Portland’s ‘Big Pink’ Scores Big Gains

Unico Properties’ improvements to the largest office tower in Oregon offer a model for energy efficiency upgrades.

Though new ground-up projects often dominate discussions of energy efficient design, upgrades of existing buildings make an equal contribution to cost savings and reduced carbon footpoint.

U.S. Bancorp Tower, Portland, Ore. Image courtesy of Unico Properties

Such is the case with Oregon’s largest office building, the 1.2 million-square-foot, 42-Story U.S. Bancorp Tower.

Dubbed Big Pink because of its the hue of its Spanish granite and glazed plate glass facade, the landmark was built in 1983 using the energy performance of an earlier era.

Big Pink’s energy makeover sets a high bar for such upgrades. In the past 12 months, U.S. Bancorp Tower has cut gas use by 55 percent, reduced carbon emissions by 755 metric tons, and trimmed its overall energy use by 17.4 percent. These efforts by  the building’s owner, Unico Properties, were recognized in April 2019 when U.S. Bancorp Tower attained LEED Platinum certification for Existing Buildings. The enhancements were made at a busy property that accommodates approximately 5,000 people daily.

Big Pink’s energy makeover has been helped by collaborations with local stakeholders that include The North West Energy Efficiency Alliance, The Energy Trust of Oregon, Energy 350 and forward-looking utility programs from PGE and Pacific Power. Another crucial step in improving energy performance has been the identification of clear goals.

“U.S. Bancorp Tower epitomizes Unico’s commitment to building and operating the highest performing buildings that protect resources like our climate and our water, that are healthy and productive places to live and work for people of all backgrounds, and that improve financial performance for our assets and our tenants,” said Brett Phillips, director of sustainable real estate and solar investments at Unico.

Path to Success

Implementation of these goals has required a clear roadmap. Unico follows guidelines set forth by Unique Architecture 2030, a non-profit organization whose mission is to rapidly transform the built environment to a central part of the solution to the climate and energy crisis. The 2030 Challenge can be met by following prescribed steps including: establishing an EUI baseline and target, applying low/no cost passive design strategies to achieve maximum energy efficiency and incorporating on-site and/or off-site renewable energy to meet the remaining energy demands.

“As a signatory to the 2030 Challenge, Unico has ambition to build and operate carbon neutral buildings by 2030,” explained Phillips. “We’re acting on this by retrofitting our existing buildings to use 50 percent less energy than the industry average.”

Improving the performance of a building the size of Big Pink has required a multifaceted approach involving projects of many sizes: HVAC equipment upgrades, LED lighting and incremental improvements in energy management. Unico Sustainability Group, a division of Unico Properties, was an early adopter of the LEED performance score, which uses the Arc platform for validating building performance. This data-driven approach measures the sustainability of an existing building, capturing dynamic performance metrics. The framework enables the property management team to benchmark current performance and consistently improve the operations of the building.

Kimberly Lewis of USGBC presents the LEED Platinum plaque for U.S. Bancorp Tower to the Unico Properties’ JP Crowe, manager of sustainable real estate (left) and Brett Phillips, vice president of sustainable and responsible investments (right). Photo by Molly Smith

Already US Bancorp Tower is using 53 percent less energy than the national average, surpassing Architecture 2030’s energy goal, which targets decarbonization in the built environment by 2030.

Unico’s energy improvement efforts are continuing. “This is no overnight success story,” noted John-Paul Crowe, Unico’s manager of sustainable real estate for the Portland and Salt Lake City markets. “Since taking over ownership and management of U.S. Bancorp Tower in 2000, Unico Properties has been committed to transforming it into a high-performance green building.” Big Pink first achieved LEED Silver certification in 2009, followed by LEED Gold six years later in 2015, and LEED Platinum in 2018.

According to Phillips, Unico’s robust energy management plan provides the property team and engineers at U.S. Bancorp Tower with best practices and technologies to reduce energy consumption.

“We installed a data acquisition system to use big data and real-time analytics to diagnose inefficiencies,” he said. “Most notably, the utilization of this data allowed US Bancorp Tower to optimize its gas boilers which reduced gas consumption by 55 percent. We also installed a new highly efficient elevator system, new HVAC controls and new LED lighting.”