Isabel mixes classic proportions, sustainable features
Portland Business Journal - by Sean Meyers Business Journal staff writer
Portland's shortest skyscraper quietly opened for business in October.
Isabel restaurant, located at the heart of the Pearl District, is a plucky 14-foot stack of stone and concrete that combines building techniques rarely seen in domestic small-building construction.
The 1,800-square-foot, one-story structure was built with poured-in-place concrete, a method very common in high-rise construction and almost unheard of in a building the size of Isabel. All things considered, it's a fabulously complex, expensive and sustainable way to build a restaurant that prides itself on fabulously simple, affordable and sustainable food.
The building was designed to be as free of grit as the food. It has an extremely rare hydrophobic roof, a one-piece method that eliminates the need for a membrane and which should last for many years with little maintenance. A hydrophobic roof and poured-in-place concrete allows for hidden gutters and downspouts, further accentuating the sleek lines of the structure.
Isabel is built using the so-called golden ratio of 1.618, used in architecture for centuries, if not millenniums, lending it a look that's both elegant and functional. It combines that traditional element with modern ones -- not only the poured-in-place concrete but also several sustainable features.
The building is the brainchild of John Carroll, owner of The Elizabeth, nearby loft condominiums. He wanted an anchor for the small shopping pavilion that opens to the west of the condominiums.
Though it's a very juicy spot in one of Portland's choice neighborhoods, Carroll resisted the economic temptation to build a larger structure. He didn't want to reduce the functionality of the plaza or to block sun from the condo, says Gunnar Langhus, project manager for Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects in Portland.
"The idea was to build a jewel on the corner."
Billy Tosheff, co-owner of Isabel restaurant and an experienced designer who is responsible for many of the finish details, tips his hat to Carroll: "I think it was a very generous thing to do for the neighborhood."
"I don't think either John or I want to sit down and calculate it," says Tosheff.
The 65-seat restaurant features three 12-foot tall glass windows that rise and pivot to allow easy access to another 40 seats outside, providing a sheltering canopy at the same time. The windows were designed by Turner Exhibits, which is staffed by former Boeing aircraft engineers. The windows employ an elaborate hand-crank and ratchet system that is somewhat similar to an old-style mechanical garage door. The large iron wheels that open each window look intimidating, but the apparatus moves very smoothly.
Eyes glide easily across the warm-tone interior, which includes a ribbon mahogany bar with bark edging and recycled glass tiles. The interior design was meant to counterbalance the industrial look of concrete and glass walls. A floating cork ceiling was attached with nontoxic glue. A lighting system is one of the first installed in North America that includes a photo sensor that's tied in with a yearlong calendar. It automatically keeps the restaurant at the optimal mood lighting, an important detail that is often overlooked when restaurants get busy. It will also save an estimated 30 to 40 percent on lighting costs.
The restaurant's heating and cooling system are designed to harvest available surpluses from The Elizabeth, which sits about 30 feet away. It includes a radiant floor heating system that by necessity must also contain electrical conduits -- there's no convenient opportunity to place them in the concrete walls. The concrete floor has a handsome, nontoxic olive wash finish. Very nice, but also very permanent, requiring a great deal of planning.
Routing lines in the floor is no easy feat in a restaurant, which has extensive and specific needs for electricity, Tosheff notes.
"The hardest part is making sure that you can go where you need to go later."
If the flooring system wasn't already complex enough, Tosheff took it to another level by installing many thousands of feet of wiring for high-speed audio and visual communications such as iPod docking stations. The restaurant plans to add up to five high-definition screens for concert performances, digital media art shows and other uses.
The toughest part of the project was working with solid concrete walls. The easiest was dealing with subcontractors.
"I really like building from scratch and working with master craftsmen," says Tosheff. "I think the challenge of a project like this is the complexity of integrating a full-service restaurant into a small space with limited amount of mechanical access."
Personally and professionally, Tosheff and his wife, chef Isabel Cruz, were growing tired of the ubiquitous and unending game of chasing money in San Diego. They now live next door in The Elizabeth.
"In San Diego, 50 percent of income is spent on housing -- that doesn't leave a lot of room for other lifestyle interests. The way I look at it is people are able to diversify their interests in Oregon, and even more so in Portland," says Tosheff. "You have a lot of things to do. Food is kind of a sport in Portland."
Isabel is the couple's fifth restaurant. The first three were constructed in California and the fourth in Ashland, which was also selected for lifestyle considerations. Hip and eclectic are the prevailing architectural themes in the company's restaurants.
"We also like for them to reflect the neighborhood," he adds, describing the Pearl District as "innovative."
Isabel Cruz seems destined to become one of Portland's top chefs. Her family came to Southern California via New York and Puerto Rico. She was one of the first two women honored for high achievement by California first lady Maria Shriver. A widely quoted television personality, Cruz recently released her first cookbook, "Isabel's Cantina."