How do you turn a building into an experience of social, environmental and economic connectivity?
In the late 1990s, Ecotrust wanted to find permanent headquarters. We also wanted to create a place that embodies the future that our organization is working toward. Thanks to an extraordinary gift from philanthropist and founding board member Jean Vollum, we undertook one of our riskiest and most rewarding ventures: We bought an 1895 warehouse, reclaimed many of its original materials, and transformed it into The Natural Capital Center.
After a century as a hub for the goods of the industrial economy, our building has become a focal point for a new economy in which “Natural Capital” — the flow of goods and services from nature — is our measure of prosperity and resilience. From the native timber we used and preserved to the daily business and events that keep the building humming, the Natural Capital Center is an evolving expression of our commitment to the long-term wellbeing of people and nature.
The history of our building
Although we’ve shaped the most recent chapter in the history of this building, it lived many lives before we came along.
John McCracken, a wholesale building supplies distributor, built the warehouse as shipping was gaining significance for the growing city of Portland. The late 1800s saw the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and increasing investments in the Port of Portland.
Situated between two freight yards and near a third, the McCracken warehouse was intended to stow supplies traveling between West Coast destinations. Alongside the building’s loading docks ran short rail spurs, known as team tracks, sized to accommodate a team of horses. Concrete ramps also brought horse teams and their shipments through the center of the building.
By the 1930s, the team tracks were accommodating trucks more often than horses. As many as 32 trucking companies rented a loading door or two in what became known as the Centennial Truck Terminal. Inside, a small café and the Terminal Cigar Store ran until 1940.
The most recent owner before Ecotrust was Rapid Transfer & Storage, a small, family-owned trucking company that moves goods around Oregon and Washington.
The building stands a testament to the craftsmanship of the workers and the quality of the materials they used. It’s an example of Classic Richardsonian Romanesque style, which flourished between 1885 and 1990. Nearby Union Station is another example. These massive, heavy-looking buildings feature flat roofs and parapets, recessed round-arched entries, arched window openings, and stucco and brick facing.
In its earlier life, few passersby would have admired its beauty. But this architectural landmark comes from a moment when even out-of-the-way warehouses were being built with a new sense of identity and permanence.
Of 163 downtown office buildings, the Natural Capital Center is one of only five built before 1900. It is a historic survivor through a century of tremendous change.
Although the old McCracken warehouse was in disrepair when we came along, it was structurally sound. We loved its size: The building, loading area, and parking lot occupy a full city block.
We loved its location: We had hoped to find a central site very near downtown that was easily accessible by bike and public transport. Also, when we acquired the building in 1998, the derelict neighborhood — now known as The Pearl District — was rapidly changing into a lively, mixed-use urban neighborhood with kid-friendly parks.
And we loved its age: From the moment we went looking for a building, we knew we wanted an old one to anchor us in the region’s history and provide contrast and continuity for the new life we hoped to bring inside.
“For really new ideas of any kind…there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error, and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” –Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
The rebuilding project was uncharted territory. Our goal was to couple historic restoration with environmental innovation. With a tremendous team of developers, architects, designers, and green building experts, we took stock of the materials already within the structure and were able to reclaim or recycle 98 percent of our construction debris — from the recycled paint to the old tires that became rubber flooring to the benches on the street made from old granite curbs. We set the city record for recycling materials.
The contractors created an entire wood shop within the walls. Almost all of the doors were custom build from the salvaged native Doug Fir within the building. Aside from what they found within the structure, they sourced timber from a nearby deconstruction and purchased FSC-certified, sustainably harvested wood — itself an expression of the work Ecotrust does to support healthy working forests.
In famously rainy Portland, we protect the Willamette River from storm water runoff by filtering and absorbing all of our rainwater in bioswales and our ecoroof. To save water — our summers are secret droughts — we accrue 32 percent water savings through low flow fixtures.
When we opened for business in 2001, the Natural Capital Center became the first restoration of an historic building to receive LEED — Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design — gold rating, the benchmark for “green building.” We made compromises along the way to retain the historic character of the structure, including keeping the original windows and tall ceilings. In the end, the natural light that streams in and fills the broad atrium was critical to the LEED designation.
The materials, water and light are all ecosystem services that contribute to the life of the building and the people within.
Many green historic renovations came on the heels of this redevelopment. We were a test case that proved that investing old buildings with new technology can provide economic, environmental, and social returns.
Doing business here
The Natural Capital Center is home to over two dozen diverse organizations and social enterprises that share our commitment to people and nature.
More than 200 people work here — from asset managers to pizzaiolos, watershed restoration planners to acupuncturists, dynamic map designers to fair-trade coffee advocates. In our open office spaces and shared kitchen, we have the chance to spark new ideas and build unusual alliances.
The building is also a public gathering place. Our atrium and rooftop terrace are open to the public and well used as informal meeting places.
Our event spaces
Our landmark green building annually hosts over 500 events and has seen 5 million visitors since our doors opened in 2001.
We offer indoor and outdoor spaces for 10 to 200 people, an exclusive list of Portland’s most sustainable caterers, and the assurance that we’re doing the invisible work to make environmentally sound choices that will complement your event.
When you host your event at Ecotrust, you support our nonprofit work to build a new economy that holds people and nature at its heart. Learn more about our event spaces.
We host tours by appointment. Come visit!