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A blend of old and new at Mercy Corps’ new headquarters

United States, August 3, 2009

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Justin Carinci

Daily Journal of Commerce
August, 2009

Working on the new Mercy Corps headquarters, Walsh Construction Co. found a way to build a bridge to the past: a lot of structural steel.

That steel, along with concrete, was needed to support a building that wouldn’t have survived a major earthquake – especially with a wall removed to add a new wing, said Afton Walsh, assistant superintendent with Walsh Construction.

“If you had a really strong breeze, this thing would have fallen over,” Walsh said.

The $20 million project, now nearly completed, doubled the size of the Packer-Scott Building, sometimes called the Skidmore Fountain building. It also made the four-story wood-framed building, built in 1892, more stable, Walsh said.

Supporting the old structure while building the addition was like a puzzle, said Tom Mitchell, superintendent with Walsh Construction. The east wall had to be demolished so that the existing structure could be connected with the new one.

Walsh and ABHT Structural Engineers worked with third-party firm AAI Engineering to get the pieces in place in the right order. “You have to get the demolition to a certain point to allow you to put the shoring in place,” Mitchell said. “But the shoring has to go in place prior to completing demolition – which has to be done before you can put the new components in place.”

Steel structural members now extend into the new building, helping transfer some of the old building’s weight onto the new construction.

Workers didn’t just cut out a side of the building. They also cut from the middle of the building.

A 1980s remodel had added a mezzanine level and jacked the building up about 11 inches. Walsh Construction brought in Northwest Structural Moving, known for moving houses slated for demolition, to lower the building’s upper floors back into place.

The dismantled mezzanine level provided enough wood to build stair treads, a reception desk and accents throughout the new wing. Recycling building materials was one of many green touches in the building, Walsh said.

Others included a green roof and solar array, period-appropriate energy-efficient windows, pervious pavers and a system of six planters designed to slow rainwater runoff. The building is on track to be designated LEED platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council, Walsh said.

Mercy Corps will move into the 80,000-square-foot building, designed by THA Architecture Inc., by early October, spokeswoman Julie Mancini said. The new headquarters will let Mercy Corps consolidate five other offices into one.

Features include an “action center” for people to learn about worldwide poverty, along with offices for Mercy Corps NW, which provides small loans for low-income entrepreneurs. The Lemelson Foundation also bought space in the new building.

Moving from a quiet residential neighborhood to a gritty urban district brings Mercy Corps closer, literally and figuratively, to its mission, Mancini said. “We wanted to have a presence downtown and deal with our own issues of poverty in Portland and in Oregon,” she said.

The new headquarters marks a transformation of the area and the building, which formerly housed Portland Saturday Market offices. The market itself moved from its site alongside the Packer-Scott building to a new home across Naito Parkway.

The market booths were there, and operated during construction, however. “We were pretty proud of the fact that we were able to complete the project without any major impact to the operations of the Saturday Market,” Mitchell said. “Every weekend we moved the fence line and materials (on the north side) for them to set up their booths.”