still respecting the building massing and patterns of use throughout the district. A decision was made early on to employ a concrete and steel frame construction solution, which would allow for greater freedom and flexibility, both in the composition of the building’s facades, and in the layout of interior spaces. The goal was to create a unique and inviting retail space at ground level, and to create a stunning, multi-level permanent residence above as an oasis in the heart of the city. As design commenced on the 500 NW 23rd (NW23) building, this original objective remained true but found a very different expression. As infill projects became common in all quadrants of Portland, and the proliferation of profit-driven design led to the erosion of neighborhood character, the design inspiration for NW23 was to be a simple and beautifully detailed “fabric” building that would respond to, and reinterpret the historic building types found throughout the district.
NW23 Mixed-Use Building. The exterior of the building facing NW 23rd Avenue, with ground-floor retail space that has since been leased by Steven Smith Teamaker and was also built out by R&H.
A New Life for a Bustling Corner
At the site of the former Alfred C. F. Burkhardt House now stands the new NW23 mixed-use building. As one of the city’s smallest vertical commercial construction projects in recent history, R&H’s superintendent Chuck Roberts affectionately refers to it as “building a jewelry box on a postage stamp.” One of the key drivers of the NW23 project was how to best utilize an extremely small and constrained site, and at the same time, create genuine value and distinction to add to the character of the neighborhood, and to attract commercial and residential tenants. A single retail space at ground level houses Steven Smith Teamaker’s newest tea house and offers visibility from both street approaches, with near continuous glazing and a wrap-around metal canopy for all-weather protection. Above, five residential units ranging from 460 s.f. to 900 s.f. are spread across three upper levels, including three double-height units that provide generous light, space, and airflow within a compact footprint. The building is wrapped in an “Umi” series Japanese glazed porcelain tile and a rhythmic pattern of projecting metal fins, which also include the uniformly proportioned, full-height casement window and “Juliet” balconies. NW23 balances a sense of timelessness and quiet elegance with innovative details and features that can be found nowhere else in the city.
Adjacent to the NW23 mixed-use building on NW Glisan is the now fully restored NWGS building. R&H and Allied Works collaborated closely on the building renovation, drawing on the original plans from pre-2000 to restore the building’s architectural significance on this prominent site. Collectively, NWGS is a simple, elegant and contemporary urban building wrapped in stone, glass, metal panel and stainless-steel mesh. A side setback for parking and loading access allows for uninterrupted light and views to the south and east. The composition of surfaces on these facades—solid, screened, and transparent—presents a unified exterior expression while negotiating diverse interior functions. Within the residence, a minimal palette of wood, plaster and stone create a neutral field for the Sacks’ art and furnishings. On the top level, an open plan flows around a central hearth, with living room, terrace, dining, and kitchen following the open facades. One level below, a master suite features 14-foot sliding glass doors that open to a multi-level roof terrace providing a quiet refuge and place to view the city and the West Hills beyond.
NWGS Mixed-Use Building. Interior operable floor-to-ceiling windows (left), and window panes carefully being hoisted into place on the façade of the building (right).
Overcoming Obstacles, Restoring Vibrance
The aftermath of the 2016 blast set the stage for many of the obstacles the project team overcame both before and during construction of the mixed-use buildings. During the structural assessment and rebuilding process for the NWGS building, which began in 2016, improvements were made to the building envelope detailing and energy performance, and the clients chose to convert the third floor to a series of professional offices, and relocate the primary living room, dining room and kitchen of the residence to the uppermost floors. This provided better connection to roof terraces. The flexibility of the original structural concept allowed for these modifications to be made, and ultimately, for the building to continue to adapt to changing needs and market forces. The demolition work on NWGS was completed over a year before R&H was brought on board as the general contractor. After initial walk-throughs of the remaining structure, it was determined that about 25% of the demolition portion was left to be done. Several structural components and the elevator pit required further demolition and the second and third-floor concrete slabs needed to be partially removed due to the impact received from where the blast was centered. The second-floor slab was depressed and the third-floor slab was pushed upwards. Working with the existing bones of the former structure proved to be exceptionally more challenging than it would have been to start from scratch. What remained of the NWGS structure did not have any moment frames or bracing which resulted in the building frame being slightly askew. As a result, extra wall furring had to be added at the ground level to ensure the tile joints and metal panel joints lined up on the upper floors.
Additional surveying and layout were also necessary so that all the curtain wall mullions would precisely line up on all four floors. Roughly seventy percent of the existing steel penetrations for mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) from the original frame could not be reused during construction. Today’s equipment requires larger duct sizing to meet air requirements and the new systems could not function in their former locations making the existing penetrations unusable. Roof drains and plumbing pipes also had to be changed and added to meet current code requirements. In many cases, a whole new route for MEP was necessary, resulting in new penetrations and additional structure if the new penetrations were too close to an existing one. This was achieved by welding steel plates over existing holes and adding additional support with the use of steel angle pieces. To ensure the building complied with the current seismic code on a structure built in 2000, creative solutions were employed. Innovative silicone sheets were utilized not only to permit flexibility of the design to the building’s structure, but also act as a weather barrier. The sheets, thin flexible membranes, sit against the side of the structure and allow the building to drift up to 2.5” in the event of an earthquake without compromising the weather barrier. This 2.5” of drift is equal to an additional 200% of elongation movement and 75% compression movement, giving the building’s envelope the movement needed to better withstand an earthquake. Oregon’s harsh weather conditions also presented challenges. While a handful of the high-end fixtures and finishes from the Sacks Family’s residence on the fourth and fifth floors of NWGS were intended to be salvaged post-blast, prolonged exposure to the elements resulted in some degradation beneath the weather protection including yellow limestone that was imported from Italy.
NW23 Mixed-Use Building. R&H teams used silicone sheets during the building’s reconstruction. These sheets not only permit flexibility of the design to the building’s structure, they also act as a weather barrier.
R&H’s team carefully inspected items to be salvaged and made exceptional efforts to restore whenever possible. A few of the items that were able to be incorporated into the rebuild included a French limestone bluestone countertop, stone bathroom vanity, two sinks cast in stone, several light fixtures and a flat base custom bathtub designed by Ann Sacks herself. A mold was also cast of a custom corner bathroom tile installation to recreate one that was impacted by the blast. An exceptionally tight site on one of the busiest intersections in NW Portland provided additional challenges for our team. Sidewalks were required to remain accessible and street closures needed to be precisely calculated to limit disruption to the neighborhood. Crane picks were a challenge with limited clearances due to trees, power lines and neighboring buildings, not to mention active pedestrian traffic during most working hours. For the glass curtain wall, an Arcadia T500 system was used on NWGS, with four glass panels weighing more than 800 lbs. each being craned into place. 13.5’ X 6.5’ patio sliding doors were also hoisted by crane to their resting place on the building’s façade.
These challenging crane picks were meticulously coordinated to ensure safety and limit disruption. When constructing NWGS, a limited amount of lay down area was available on the adjacent then-vacant NW23 site. When construction began for NW23, the building’s “postage stamp” site left no room for staging and laydown, making LEAN construction methods essential. For scopes of work such as tile installation, tile setters were only able to bring enough materials to the site for two days’ work and then would need to revisit their warehouse to replenish materials. COVID added to this complexity by limiting the amount of trades that were able to work in and around the building at one time. Only one trade could work on the building façade or a floor of the structure at a time due to the confined space the site presented.
NWGS Mixed-Use Building. The imported Italian floor tile and floor-to-ceiling windows can be seen in the above image from The Sacks Family’s dwelling.
Exceptional Quality, Global Emphasis
Materials for both buildings were thoughtfully selected to enhance the simple yet elegant aesthetic. Goods were procured from far stretches of the globe including Japan, Brazil, Italy and China. With the Sacks family’s ties within the industry, much of the tile, marble and stone were sourced and purchased directly through the quarries in these countries. This unconventional procurement process added several challenges for the project team including navigating numerous time zones and working hours, unique customs requirements for each country, direct communication with the quarries regarding specific slabs of stone and tiles and extensive coordination to ensure accuracy of orders. French blue limestone, Italian yellow limestone, Brazilian green slate, Chinese black granite and Japanese glazed porcelain tile were all incorporated in a variety of applications throughout the project. The 1.5” Italian yellow limestone was installed over a radiant heat system throughout the residence. Steel backing was adhered to this stone as well so it could be utilized on one of the residential terraces as pavers for a seamless transition from interior to exterior. Brazilian green slate adorns the entire north and portions of the east and west facades. Chinese granite was utilized as pavers on the upper terrace as well as mortar set at the ground floor entry. The French blue limestone was installed as counter tops and interior stair treads and landings. The selected finishes reflect the quality and uniqueness of the buildings while also preserving the original design of the NWGS building.
NW23 and NWGS Mixed-Use Buildings. You can see both buildings from this aerial angle, along with the eco roof on NW23.
Adapting Expectations in Challenging Times
COVID and wildfires provided unforeseen challenges for our team during the NW23 build, yet the project team consistently looked for ways to increase efficiency onsite to speed schedule and reduce costs while ensuring the safety and health of all our crew members and trade partners. The NWGS building benefited from being completed pre-COVID and overall met expectations for project budget. The schedule for this intricate rebuild was impacted by customs delays related to the abundance of materials that were incorporated from far across the globe. Having R&H as contractor for both the NWGS and NW23 sites allowed for greater project efficiencies like staging of building materials for NWGS on the vacant NW23 site and performing pre-work for the NW23 building during construction of NWGS. With a collaborative and supportive ownership team in close daily contact, schedule and budget expectations were consistently communicated and agreed upon. Despite understandable delays that affected schedule and budget, the overall project was delivered in line with the entire team’s expectations for these quality, soundly constructed buildings.
A collective Vision and Exceptional Outcome
Collectively, the two projects allowed Allied Works to revisit and revitalize one of the firm’s earliest and most innovative projects, and then, to design a counterpart which speaks to present-day needs, and helps tie the whole ensemble to the life and legacy of Northwest Portland. For R&H, the unique nature of these projects and complexity of the rebuild were in direct alignment with the types of challenges that the company’s team members thrive on solving. These projects speak to the value and potential of a long-standing and collaborative partnership between the architect, builder, and client, which allows for experimentation, free exchange of information, and creative solutions to challenging problems. Allied Works, R&H and the Sacks family equally share a passion for craft, material, and detail, and this shared sensibility shines through, even on two buildings of differing era and character.