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Preservation Meets Energy Efficiency 

12-09-2015 17:35

The word “frontier,” meaning an area beyond an established border or boundary, is a familiar term in western history and can be applied to Spokane, which at one time epitomized the powerful force of westward expansion. Frontier can also mean cutting edge, as in exploring new territory in a particular field of knowledge or technology. Twenty-first century Spokane deserves this moniker as well. The city is at the forefront of the energy-efficiency and clean energy movement. One green building project stands out in particular—the Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad (SIERR) building, an exciting rehabilitation project designed to model best practices in energy retrofitting of existing buildings.

When completed in 1907, the SIERR building—located a mile from downtown Spokane along the shores of the Spokane River—ushered in the development of electric interurban and city railroads in the western U.S. Today, this prominent building complex has been fully restored into one of the region’s most energy-efficient buildings, and is now considered a model for smart, clean, and efficient historic building restorations. The SIERR restoration illustrates how developers and builders are finding new ways to incorporate green building solutions into all aspects of historic rehabilitation.

The SIERR makes the case: Older and historic buildings can be made functional, esthetically pleasing, energy efficient and economical to operate.

All Railroads Lead to Spokane

By 1881 the Northern Pacific Railway was complete, and the city, then named Spokane Falls, quickly transformed from a small settlement into an incorporated city. Located between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains and between mining and farming regions, Spokane quickly became an important rail and shipping center and a transportation hub for the Inland Northwest.

Spokane’s electric rail lines became part of the Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad in 1906. Five years later the Spokane area was ranked third in the U.S. in the development of electric railways and perhaps first in terms of electric rail capacity per capita. In that same year, the SIERR Company was described in newspaper accounts as “the foremost electric railroad system in the Pacific states.”

In 1907, the SIERR Company completed construction on its new facilities and car barns to serve the trains in the expansive and growing SIERR system. An additional car barn attached to the west of the original building was added the following year. The assemblage of these masonry train buildings formed the bustling center of railrelated activity in this part of Spokane.

The SIERR complex was designed by noted architect Albert Held and was constructed by the prominent Spokane builder, P.L. Peterson Company. The complex is utilitarian, but it is not without architectural expression. It was built in an industrial variation of the Romanesque Revival style, a significant building type in both architectural and engineering terms. It is evident that the company and the architect wanted the design of the building to express a new, emerging era in transportation technology.

The original SIERR building was 100 percent daylighted. Tall, elongated windows let light deep into the building’s interior. Clerestory windows and skylights brought natural light from above, augmenting the daylight of the perimeter windows. Cast iron and heavy timber columns supported roof rafters and purlins. Brick pilasters supported clear-span timber trusses. Via large hinged “car barn” doors, the railroad cars entered and exited the repair and fabricationfacilities on rails with internal turntables and repair pits below.

By 1956 train service had diminished, and the SIERR complex was converted into a truck freight facility. The new tenant infilled almost all of the windows or modified window openings to facilitate loading docks. Skylights were removed and most of the large wooden barn doors for the train portals were dismantled. A mezzanine for offices was added to one of the car barns. Virtually all of the rails of railroad repair equipment were removed and little was left of the iconic railroad facility but its shell.


In 2010, Dean Allen, CEO of McKinstry, a leader in integrated construction, energy, service, and smart building innovations, saw the dilapidated brick building from the street while searching for a site in Spokane to house the company’s new base for its Inland Northwest operations. At the time, the building was facing condemnation. Years of abuse and abandonment had taken their toll. In one section, hundreds of wood pallets were stacked to hold up a collapsed timber roof truss. The interior brick walls had considerable damage from fork lift operations. All brick walls and the underside of roof were coated with a whitewash and more than 50 years of dirt accumulation. Decades of heavy industrial use had contaminated much of the soil. But Allen saw past all that; the SIERR site was just what he was looking for.

The company hoped that rehabilitation of the complex would create great spaces that would serve to spur creativity and innovation. It also hoped that restoration of the SIERR building to its original grandeur would reconnect it to the urban fabric and make it a vital part of Spokane’s cityscape. And finally, the company wanted to rehabili-tate a historic building to be smart, clean, and efficient, and a true testament to the company’s innovative capabilities.

Transforming a Brownfield Site

A major first step in restoring the SIERR facility was the remediation of the area. The land surrounding the SIERR complex had been a rail yard with a century of industrial and commercial uses. Environmental Site Assessments conducted in the 1990s found metals-contaminated soil (lead and arsenic) leading to a brownfield registration with the Environmental Protection Agency, requiring the site be remediated/cleaned up before it could be put back into use.

A clean-up plan was developed by the former owner, BNSF Railway Company, working with the Spokane remediation firm GeoEngineers to begin remediation. Over the course of five months in 2010, more than 3,025 tons of hazardous waste was removed from the site. An additional 961 tons of nonhazardous soil was removed, and about 2,278 tons of clean soil was excavated and reused on site as fill.

McKinstry began work on the SIERR facility in summer 2010 and completed the $20 million restoration in just 15 months. Although virtually all railroad equipment had been removed from the buildings (tracks, repair equipment, boilers, cranes) the structural and architectural features that are hallmarks of this building type were largely intact. Meticulous attention was paid to the restoration of the historic elements of the building.

To restore the brick walls, one of the most distinguishing features of the structure, more than 12 different cleaning methods were attempted on sample brick prior to finding a method that met the Secretary of Interior Standards and did not damage the masonry. When portions of the building required additional bricks, McKinstry was able to track down the original brick maker for a near-perfect match.

All 160 original windows, most of which had been filled in, were restored to exactly match the original windows. Natural light now fills the interior resulting in decreased need for artificial lighting. Restored views of the Spokane River and the newly uncontaminated grounds that boast water-efficient landscaping are an added bonus.

As part of the company’s objectives for a sustainable facility, and in keeping with its preservation, remaining artifacts were saved and creatively reused. The main common space in the complex features freestanding rooms replicating “train cars” using some of the wood that had filled former windows. These “train cars” now serve as conference rooms and gathering spaces. The staircase and walkways in this area also feature reclaimed wood. Throughout the building, pieces of the train facility’s past are present. Sliding zinc fire doors remain or have been remade into conference tables. Historic railroad artifacts such as a roundtable turner, rail car movers, wooden pulleys, and a century-old wooden cart, along with historic photographs from a century ago remind tenants and visitors of the electric railroad’s heyday.

This project brought together local community partners dedicated to preserving a vital symbol of Spokane’s past and created more than 200 jobs. More than 30 subcontracting firms and a number of departments within the City of Spokane were involved in the restoration of this iconic building.

Historic Meets Green

The building is now a high-tech office space that consumes significantly less energy than other office buildings of its size. The building consumes 40 percent less energy than other historic LEED- buildings its size. It is only one of a handful of historic buildings nationally to achieve LEED Gold certification, demonstrating that state-of-the-art approaches to energy efficiency can be successfully aligned with historic preservation’s “best practice” standards. SIERR project designers looked for ways to reduce energy consumption, such as choosing energy-efficient appliances and plumbing and lighting fixtures, and finding ways to conserve resources, such as developing a system to capture and store rainwater for landscape irrigation. The project also reused 70 percent of the existing walls, floor, and roof, and diverted 93 percent of construction waste materials to recycling.

Energy-efficient features include 25 geothermal wells with a closed loop, ground source heat pump system; radiant heating and cooling for office spaces; evaporative cooling for the server room; and on-demand control ventilation for conference rooms. The result is an extremely efficient, water-based system that provides 100 percent of the cooling and 60 percent of the heating for the building.

Another best practice is the use of analytical metering tools to measure and manage energy consumption. In this respect, the SIERR building is a leader among historic buildings regarding energy efficiency and employs an ongoing measurement and verification plan that ensures savings continue to be met over time and facility systems run as intended.

One of the greatest challenges of achieving a balance between “green” and historic requirements was the need to install wall insulation for energy savings versus the desire to expose as much brick as possible for preservation requirements. McKinstry worked with the National Park Service to find a solution that would keep 70 percent of all brick walls exposed in the most historically significant portions of the building while using a spray foam insulation material on the exterior walls to meet energy-efficiency requirements. This negotiated win-win was a major part of the successful achievement of what the company intended to demonstrate with this project—that more historic buildings will be saved if they are made into energy-efficient buildings.

Factoring the ROI

McKinstry considered a number of factors when evaluating the overall costs of the rehabilitation. It looked at the savings achieved by not tearing the building down. It focused on long-term savings and invested in improvements that would last another 100 years. It also recognized the inherent value of the original craftwork and materials, which could be retained or creatively reused in the renovation.

Because McKinstry intends to occupy the SIERR building for 50 years or longer, the SIERR project team utilized a Total Cost of Ownership program to analyze life cycle costs for components or systems. It was determined that any payback under the 50-year investment would net significant savings.

The designation of the building as a historic landmark provided access to tax credits which helped finance the redevelopment, as well as a SIRTI (now Innovate Washington) grant for innovative design and the focus on energy conservation for incorporating the geothermal wells into the building’s HVAC design. While these funding sources helped make the redevelopment possible, it was certainly not enough. Ultimately, it took the creativity of the project team to deliver the innovative approach that blends historic restorarestoration and preservation with long-term efficacy and sustainability.

Just the Beginning

The SIERR facility is an outstanding example of how some of today’s most sustainable building technologies and applications can be creatively adapted for historic buildings. It demonstrates that saving these large industrial complexes can help solve some of our energy-wasting built environment challenges.

The SIERR building recently received the Valerie Sivinski Rehabilitation Award as part of Washington State’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation’s State Historic Preservations Officers Awards for 2012. Recipients of the award must demonstrate how the restoration or rehabilitation of a historic property was a laudable effort using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation, or achieved a satisfactory result by going over and beyond the normal accepted practices.

The results of the restoration even exceeded McKinstry’s expectations, and serve as a model for the company’s vision for rehabilitating historic buildings to be smart, clean and efficient. The project also highlighted a valuable lesson: the most sustainable building can be a historic one that is rehabilitated for an important modern use

Publication Date: Spring 2012

#Green Building

Author(s):Kim Pearman-Gillman