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Lisa Loving of The Skanner News
Published: 18 August 2011

You may not know about it, but there's a race on in Oregon to see who will build the first 'Living Building' – a structure that generates no waste, uses no energy to function, and is constructed without toxic materials, among other things.

The race is technically not over yet but we seem to have a winner: The June Key Delta Community Center, which celebrated its grand opening last week at the corner of North Albina and Ainsworth Streets.

Once the Portland Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and its nonprofit foundation the Piedmont Rose Connection, raise enough funds to pay for solar panels, the building will reach "net zero" energy use status and can be certified by the Living Building Challenge – the first in Oregon.

Project Coordinator Chris Poole-Jones says the sorority wove together a tapestry of local nonprofit groups, businesses and volunteers to set a statewide standard in green building – which just happens to have been accomplished by a racially diverse group with about $800,000 to spend.

"It's history making because we took a brownfield, which was a toxic site, and made it into a green building," she said. "We had basically chosen to take the highest level of green building and take it higher to the Living Building Challenge."

The June Key Center is named for the Delta soror who first came up with the idea in the early 1990s and pushed for it among the local community (as well as city and regional government bureaus and nonprofits) (she died beore this happened).

Key, who donated the property to the Deltas, died several years ago before seeing how far her vision would come.

Watch a before-and-after slideshow of the project, set to a Stevie Wonder instrumental from "The Secret Life of Plants," on their website, http://www.key-delta-living-building.com/ .

Living Building Challenge

A cutting-edge environmental standard in building construction and redevelopment, the Living Building Challenge is an international movement to promote green building practices in local communities.

Created by the International Living Future Institute, the challenge offers an array of standards touching on seven areas of building consideration: "Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty."

"The purpose of the Living Building Challenge is straightforward – it defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today and acts to diminish the gap between current limits and ideal solutions," Living Future says on its website. "Whether your project is a single building, a park, a college campus or even a complete neighborhood community, Living Building Challenge provides a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment."

In the Living Building Challenge, the June Key Center has been consistently portrayed by observers as being in competition with the Portland State University Oregon Sustainability Center, a high-rise, multi-use building in downtown Portland which has yet to break ground.

The two projects were juxtaposed last year at the Seattle Living Future seminar which featured  Project Architect, Mark Nye,Poole-Jones and a team for the community center alongside representatives from the Sustainability Center, a mammoth $80 million project now slated to begin construction in early 2012, according to its website.

So far only three buildings in the world have been certified as "Living Buildings," and they're located in Missouri, Hawaii, and New York; a fourth has achieved partial recognition. A building must operate within the Living Buildings guidelines for one year before achievement official certification.

"If they can achieve 'Living Building' after a year that will be truly significant," said PDC spokeswoman Anne Mangan. "The place it has in the neighborhood is really important."

Historic Milestone

Marcelo Bonta, a member of the Verde outreach board as well as the founder and executive director of the Center for Diversity & the Environment, says the June Key Center could be a boost for similar projects on the future.

"My organization works on diversity, inclusion and equity in the environmental and sustainable energy movements, and what's wonderful about this project is – it's by and for people of color and a perfect resource in the North Portland community," he said.

"Communities of color have been engaged in sustainability and the environment for a long time, and it's great to have a project such as this to gain the attention of a city like Portland as well as getting the attention of mainstream environmentalists."

Bonta says the crucial issue is access to the funds and resources to make similar ideas into reality.

"I see projects like this coming more and more in the future, and communities of color have the commitment and skills and interest to do this work but they may not have adequate resources to do them," he said. "Access to the funds and resources are important, but when it comes to engaging a more diverse set of experts that's another issue as well.

"This is a great example of diversity at its best of when different communities of different diverse backgrounds define diversity for themselves."

Many to Had a Hand in the Work

Poole-Jones names a long list of people and groups who worked together for many years to reach completion of the new community center – which will be open for meeting and events rentals and also offers a community garden.

Funding and loans came from the Portland Development Commission and contributions from dozens of local supporters and Delta sorority members; green-certified cabinets came from Tom Kelly at Neil Kelly remodeling company; sinks, outside siding and recycled building materials were donated by the Rebuilding Company on North Mississippi Avenue, managed by Shane Endicott; Verde, the Cully Neighborhood-based environmental community development nonprofit, brought in native plants used to landscape the former gas station; and the East Multnomah Soil and Water District contributed to the community vegetable garden plot on the building's East side.

Also working on the project were: Colas Construction, which renovated the site; Nye Architecture LLC; Roslyn Hill's Nyanneco Design and Consulting Services; Lesley Unthank and Francetta Cross spearheaded the interior design; and webmaster Anne Morrin assembled a website documenting every step of the project's construction.

"Communities of color don't have to wait for the city or mainstream environmental groups to come to them," Bonta said. "We can be creative, and we have the expertise to get this right."

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