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When the mural went up on the side of the new SolTerra headquarters around eclipse time, that’s when it became real.

The image of a woman in a pose of gratitude, with more than 1,000 plants for hair, is a towering advertisement for SolTerra. It’s not just that the firm will shift production of the living wall planters, which are like felt pockets, into the new building. It’s also that the five-story windowless wall on which the painted image sits is one of the green features of the design. The building at Southeast Ninth Avenue and Division, where the road bends away from the Ford Building and goes north now has a 70-foot-tall image painted by London-based muralist Fin DAC.

SolTerra develops, designs and acts as landlord in multiple buildings, including the Woodlawn apartments in North East Portland. But this building is SolTerra’s new headquarters, so CEO Brian Heather and his team wanted it to showcase their ideals.

The southwest-facing wall masks an “unconditioned space,” as Heather calls, it. A stairwell opens to the elements. It feels like a 1960s housing project, but yesterday’s Brutalism is today’s environment-friendly design feature.

“It reduces the amount of space to heat and cool,” the 33-year-old Portlander says. “You’re interacting, you get a more outdoor experience. And we’re trying to get people to use the stairs.” The 35,000-square foot building has a robust energy recovery system that focuses on air quality. The more times the air can be cycled within the building the more energy can be conserved.

The toilets will be flushed with grey water, although the plants in the living wall will be watered from the tap, for reliability, sake. They are on a complex timer system.

Walking through the building on a recent tour, Heather pointed out other features that SolTerra’s in-house architects were proud of. There will be solar panels on the canopy at street level, and on the canopy on the roof deck. (SolTerra started out as a solar panel installer and grew.)

That roof deck is getting a bamboo-poly resin finish, and will hold 250 people. The concrete roof is designed like a waffle, with concrete up to two feet thick, designed to hold 300 pounds per square inch. Part of that is the lace leaf Japanese maple tree which was just being installed last week in a steel planter about 10 feet in diameter. SolTerra’s in-house horticulturalist Angela Jones says the tree came from a specialist nursery in Boring and estimates it to be 50 to 75 years old. The rooftop will have an infinity edge of greenery, like an infinity pool.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE – The Osolterra mural in progress. Instead of a grid, artist Fin DAC used hand drawn faces, visible in black below his platform.

Foam Party

Heather also pointed out the uniquely thick walls. They are poured concrete, sandwiched between insulated expanded foam forms, called Quad-lock. Unlike traditional wooden forms, the foam stays in place and is used as insulation.

He says it’s like a styrofoam Lego. The panels lock together and build up to roof height. It’s the tallest building built in this manner in Portland, and one of the tallest on the west coast. He noticed at the height of summer it was 15 degrees cooler inside the structure than outside, because there is so much thermal mass.

“It turned out really well,” he says. Eventually. He admits the winter was tough.

“It was challenging because we had trades people who had never done it before, so it took us longer than we thought. The middle of last winter was brutal. Imagine a semi-truck of foam arrives, it’s 35 degrees in 30 mph winds, trying to hold down a bunch of foam 60 feet in air. It doesn’t weight much…So with the wind and snow and everything covered in ice it was a challenge.”

They also faced a delay because of “some issues with financing.” One of the banks pulled out and they had to get the financing realigned. Opening is set for the end of 2017.

On the upper floors, the windows stick out and are angled slightly more to the south, reminding one of solar panels.

SolTerra will occupy two floors of the building. The aim is to attract tenants who share their values.

“People are looking for a sustainable space that showcases what they do and embodies their values.”

The woman on the mural incorporates certain ideas: there’s an eclipse happening, marijuana leaves on are on her waistband for one of the prospective tenants, the SolTerra cog logo is a pattern in her clothing, and the national bird of Cuba represents the Cuban restaurant going in on the ground floor.

From the roof, there are splendid views of inner southeast Portland, particularly south of Division Street. There’s the Dairygold plant. Heather has heard there are plans to turn it into an entertainment district based around the Portland Opera at the head of the Tilikum Crossing.

Heather likes the visibility the bridge and the MAX orange line have brought. “I hope we see more well-designed buildings that help create jobs. This area has so much potential.”

Muralist Fin DAC

The SolTerra muralist doesn’t use his real name. For work he goes by Fin DAC. He talked to the Business Tribune about how he made the mural, which he calls OSolTerrae or Woman-Sun-Earth.

He had only seen a photo of the site and a rendering of the building when he took the job. He waited until he got there to do the design.

“I didn’t grasp how big it was until I got there. I thought ‘This is going to take longer than five days!’ It took 12. “We went from dawn to dusk, the majority of those days being full-on sun, being battered by 90 degree heat. But it was a lot of fun too.”

DAC had just finished one in Los Angeles that took 15 days. The time frame was the second two weeks of August. “The idea was to get it done before Brian (Heather) went off to Burning Man.”

A lot of detail was made up on the spot. “I wanted to wait and include things that would be relevant to the businesses that are going to be in there.” He met some tenants and wanted to include things relating to them.

The media are latex paint and spray paint. He likes to use Blick Art Media, in Portland, L.A. and Miami, because they have the spray paint brand he likes, Montana Gold. (These are art rattle cans, not automotive paint.) “They are super helpful, they make you feel they are pleased to have your business.” They can cater to large orders like his, more than $1,000.

The woman in the image is a model he has been painting a lot lately, Marisa Ng, who is based in San Francisco. She wears an Alexander McQueen dress, the headdress is made up and the rest is collaged on the computer.

Up on the scaffold, Fin DAC works from a paper print out. “When I need to zoom in I use a laptop, so I bring it up with me.” It gets covered in paint. “You have to find a way to cover it up or keep cleaning it up.”

Instead of a grid system he uses spray paint to draw hundreds of cartoon faces on the blank wall. They are unique, quick to draw and easier to read and align than dots. “On the scaffold you can’t stand back to take a look.”

“I’ve been doing this system for a while.” He says it’s not taught in art school but some other muralists use it.

Osolterrae is intended to be calming. “She’s in this peaceful, gratitude pose. I wanted people to look at it and have a peaceful reaction to it.”

The living wall was the unique proposition for DAC.

How much was he paid?

“I wasn’t. I don’t make my decisions to do with painting based on money. If I did I would miss a lot of great opportunities.”


SolTerra split in two in January 2017. Heather now runs the company focused on solar energy and living walls. He is also still working on some in-progress real estate development.

His co-founder James Wong now focuses on multifamily projects in the Seattle and Portland areas.

Starting in 2008, SolTerra had some successful projects building green roofs and installing solar panels. In 2013 they did Oregon’s biggest green roof, on the Walmart in Hayden Meadows. However, the trade wasn’t without its setbacks.

“Our work was always the last thing to go on a building and if they overran on the groundwork we’d get value engineered out,” says SolTerra CEO Brian Heather, meaning nixed to save money.

So they started looking for property to develop, in Seattle and Portland. In contrast to the usual short-term strategy of many REITs, they are in it for the long term.

At the Woodlawn, the heating and air conditioning is a variable refrigerant system with heat recovery ventilation. Not only are these units 20 percent more efficient than heat pumps, SolTerra has them made and branded in their name. Heather said they cut costs by finding things that work and sticking with them across multiple projects.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
[email protected]

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