Home AEC SRG Partnership, Behnisch Architekten, Give PSU’s Karl Miller Center in Portland New...

SRG Partnership, Behnisch Architekten, Give PSU’s Karl Miller Center in Portland New Identity Through Renovation

SRG Partnership, Behnisch Architekten, Karl Miller Center, Portland State University, Portland
Photography by Brad Feinknopf

By Bekka Wiedenmeyer

In 1979, Portland State University established the Karl Miller Center as the new abode of the School of Business. More than four decades and two major physical alterations later, the 145,000 square foot space located in downtown Portland is complete. Due to the joint efforts made by Seattle-based architecture firm SRG Partnership, global architecture firm Behnisch Architekten, Portland-based landscape architecture firm Mayer Reed and contractor Skanska USA, students can use the space as a creative learning environment and community gathering spot, staying connected to both the campus and city around them.

“SRG’s mission is to make a positive impact on our communities,” said Kip Richardson, SRG’s director of business development and marketing, on behalf of the design team in an email to The Registry. “Karl Miller Center was an exciting opportunity to enhance the environment for people not only in the center of campus, but also downtown Portland, on a site which is only a few blocks from our office. Being able to contribute to the urban fabric of our city and create a new identity for the Business School program was an important goal for us.”

The Center was completed in three different phases in 1979, 1989 and 2017, respectively. The original 100,000 square foot, six-story building was renovated most recently beginning in 2014, and a 45,000 square foot wood-clad addition was also built with a five-story glass atrium to connect the two structures. In 2017, the building opened to the campus for use, boasting a 42 percent increase in square footage, new classrooms and wide open spaces for community activation. 

The team had three main design objectives when envisioning the success of the renovation. The first was full integration of the building with the open spaces around the rest of the campus, as well as downtown Portland. The nearby connections to Montgomery Green Street, the park blocks and the Urban Center Plaza across the street represented important siting factors for the project. The team transformed Montgomery Avenue into a Green Street, a concept that uses natural processes to manage stormwater runoff, to create a more defined east-west pedestrian path to help with campus activation. The team also designed the public space within the building to form two ground-level entrances that meet at the atrium.

“This created a continuation of gathering spaces from the plazas on either side of the building, which led to the idea of a transparent interior public space that draws students in and creates a social hub,” Richardson said.

Connection with exterior elements wasn’t the only important design factor to the team. They also valued the connection between the existing structure and the addition, and in order to achieve this, they designed interior bridges in the atrium with the intention of forming an activated space similar to the outdoor walkway bridges adjacent to the site on campus.

Lastly, the team recognized the importance of providing real space through the design of the project for students to learn and interact.

“The existing building also had not been operating well for students due to the lack of space to gather and meet,” Richardson said. “This led to one of the project’s themes and design drivers, [which is that] learning happens everywhere. From the beginning the team referred to the atrium as the living room and focused on creating large, open areas to accommodate ample opportunities for individual and group work.”

A few of the team’s favorite features of the project are the spaces that were created primarily for student collaboration. These spaces include 12 group study rooms and 15 conference rooms, along with many unpurposed areas for gathering. The project also features a family room with toys and games for children of adult students on campus, which is paired with study areas for ease.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification is a goal for PSU as an institution, and sustainable strategies helped the Center become the first modern academic building in a major American city to have a passively cooled building design without a mechanical cooling system. 

“The team took advantage of Portland’s temperate climate and used all passive sustainable strategies while still finding ways to prioritize human comfort,” Richardson said.

The team consulted Green Building Services to help them achieve their LEED goals, while managing what financial impact it would have on the budget. With additional efforts to use exposed thermal massing, ceiling fans, stormwater management and natural ventilation as part of the design, the Center was able to open in 2017 as LEED Platinum certified.

As with most renovations, the project wasn’t completely free of its design challenges as the team encountered unknown conditions. Once the fundamental structure of the original building was uncovered, the team realized concrete needed to be overpoured to increase its strength in certain areas. In order to even out the floors, the team also needed to level out the tolerances between existing slabs, but this increased the weight of the structure, which required an additional revision. The design team collaborated with both Skanska USA and Catena Consulting Engineers, the project’s structural engineer, to overcome these challenges while adhering to the project’s budget.

The building shares a few similar elements with other structures on campus. One such element is the Center’s green roof, which not only allows students and visitors to connect with nature but also allows PSU to manage stormwater in a sustainable way. The school’s numerous eco-roofs have provided research opportunities, allowing users to test green roof design and observe how different aspects work over time. Ground-level retail is also on the upward trend for PSU’s renovation efforts, and the team focused on connection to retail and dining options when creating the new design.

While it was important to the team to establish connections to the rest of campus, they chose materials that would give the Center a distinguishing personality. The structure’s interior features wood tones, subtle white and gray materials and bright paint colors to help with direction and guidance. Each floor that connects to the atrium is assigned its own color to further guide its visitors on their journey throughout the building. On the outside, the original 1970s structure is retrofitted with a metal panel facade and punched windows. The new addition features Alaskan Yellow Cedar, which was regionally sourced.

“The desire and expectation is for the wood to weather over time and eventually turn into a similar shade as the silver tone of the metal façade on the existing building,” Richardson said.

Consistent paving patterns were established from the outdoor plaza through the interior pathway to future emphasize the relationship between the interior and exterior.

“[It] truly establishl[es] a new identity for the School of Business program and the center of campus,” Richardson said.

Something the team emphasized that may not be well known to the public is the unique “global” setup of the high-technology classrooms at the Center. These rooms feature several video cameras, which will give professors the opportunity to broadcast their courses to students virtually, as well as bring virtual speakers to the students in the classrooms. Though these additions were made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have become a larger part of PSU’s effort to maintain remote learning as needed and reach a broader audience.

In addition to the several informal and interactive areas available to students and visitors, the Center represents a space for all learning styles.

“With so many diverse working areas for both individual and group settings, the Center is truly a hub for everyone on campus,” Richardson said.