Technology is stretching the boundaries of ZGF Architects, the fourth-largest architecture firm in the country.
By Linda Baker
Photos by Justin Tunis
Exactly two years ago, ZGF Architects moved into its new Portland headquarters in the Twelve West building — a mixed-use high rise featuring exposed-concrete-and-wood interiors and eco-friendly technologies such as rooftop wind turbines and “chilled beams” to control temperature. Designed by ZGF, the edifice received a 2010 Top Ten Green Projects award from the American Institute of Architects. It is also one of several new projects that reflect the firm’s rejuvenated outlook and growing attention to cutting-edge, environmentally responsible architecture.
“We have been pushing ourselves like never before on high-performance building design,” says Bob Packard, 60, ZGF’s managing partner. A new generation of “bright, inquisitive” employees is also challenging and energizing the firm, says Packard, who came on board in 1979. He laughs: “I try to provide support and get out of the way.”
The biggest architecture firm in Portland and the fourth-largest in the country, ZGF, founded in 1959, is known for its diverse portfolio, from medical and university facilities such as Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and the University of Oregon’s Jaqua Center, to U.S. Embassies in Turkey and Bulgaria. Employing 460 people in five cities — 250 in Portland — the firm takes an equally holistic approach toward each of the projects it undertakes. “We think of it as macro to micro,” Packard says. “From the community and urban context, down to the craftsmanship of the building, what you see, touch and feel.”
|ZGF Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects LLP|
|Managing Partner:Bob Packard|
|Employees: 460 (250 in Portland)|
|Offices: Portland, Seattle, Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles|
|Estimated Annual Revenue: $125 million in 2010|
|Noted: ZGF has worked on more than 1,000 projects|
An emphasis on “fundamentals,” including customer service, also characterizes the ZGF approach. “We believe being a great design firm is the value we bring to customers,” says Packard, who speaks in careful, measured tones and favors a conservative blue-pinstripe style. “But it’s an unfulfilled value if we deliver innovative design at the expense of meeting a client’s needs, schedule and budget.”
Today, rapidly evolving technologies, from 3D architecture modeling software to energy-saving materials, are stretching the boundaries of the ZGF universe. So are designers such as 44-year old Eugene Sandoval, the lead architect behind Twelve West and the new Port of Portland headquarters. The latter, a recipient of a 2010 Metropolis Smart Environment Award, features a ship’s hull-inspired design, geothermal heating and cooling, and a “Living Machine,” an indoor wetland that treats all the building’s wastewater for reuse in toilet flushing and cooling towers.
The new Clif Bar headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., is another example of ZGF’s next-generation approach. Located in a reclaimed warehouse, the 75,000-square-foot building features custom door pulls fashioned from reclaimed bike frames, open workspace architecture, and the largest electronically enhanced solar array in North America, providing nearly 100% of the office’s electricity.
Photos by Justin Tunis
Collectively, these projects target what Packard refers to as “360 degrees of sustainability” — how buildings perform within a neighborhood, how they perform in and of themselves, and how they perform for the user. “If you’re not doing that today, you’re not helping provide solutions that not only your clients, but your clients’ clients are struggling with,” says Packard.
About those fundamentals. Unlike most large firms, ZGF devotes only about 15% of its practice to work overseas, a portfolio that currently includes Beijing Children’s Hospital Leukemia Center and the Da Lian Xinghai Mixed Use Development. “It’s a deliverable strategy,” says Packard. “There was a time when it was not easy to do a level of quality somewhere else in the world that we could be proud of.”
Inside the United States, where the firm has a broad geographic reach, corporate client commissions are increasing as the economy recovers, Packard says. “I wouldn’t have expected this, but they are one of the first users of architecture that have said ‘Let’s get going.’” Still, he adds, the recession has been “dark and scary.” Gross revenues were about $125 million in 2010, down from about $149 million in 2008. The firm also trimmed staff by 13% — on the low end for architecture firms, says Packard.
With his old-school demeanor, Packard can seem a bit out of place in ZGF’s hyper-cool new offices. Then again, the contrast is an apt symbol for the firm and its ability to evolve broad notions of design. In 1982, Packard co-authored a paper identifying the development potential of the West End district. Thirty years later, Twelve West has not only helped revitalize that neighborhood, now home to the Crystal Hotel and hundreds of new apartments, but it is also about 50% more energy efficient than a typical residential or office tower.
“The world has become very complex,” says Packard. “What for the firm may have started out as one aspect of sustainability is now made up of a multitude of issues.”
Portland journalist and architecture critic Brian Libby contributed to this report.