Ziba Design’s New HQ Is a Sustainable Pillar of the Community

The Portland-based strategic innovation and design consultancy builds a new office that also builds their neighborhood.

Designers Accord


As one of the earliest adopters of the Designers Accord, Portland-based Ziba Design has long anchored the sustainable design industry in the Northwest, and have since expanded to San Diego, Tokyo and Shanghai. But as the firm’s headquarters grew in numbers–100 this year–they also outgrew their space, both physically and organizationally. Several years ago they tapped local architects Holst Architecture to begin collaborating on a building that was not only LEED-certified, but one that better served the local community, where Ziba first laid down its roots over a decade ago.


The choice to build a ground-up structure instead of renovating one of the aging warehouses in the area was a difficult decision for the company. While they investigated reclaiming an existing building, in the end, they realized an urban infill project would create greater impact, especially if they located to a more industrial area of the
Pearl District in order to
bring a greater benefit to those underdeveloped blocks. “It’s social sustainability on a broader scale,” says executive creative director Steve McCallion, who was trained as an architect. “We’re stimulating economic development.” In the end, the lot they chose was a brownfield surrounded by railyards–not a desirable for one of the condo projects in the area–so Ziba did the city an even greater favor by developing it.


Construction of the 56,000 square foot building began in March 2008 and was extremely efficient for a ground-up structure. Crews managed to use 40% recycled materials as well as recycle 90% of construction materials. The interiors use glowing planks of reclaimed wood that was sourced from a barn outside Portland, and polished but still quite rugged concrete floors contain fly-ash. Almost the entire north facing wall is windows, allowing natural light to fall gently into the workspaces. The building is aiming for Gold LEED certification, and in the meantime, the designers are still making tweaks that will make it even more green: They plan to add a vegetable garden to one part of the unused roof.

The workspace layout is similar to that of city streets, focused on allowing multidisciplinary groups to work together. Projects are clustered together in “blocks” and “alleys” centered around dedicated working rooms shared by team members for brainstorming and break out sessions. Smaller desks and more shared resources that require a quick walk to get to them also welcome serendipitous collaboration with fellow employees. It’s encounters like this–something McCallion calls “inviting accidents”–that Ziba believes enables fruitful collaborations between groups. “How do you mash people up?” McCallion says. “The more co-mingling, the better.”


But the neighborhood metaphor is even stronger. Many of Ziba’s employees live nearby, where they enjoy interacting with the creative community, but rising real estate values mean they might not have as much living space as they’d like. McCallion sees the shared space in the new building as a large living room for employees who might pop in there on the weekends to soak up sun on the deck, or play video games at the entertainment center. The basement hosts a large bike storage facility (just off the machine shop) as well as a locker room with showers to make commuting in the bike-avid city more comfortable.

It was critical for Ziba that its new building served as a cultural anchor in the neighborhood. The choice to include 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, with businesses that complement Ziba’s own work, was key for providing services to the local residents who don’t have as many options when it comes to food and entertainment. Instead of a pocket park, Ziba hosts a pocket gallery open to the public at street level which will host a satellite exhibition for the upcoming China Design Now show (which Ziba designed) at the Portland Art Museum.


The star of Ziba’s community outreach is the Ziba Ampitheater, a large 200-seat theater where employees can gather for presentations. But it’s also a place where Ziba wants to host community events, panels and screenings–the first is scheduled to be held on September 21–or even donate the space to non-profits or other groups to use. True to the philosophy of the building, the entrance to the theater even brings a democratic twist to the traditional performer-audience relationship. Guests enter by crossing the stage, which is at street-level, then walk up to the seats and reception area.



Ziba prides itself on the concept of “co-creation” with their clients, flipping the traditional designer-client relationship inside out.
In that way, the new structure is as much a new home for their clients, representatives from major brands who are working on
everything from design strategy to industrial design. The project rooms are made open and accessible to clients, who McCaliion wants to feel at home as well. “We don’t care where the ideas come from,” says McCallion. The sense of shared ownership, he believes, leads to better work. “They know so much more than we do about their brand. But we know how to execute for consumer experience impact.”

The same goes for people in the neighborhood who should feel some pride in the new building. “In our old building, we were invisible,” says McCallion. “Here, we wanted eyes on the street.” And while the economic hub Ziba envisioned may not yet be fully-realized–the ground-floor retail has not yet been occupied due to tough economic times–the model has the potential to be one of the most sustainable moves possible for Ziba’s triple-bottom line: The design firm could use its global clout to draw in a tenant that could add incredible value to Portland, and rent could potentially offset costs enough for the building to pay for itself.

[Photos by Stephen A. Miller]

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.