Low-Carbon Architecture Firm Opens Glisan Office

After a multi-year renovation of the Art Deco office at 7631 NE Glisan StreetHarka Architecture has fully relocated to its new home. Renovation work on this compact building rescued a Montavilla architectural icon and created a functional showpiece for low-carbon construction. Harka’s founder, Patrick Donaldson, purchased this property for his architectural firm in 2019 after his sublease ended. The onset of the pandemic disrupted the plans for a quick remodel and removed the pressure to move offices as commercial space became abundant. Over the last two years, the project’s scope shifted to a methodical renovation incorporating various environmentally healthy building techniques representing the core of what Harka offers its clients.

Donaldson, who lives in the area and sometimes commutes past this building, did not envision buying this property. Even as he searched for new office space, the for sale sign in the window almost went ignored. However, something about this distinct structure captured his attention. “I kept driving, and then maybe four blocks later, I turned around and came back and wrote down the number,” Explained Donaldson. Even then, he was unsure but decided to investigate the space further. “Looking around, it turns out the shipping container that’s back here, the guy who owned it was in there, and I’m pretty sure that had I not walked up at that moment and him being there, I don’t think I would have gotten it.” The seller admitted to ignoring calls to buy the property unless the person tried at least three or four times. “That’s a strange way to way to go about things, but he was in there, and so I actually made a kind of a physical connection with him. So we ended up negotiating, and I purchased it.” Said Donaldson.

Harka Architecture‘s conference room featuring a moss wall inspired by Portland topography

Once crews began the renovation project, Donaldson and his team realized they would need to take it down to the studs and reshape the building. “I never really intended to do what we did, and then once I started kind of working on it… you start to pull the string, and you know how it goes,” remarked Donaldson. He always intended to incorporate sustainability and low-carbon designs that reduce toxicity. However, each project bumped into the constraints of the 1940 construction, and they had to make significant changes. “We made the building taller because it had a two-by-four roof [and] didn’t have a parapet, so it wouldn’t waterproof well. With a two-by-four ceiling, we’d be forced to use foam insulation, which has high embodied carbon and is filled with fire retardants.” To avoid that, they built a roof with two-by-six lumber and 14-inch engineered trusses that accommodated 13 inches of cellulose insulation. The process also changed the building’s outward appearance. “It gave it more of an overhang in the back, and then again, it’s 18 inches taller, so it has a little bit more of a profile than it had before,” said Donaldson.

With the first substantial upgrade underway, it became apparent that the building needed additional work, and keeping to the budget was already a lost cause. “We should upgrade here, we should upgrade there, and then it was like we should just make an example of this, right?” remembered Donaldson. From that point on, he and his team set out to incorporate all types of low-carbon and recycled materials into the project with the goal of making a usable showcase featuring what Harka offers its clients. “We tried to use edgier products to test them out, and so right when you walked in at the entry, there’s a little window in the ceiling that shows off the hemp [wool insulation],” explained Donaldson as he pointed to details through the space. In many places, they repurposed lumber, even salvaging lath from the walls for the paneling in the bathroom.

By tearing into the building, Donaldson’s team discovered pieces of the building’s history. It began as a dentist’s office for Herbert E. Craner, who practiced in this building for seventeen years. When he died in 1957, his son Eugene took over the business. The floors bore the marks of the heavy dental equipment once bolted down. However, the bolt holes suggested that the detail chairs were placed in the front windows, confounding the crew until they received a guest. “Some woman out [front] was taking pictures. She ended up being the daughter-in-law of Craner, who are the original [owners], and her husband grew up in here in that little side room.” Craner’s daughter-in-law described the office as configured similar to a barber’s shop, with people receiving treatment in front of the passing public looking in the front windows. “You had the chair right in the window, and people watched you get your teeth worked on. That was a thing to show off the skills of the dentist,” remarked Donaldson with surprise.

Plumbing permit found in the wall during renovations

Later in the building’s life, it housed a pizza restaurant that contributed layers of grease and hid patched-over window openings. “I believe the original building was all plywood, and then at some point, they plastered the bottom three quarters with stucco. Actually, there’s two layers of stucco on it because I think when they turned it into a pizza shop, they covered up a bunch of windows. Then they ended up just putting another layer of stucco over everything,” described Donaldson. The top portion of the building features new stucco separated by three aluminum bands wrapping around the top of the building. The old wall cladding remains in place, but that poses a problem. Creating an efficient low-carbon building involves sealing air leakage and insulating the structure to reduce energy usage. However, in this building, the outside walls were already in place. So the vapor sealing and insulation needed to occur on the interior side of the walls. First, they used an AeroBarrier treatment to plug holes in the existing walls. “They come in, and they pressurize the interior of the space, and they start spraying a non-toxic rubber cement. It goes and finds all the holes and fills them up,” explained Donaldson. “Then we put dense pack cellulose in there. That’s all fluffy, so you put netting on the wall, and then you put a hose in there, and you pack it in there tight.” They then finished the insulation work with GUTEX, a carbon-negative wood fiberboard. Once again, the product behind the wall is on display through a glass window. This time the glass doubles as a whiteboard in the conference room.

Back wall showing GUTEX wood fiberboard behind the siding

According to Donaldson, contractors often use the wood fiberboard on the exterior of a building. “It’s designed to be actually on the outside of a building. It would go on the outside over the plywood before you put your siding on. We put it on the inside here because we had the stucco. So it’s everywhere on all these walls except this back wall which didn’t have stucco on it. The back wall also functions as a demonstration of the siding product. Instead of having overlapping cladding, the exterior boards have constant gaps. This installation shows off the GUTEX product and proves that it is protecting the structure and that the siding is just a rain screen.

Not all products chosen for the project proved effective. The magnesium oxide panels used in place of traditional drywall did not hold up well, and cracks at the seams are showing in some areas. Donaldson will not recommend the product to clients. Instead, lightweight sheetrock is a better choice, with half the carbon impact as traditional gypsum board. Suggesting products and educating clients on low-carbon/low-toxin living makes Harka Architecture a unique firm. Donaldson foresaw a need for environmentally conscious buildings and believed that carbon impact would be the best measure for that work. As the discipline became more formal, tools have developed to help architects select products and features in buildings that make a substantial impact when reducing carbon. 

Patrick Donaldson by one of his gates made from repurposed material

Donaldson’s team uses data and product knowledge to refocus people’s good intentions toward activities that substantially make a difference in the environment. Every product used in construction has the potential to generate substantial amounts of embodied carbon, the amount of carbon-producing energy consumed during manufacturing. Some foam sealing products use so much electricity in production that they will never prevent the same energy leakage in a home they consumed during creation. Donaldson explained how understanding the entire life cycle of a product can substantially alter the carbon reduction equations people make. “Everyone is worried about plastics and recycling. Forget about that your steak is wrapped in plastic. It’s the steak that’s the problem, not the plastic.”

Harka Architecture works on various residential and commercial projects as well as consulting on low-carbon approaches to living and building. They assist with upgrades to existing structures and new construction. Interested developers or homeowners should contact Harka Architecture for more information.

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