Plans Examiner John Cooley Recognized for his Work on a Seismically Retrofitted 111-year-old Building

Plans Examiner Newsletter

The City of Portland is fortunate to have a workforce with wide-ranging expertise. Here at the Bureau of Development Services, our employees bring the knowledge from entire careers to service for the people of Portland. Here is the story of one of our own.

People walking in front of brick/masonry building.
Life Safety Plans Examiner John Cooley was the architect when CEID Holdings LLC renovated and seismically retrofitted the 1908 Plow Works Building, located in the Central Eastside Industrial District.

BDS Life Safety Plans Examiner John Cooley was recognized in July of 2019 by the U.S. Resiliency Council for his part in seismically retrofitting the Plow Works Building, a 111-year-old masonry building in the Central Eastside Industrial District. The USRC awarded the same Silver rating to three additional Portland buildings: The Society Hotel, Mercy Corps Headquarters and the Martha Washington Apartments (owned by Home Forward).

“The USRC Silver rating signifies that the buildings are expected to perform in a manner consistent with modern building codes for safety,” explained USRC Executive Director Evan Reis at the awards ceremony. “It’s an incredibly noteworthy accomplishment for these types of structures, which are more than a hundred years old.”

John Cooley looking at interior of building.
John Cooley stands on the top floor of the Plow Works Building, near the archway that frames the elevator doors and beneath the “rough aesthetic” that developers from CEID Holdings LLC wanted to accentuate.

The Plow Works building was renovated in 2013 into a mixed-use structure with destination dining spots Shalom Y’all and Plaza del Toro on the ground level and creative and professional office space above. Cooley, who was self-employed at the time, was the architect on the project, the biggest one yet for his independent practice and the developers, CEID Holdings. The team, including BKE Structural Engineers, had previously worked on salvaging old structures on Alberta Street, using those bones for Cooley’s designs on modern buildings that now house local favorites, such as Barista and Salt & Straw.

A detail of the seismic retrofitting.
A detail of the seismic retrofitting.

Cooley never planned to focus on earthquake resiliency, but can trace a path from his Northern California childhood memories of cabinets rattling during an earthquake to his job with the City of Portland, where he’s trained to survey buildings for occupant-use following a seismic event. Connecting all that was 22 years in architecture. Cooley helped to breathe new life into old buildings for New Seasons Market while working at Richard Brown Architect.

His experience with adaptive reuse carried forward when he decided to start his own architecture practice. Cooley’s process-oriented design had already led to a shared language on other projects with CEID Holdings when they purchased the 111-year-old Plow Works Building in the Central Eastside Industrial District.

The four-story, unreinforced masonry building originally housed Oliver Chilled Plow Works, a farm equipment manufacturer. Over time, the building had evolved into a confusing jumble of light industrial spaces and all the systems (electrical, plumbing, HVAC) needed to be replaced.

And since the brick façade served no structural purpose in current building terms, a secondary structural system was put in place.

Interior office space.
This is one of the office spaces on the top floor, showcasing the exposed wooden posts and steel connectors.

“Think of a paper box and putting a piece of paper inside of it, unattached,” explains Cooley. “That paper isn’t helping the structure. But by glueing that paper to the bottoms and sides of the box, you are adding reinforcement and strengthening the system.”

Finding the right material for this new, interior structural system was relatively easy, according to Cooley.

"The partners at CEID Holdings were cool with exposed wooden posts and steel connectors and they liked that rough aesthetic of the historic building. They really wanted to accentuate that aspect and not hide it, which made the design of the added structural element feel very natural.”

Some of the architectural language that carried over from their previous projects on Alberta Street included zoning the HVAC spaces into 1,500 sf sections.

Interior stairwell.
A unique problem during the renovation was how to construct a four-story steel structure inside a 12 by 18 shaft with only doorways as entry points.

“You're designing for all these options because the developers don't know what tenants will be coming in and what their needs will be,” says Cooley. “By going the distance on a full seismic upgrade, the developers gave themselves more options for tenants, more leasing flexibility. Our work will serve the building long into the future.”

The U.S. Resiliency Council agrees. In the same way that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, better known as LEED-rated buildings, showcase the rigid standards for being a green building, the USRC created a rating system to acknowledge a building’s seismic resilience, based on its expected safety (which is what modern building code does), but also expanding the rating to consider actual damage and recovery time. This could help communities plan for the aftermath of a natural disaster. Los Angeles is implementing a voluntary rating program utilizing the USRC Rating System. 

Exterior of building with people walking on sidewalk.
The ground level houses the popular destinations Shalom Y’all and Plaza del Toro, while the upper floors contain creative and professional office space.

The USRC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving community resilience by focusing on the built environment. They launched their earthquake performance rating in 2016 and are now developing systems for other hazards including wind, wildlife and flood.

“Buildings are at the very heart of our community because they are where our most valuable assets, our residents, live, work, learn and conduct business,” says Evan Reis, Executive Director.

Example of a retrofitted wall.
The first thing you see when you enter on the ground level is the seismic retrofitting.

“The USRC was founded in 2011 when the structural engineering community realized that true sustainability of our communities is dependent not only on green design, where we have a low impact on the environment, but also on resilient design where the environment has a low impact on us.”

Reis believes that everyone benefits from the investment in resilient building design.

“These building owners made the decision that seismically retrofitting their buildings is a wise choice for the good of their community, their residents, their employees, customers they serve and for their own long-term financial health.”

John Cooley and coworkers with US Resiliency Council award.
(From left to right) John Cooley, Bill Berry of BKE Structural Engineers, and Brett Anderson of CEID Holdings LLC were present at an award ceremony in front of The Society Hotel. Brett holds the U.S. Resiliency Council glass plaque.