Design Enlivens all Senses

July 05, 2017

The first time I was on a construction site, the only PPE (personal protective equipment) I wore was a diaper. (Which doesn’t officially count as PPE in 2017 and probably didn’t count in the 80’s, either.)

From the time I was born until I was in first grade, my mom had an in-home daycare and preschool and came up with all kinds of educational opportunities for the kids to experience. One of the favorites (surpassed only by driving through giant parking lot puddles), was visiting construction sites. My mom would park a minivan full of tots next to a construction site and we’d watch the crew work while we ate our lunch. She’d explain to us what they were doing and point out what to watch. We observed cement trucks pouring driveways and cranes hoisting rafters. We watched in frozen anticipation as guys walked on the roof. Peering through the doorways and window openings we could see stilt-walkers. There was dirt and noise and activity and dangerous objects and big trucks – all the things tiny humans love!

When I was 4 years old, my parents remodeled our kitchen. Doing a kitchen remodel yourself and living in the house for the duration might be an adult’s worst nightmare, but for my brothers and I it was fascinating. Translucent plastic sheets covered the doorways in a futile effort to keep the sawdust from coating the entire house, and it reminded me of the part in E.T. when the government creates the giant sterile bubble in Elliott’s front yard. The experience was also the first time I remember hearing my mom swear – after a can of stain was bumped (probably my own tiny running feet) and splashed all over freshly-varnished cabinets and into my eyes. My eyes were fine but the drops of extra stain on those cabinets stayed forever.

Two years later, we built a new house. It was conveniently located just three lots down from our previous house, which made site visits frequent for us and (I’m sure) frustrating for the contractor. I spent many days after school at the site, watching the crew work, asking questions, and getting in their way (also known as “helping”). I built furniture out of leftovers I found on the site; a stack of fiberglass insulation made a great couch, but for some reason my parents were not happy that I’d sat on it! I distinctly remember cutting window openings in an appliance box and selling muffins out of it to the work crew, all the while sitting in the middle of the future family room.
The best part of these construction site visits were the smells: fresh cement, sawdust, and cold dirt. These have continued to be comforting scents to me – and I would love to be able to bottle the smell of sawdust. (Eau de Plywood, anyone?)

Fast forward several decades. Several of our big projects in Portland are adjacent to the MAX line that I ride to work everyday, so I’ve watched the buildings grow via quick glimpses through the glass. I’ve eagerly awaited the day when I can don a hard hat and step onto the site, and last week, that day finally came! About 30 of us toured the Knight Cancer Research Building, currently under construction.

While there were no chicken nuggets or muffins in sight, the smell (oh that WONDERFUL SMELL) was there – just as I remembered it; dirt, steel, concrete, wood.
The building has six of its eight floors in place, and while there is little else complete, it is clear to see the general design (and immense size) of the project. The glass is starting to be installed on the front façade, the auditorium footprint is visible, and the central core which will house the elevators and restrooms is walled in.
What surprised me most was the view. The east end of the building overlooks the Willamette River, with the new Tilikum Crossing in the foreground and Mt. Hood a striking focal point on the horizon.

The south façade has a unique design feature: a sawtooth edge instead of a straight one. This allows these great views to be visible from the entire length of the south side of the building. While I’ve heard of this sawtooth feature multiple times over the duration of the project, seeing it in person and actually standing along a bump-out was amazing.

Another fascinating part of the design was the solution to a dilemma: how to avoid having a column in the middle of the auditorium. Even though I might not fully understand the physics of a tension beam, seeing the sheer size of the temporary support makes me so grateful for structural engineers!
The enormity of the project was clear to see. Even though we were touring after the construction crews had left for the day, the number of tables and chairs in the lunchroom indicated that there are many, many people working on this project. And while it is fun to watch the construction crews at work, it’s also enjoyable to be on a site visit without the chaos and noise it has at 8:00 am.

I’m looking forward to touring the building again the future and seeing the progress that is made. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my brief glances from the train and the smell of sawdust from afar.

Julie Lund