Mahlum Architects office, Custom Blocks (Lincoln Barbour)

Over the past two decades, I’ve probably walked, biked and driven past the Custom Blocks hundreds of times. But lately it’s been a transformed place.

Located at Southeast Ninth Avenue and Madison Street, this two-block cluster of seven warehouse buildings was home to the Custom Stamping Company for a half-century. When one of its doors was open, it was possible to peer inside and see its huge stamping machines in action, shaping long metal sheets into various parts. Even when the doors were closed, you could hear their rhythmic clanging. In 2016, the blocks went silent and the property was sold to developer Capstone Partners. By 2018, a renovation by Scott Edwards Architecture was complete.

One of Capstone’s tenants, Mahlum Architects, chose the southwest corner of the Custom Blocks for its new Portland office (the firm is headquartered in Seattle). The firm’s ensuing tenant improvement has become a milestone: the first local project to earn Living Building Challenge certification for its sustainable design. I toured the project with Mahlum principal Kurt Haapala for a recent article in Metropolis magazine. Of course during my visit, the block had gone silent again, but for a different reason: the pandemic and quarantine. This time, though, the occupants are coming back.

As Mahlum began to contemplate leaving its longtime Pearl District office (in part due to seismic concerns), before signing on for a new home its leaders began by surveying employees. “We said, ‘What do you like about this place? What do you hope for in a new place?’ Number one was more collaborative space, followed by daylight and resiliency,” he explained.

Mahlum Architects office, Custom Blocks (Lincoln Barbour)

When a member of Mahlum’s staff suggested following Living Building Challenge procedures, Haapala recalled, it seemed daunting at first. “We considered the cost and we wrung our hands. ‘What does it mean? How do we know? Can we get it done in time when our lease is up?’ We also asked ourselves: ‘What’s the damage of saying no to the staff?’ It wasn’t pressure,” he said. “But it wouldn’t send the right message to say no. We wanted our values in alignment. So we said yes.”

“We have a fairly grassroots mindset at the firm about pushing sustainability as far as we can make it go on as many projects as possible,” added Mahlum associate principal Jay Hindmarsh.” If we’re going to be designing a new office for ourselves, it should really be everything our current office is, plus all our latest and greatest thinking about sustainability, which over the last 5-7 years has ballooned into so many different topics that it’s no longer LEED and low-energy and low-flow fixtures. It’s material health and low carbon and social equity. We did a really quick gut check. Should we be thinking about LEED, WELL? This was our opportunity to go for LBC. I think part of it was a number of folks including myself had been percolating in the material transparency ecosystem over the past few years. In the trade groups, at conferences. Especially in Seattle and Portland there’s been this groundswell of architects sharing their trials and tribulations with material transparency. It was a good time. We had just completed our certification label for the Mahlum organization through the Living Futures Institute.”

The Mahlum office was also about walking the talk. “It was a way to demonstrate to material manufacturers and reps that yes, we’d be looking for material disclosures, but had gone through a similar process ourselves in terms of looking in the mirror and sharing that transparency,” Hindmarsh said.

Before getting into the Living Building Challenge process and how it affected design, I’d like to delve more into the original building and company, and the Custom Blocks rehab by Scott Edwards Architecture.

“They operated the facility for like 50 years,” recalled Capstone president Chris Nelson. “The day we signed the purchase agreement with the family, they had just told their employees they were shutting down. It was a pretty emotional day for them. When we signed the agreement, I think they were afraid we were going to tear it all down. I think it mattered to them, but they weren’t going to make any requirement. They just got tired of manufacturing parts and were ready to move on into retirement. But I think they were hoping somebody would save the project.”

Archival shots of the Custom Stamping Company (Capstone Partners)

Then, Nelson said, the question became, “How do you save a building with this great industrial history that’s sort of raw, and build it forward to meet all the code requirements but save all the elements that feel old? The goal was, ‘Let’s not try to overthink the outside.’ That was the direction to Peter and his team: ‘Let’s walk in and feel like you’re not trapped in a dark old building.’”

Yet it would have also been a mistake, Nelson added, to be too heavy-handed with change. “When you get a building or buildings that dictate where major walls are and how they break up, it’s not a sliced bread kind of thing. It is what it is,” he said. “You need to be more patient and wait for the right fit. Some might say it’s too raw or industrial. Others who get it, they love it. Mahlum fell in love for their own reasons. So did I.”

Although different portions of the two-block Custom Blocks were built at different times, the southwest corner of the Custom Blocks was built in the 1930s as a Chevrolet dealership. A two-story wing on the north side was later added, with a large ramp so cars could be moved and stored upstairs. Between the buildings is one central hallway cutting through the entire block, taking advantage of the old ramp. The block-long lobby resulting was not part of the design brief but a suggestion from Scott Edwards.

It was the facility’s time as Custom Stamping, though, that most impacted the buildings, even if the architecture itself was not altered.

Archival shots of the Custom Stamping Company (Capstone Partners)

They would take a variety of metals and roll it out onto these presses: kind of infinitely adjustable custom-dye presses,” explained Peter Grimm of Scott Edwards Architecture. “You could put them in any combination and create almost any kind of metal part.  It wasn’t a foundry. They were just taking a rolled product—copper, aluminum, different types of steel—and bending, twisting, poking, punching and drilling those into various shapes for industry. At first it was mostly automobile parts. I think they worked for the aeronautics industry a bit. Really up until they sold the property, they were going strong. They had about 72,000 square feet of production, warehousing space, with a couple dozen big large stamping presses going at any given time. It was really a hub of activity. We toured it while they were still going full strength. It was loud, gritty. In the center was this oil bar,  where you got the oil you needed for your stamp press. It was just coated in metal shavings and oil.”

To remove all that grime was extensive, but the developer and both architecture firms knew that ultimately the texture was a net-positive. After all, we’re talking old-growth Douglas fir ceiling beams and columns, which were shot-blasted to remove paint, dirt and oil but left uncovered. While Capstone chose to replace a lot of the stained concrete floors elsewhere in the Custom Blocks, Mahlum wanted theirs kept, for the patina and the story it tells.

After cleanup, the second major move was a seismic upgrade, which can be seen in the X-shaped bracing at the edge of the building.

“Those buildings have been there 80 to 100 years and will stand for another 500 if you take care of them,” Grimm said. “It’s the lateral load that is the issue. The science is changing. We’re aware of the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake [threat] and lateral movement. That’s what we do in the seismic upgrade: give the building the ability to resist sideways motion.”

Inside the Mahlum Architects office during quarantine (Brian Libby)

Of the X-bracing, Grimm added, “They give the building the ability to flex without collapse. Pretty straightforward for a building like that. It’s a bay structure. From an engineering standpoint, you just integrate the X-frame as best you can. We wound up putting most of those on the exterior outside wall in line with the existing structure. You can use the minimum amount of frames. They’re big and beefy but few in number. That’s a dollar challenge because they’re expensive. It can range anywhere from about $50 a square foot to double or more for a complex building. We’re looking at one for a church right now that’s probably $125 a square foot because it’s a multistory, open-span space.”

The Custom Blocks is not unreinforced masonry (URM). “Old URM buildings made of brick like those in Old Town, those are very expensive to rehab seismically. This is what we’d call under-reinforced masonry. They’re really concrete or wood-framed buildings primarily, sometimes with a masonry cladding. In our case, it was all concrete and a little bit of masonry but not the primary frame.” Seismically stabilizing a building like this is “more achievable,” Grimm added, “because wood is really flexible and ductile. Concrete with some steel reinforcing does okay because the steel can flex.”

At 7,500 square feet, the Mahlum office has space not only for desks (and, though it couldn’t have been foreseen at the time, post-pandemic social distancing) but also for a large kitchen, collaborative breakout spaces, and a large community room that could be used to host events. It also has many nice little touches, like a small foyer created with the help of salvaged wood shelving, on which are displayed various tchotchkes contributed by employees, dubbed the Curio Cabinet. As a University of Michigan grad, Haapala contributed a Bo Schembechler bobble-head doll.

Mahlum’s reclaimed-wood foyer shelving (Lincoln Barbour)

There is also a bevy of house plants. I feel a bit funny mentioning them, because it’s not usually a detail I touch upon. But it was clear in this case that it was a concerted effort, and there’s enough plants that they really do contribute to the overall aesthetic, softening the linearity of the architecture and the hard edge of the surfaces.

As for fulfilling Living Building Challenge strictures, “It wasn’t so much designing. It was working to make sure every nut and bolt and washer met the red list material requirements, and the paper trail that was required,” Haapala explained. While Mahlum had never designed an LBC-certified building before, Miller Hull, the Seattle firm next door to its headquarters, had and was willing to share its lessons. You can do this, the Miller Hull team told Mahlum’s. But it may take twice as long as you think. “They were right,” Haapala said with a laugh.

The LBC comprises seven performance categories, or “Petals”: Materials, Place, Water, Energy, Health, Equity, and Beauty. Buildings achieving full Living Building status, like Seattle’s Bullitt Center, meet standards in all seven areas. Satisfying only some can earn Petal certification. Mahlum’s tenant improvement in the Custom Blocks attained certification in Materials, in addition to Place, Equity, and Beauty.

“You have to hit one of three main Petals—such as Energy, Water, or Materials—as a starting point, then two or three others,” explained Jay Hindmarsh. The Place category was achieved by renovating the existing warehouse and not adding to its embodied carbon. The team met the Equity component by designing adjustable workstations, and Beauty by repurposing floorboards salvaged from historic Fort Vancouver in the aforementioned entry display.

Hindmarsh’s team did the long, slow work of satisfying the Materials Petal and verifying that every last ingredient in every material brought into the office tenant improvement job was non-toxic.

Mahlum Architects office, Custom Blocks (Lincoln Barbour)

“It’s really having a design concept, having the technical and spec experience and expertise to call out all of those products that we know are compliant, and making sure in construction we have a process in place for proving out,” Hindmarsh explained. “We may know we want this exact carpet in this exact color, but every single adhesive is different with its own inventory of ingredients. Put that in a spec and when it gets bid out, we have a process in place with submittals. Inevitably there are changes that come about during construction based on availability or finding a product we didn’t know we needed. We’ve got to get the information on what the product is and most of the time work pretty hard with the manufacturer or the rep to know who to talk to at the company who has the info about what the ingredients are and screening those against the red list.”

After going through this process, Hindmarsh believes the industry still needs to do better. “Whether it’s lighting or door handles or flooring, they all have their own structure of how they’re made and what the distributor network looks like. There’s been a lot of movement over the last several years with supplier transparency, getting the whole web there, but I think we’ve still got a long way to go.” When the team would make calls to suppliers, skepticism was not uncommon. “Inevitably someone had never heard of Living Building Challenge,” the architect recalled. “I’d hear, ‘Why is this important? Why would I tell you this?'”

But the bigger challenge is the granularity. “Even for question number one—has the manufacturer disclosed 100 percent of the ingredients to 100 ppm—even with a yes, there’s a bunch of different answers,” Hindmarsh said. “We could pick a carpet that’s red-list free, made within 50 kilometers of the project site, no VOCs. It’s just really granular. But here’s often competing requirements. I may find a wire that doesn’t have PVC jacketing, but it may come from a manufacturer in China. How do I balance competing priorities? But That’s where this concept of it being an advocacy tool and philosophy tool shows through. Just reaching out to people and letting them know that customers care about this, it shouldn’t be so difficult.” After all, he added, “We can read the nutrition information on our yogurt.”

A key going forward, Hindmarsh believes, is architects sharing information. He cites the recent AIA Seattle-sponsored Materials Matters series, a pilot for a national AIA curriculum “This idea of practitioners sharing their trials and tribulations and lessons learned in this space is still I think rare for architects,” he said. “We’re not really good at sharing our mistakes and how hard things are. For me, coming to this group of people being open about how hard this was and how important it was, I was kind of blown away. For me it was a re-ignition around sustainability in a bigger sense: the willingness that people not just in the Pacific Northwest but nationally and internationally coming together and putting their lists out for the public.”


Original Release

Title: Visiting Mahlum’s Custom Blocks office, first Living Building-certified project in Portland

Author: Brian Libby


Link to Website

Date: September 10, 2020