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A Super Building for Fragile Times

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April 8, 2022


The Oregon State Treasury is moving into a newly constructed structure designed to withstand every disaster the designers could conjure.

SALEM, Ore. — A giant earthquake. A huge flood. Wildfires followed by choking smoke. An ice storm that knocks out the power for days. Four years ago, a group of employees at the Oregon State Treasury sat down and compiled a list of every conceivable disaster that could befall a government building. And last month, the Treasury, which is responsible for paying government employees in Oregon, unveiled its answer: a new two-story headquarters. It is a Super Building inspired by those thoughts of calamity. It is an office for our fragile times.

The building, which took less than two years to complete, is barely attached to the ground — it sits on what are called base isolators, capable of reducing the violent shaking of an earthquake by as much as 75 percent. The building can go entirely off the grid — “full island mode,” said one employee — with a backup battery, backup diesel generator and backup water and sewage systems. In case of civil unrest, the building’s large windows, designed to maximize natural light, are made of “vandal-resistant glass.”

“Regardless of what’s happening in the world around us, no matter how many natural disasters, our employees will want to come to work and deliver services to Oregonians,” said Byron Williams, the chief administrative officer of the Treasury, who led the conception and construction of the project.

The Oregon building is part of a larger trend toward disaster-resistant buildings, spurred by the bouts of extreme weather, often linked to climate change, that have haunted residents from California to Florida. It is one of the most extreme examples of a desire for safety, continuity and peace of mind achieved through architecture and engineering.

Mr. Williams, earnest and intense, is obsessively devoted to mitigating disasters. Oregon, like other parts of the West Coast, has had many in recent years, including wildfires, ice storms and of course the coronavirus pandemic. Just in case his employees are marooned in the building after a disaster, Mr. Williams bought hundreds of military ready-to-eat meals that are now stored in giant file cabinets.

The Treasury did not have a pandemic on its initial list, Mr. Williams conceded during a tour of the building. Even so, the ventilation system, like that of a hospital operating room, is capable of pumping out indoor air and entirely replacing it with fresh outside air at a rate of one full cycle every 30 minutes, helping to mitigate virus transmission.

Evan Reis, a California-based engineer and an expert on resilient buildings, said he was unaware of any other office building in the United States that was designed to withstand so many different natural disasters.

“Sure, there must be some kind of military facility, a bunker somewhere,” said Mr. Reis, who has studied the Oregon project but was not involved in it. “But I can’t think of any that have gone to this level of multi-hazard protection.”

In his advocacy work, Mr. Reis uses the building as an example of a structure that achieves two things at once, energy efficiency and resilience. The Treasury does not expect to be paying any electricity bills: Equipped with banks of solar panels and high levels of insulation, the building produces more electricity than it consumes.

With plenty of natural light entering the space during the day, the building’s lighting system uses half the energy of a typical building, according to Chris Lowen, who oversaw the installation of the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems.

And on the resilience side, the building serves as a reminder that building codes in places like California, Oregon and Washington are only designed to save lives; many buildings and homes will probably be unusable after a large earthquake. The Treasury headquarters, on the other hand, is expected to function as soon as the shaking stops.

The contrast between the old Treasury offices and the new headquarters could hardly be more stark.

The former offices were located two miles away on the Capitol Mall, a phalanx of hulking white marble buildings constructed during the Great Depression. It is a spot meant to convey government grandeur and elegance: In the spring, rows of cherry trees erupt with a riot of pink blossoms framed by the white marble facades glinting in the sunshine.

The new Treasury building, by contrast, sits behind a Denny’s parking lot and a chain hotel near the freeway. It might be mistaken for an insurance office.

But in practical terms — and practicality was the overriding driver of this project — the move to the new building might be compared to trading in a motorcycle for an armored car.

The Capitol building is widely recognized as ill-conceived for an earthquake. A 2013 report did not mince words.

“The Capitol has serious seismic problems,” the report said. “If a major earthquake strikes, the Capitol will likely be destroyed and lives lost.”

Although some government buildings in Salem have been retrofitted for seismic safety, most were constructed before 1993, when Oregon changed its building codes to take into account the threat of the Big One. Those buildings are considered particularly vulnerable.

The old Treasury offices faced more than just earthquake risk. The computer servers that processed checks for millions of Oregonians were located beneath the building’s main water lines. Technicians once had to hold buckets above the computers when the pipes sprang a leak. Smoke from nearby wildfires was so intense several summers ago that workers scooped out ash that had accumulated in the filters of the air-conditioning system.

Officials were informed that remodeling the old office would cost $10 million, prompting the decision in 2018 to build a new headquarters.

Those involved in the project say they are bracing for criticism that the new building may be excessive. “On the surface, people are looking at it and saying, ‘It’s too shiny, it’s too nice,’” said Steve Freeburg, a Salem real estate developer who owns the building. Under the terms of a deal with the Treasury, he is leasing it to the state for several decades.

“This is built for a totally different purpose,” Mr. Freeburg said.

Mr. Freeburg paid about $31.5 million to construct the building, with its 35,805 square feet of office space — more than twice the cost of a conventional office building of the same size. The Treasury will pay slightly more than $2.5 million in rent each year.

Mr. Williams, the Treasury official, says that in addition to zero electricity costs, the main justification for the relatively high rent is that the work of the Treasury will be able to continue unimpeded during and after a disaster. In addition to the paychecks of firefighters, police officers, teachers and a raft of other government employees, the Treasury processes unemployment benefits, food stamps, Medicare payment and state pensions.

“If our building goes down, we just made a statewide disaster,” Mr. Williams said.

Engineers say they have addressed as many risks to the building as technology allows.

For earthquake risk, the building’s base isolators essentially decouple the building from its foundation. Like an ice cube on a plate, the building would remain relatively steady while the ground beneath it shakes. A similar system is in use in Apple’s headquarters, the San Francisco City Hall and thousands of buildings in Japan.

For an age of increasingly large wildfires, engineers installed noncombustible siding and an air filtration system, separate from the heating and cooling system, that can entirely shut off outside air to seal the building from wildfire smoke.

For flood risk, a perennial concern in the Willamette Valley, engineers built the building several feet above the level at which there is a one-in-500 chance of flooding each year.

And to guard against tap water contamination — as happened during an algae bloom at a reservoir serving Salem several years ago — the building will use its own 100-foot-deep well as a backup. An emergency septic tank is available if the municipal sewage system becomes unusable.

In recent years, as disasters have seemed both more frequent and less predictable, planning for the worst has required a lot more contingencies. But Mr. Williams seems to have answers for every eventuality.

Quizzed about internet service during a disaster, he mentioned a host of backups: two separate high-speed internet cables that link to a government data center; another connection that goes through a private internet provider; a contract with a company that will provide two mobile trailers with satellite dishes when needed; and a bunch of satellite phones in the office.

And if all that does not work? Then there is a backup to the backup to the backup, a spot on the roof reserved for an old-fashioned radio antenna.

“The worst-case scenario,” Mr. Williams said, “is that I’m sending email over ham radio.”

A PDF of this article, which includes images, is provided below.

A Super Building for Fragile Times - The New York Times