These two side-by-side buildings on the south side of West Main, sometimes referred to collectively as the Community Building campus, form something of a hub for a continually evolving neighborhood buzz.

Community Building

The warm and wacky Community Building at 35 West Main is the bricks and mortar cornerstone as well as the vibrant heart of an evolving social, cultural and architectural experiment. Community Building brings together non-profit organizations working in a variety of fields to form a nexus of inter-related community support services, serve as a model of a dynamic civil society, and provide a space for community discussion, action and entertainment.

As founder Jim Sheehan conceived it more than a decade ago, Community Building is based on an ideal of connected community, which maximizes the accessibility of resources and effectively utilizes the particular strengths of individual members. Today, the Community Building hosts  a first-rate child care center, a growing community radio station, an eclectic Fair Trade store, and  a host of specialized public advocacy organizations.


The Community Building was originally a nameless structure, built around 1911. It housed a textile factory and dry goods warehouse in the early years, before gradually falling into extreme disrepair.  For decades, the east end block of Main was something of a grimy fringe area, separated from the gradually reviving downtown core by Browne, a busy one-way arterial to the interstate.

The outlook for Main’s east end began to brighten in the early ’90s when Brewer James Gimurtu purchased the building and started a pioneer business in the neighborhood –  the Birkebeiner Brewery. The funky beer joint, with its exposed brick walls and on-site brewery, attracted people to the neighborhood who’d never ventured there before. After a few more iterations, Sheehan acquired 35 West Main in 2001 and picked up where Gimurtu left off.

Sheehan and his team undertook a complete restoration of the three-story structure and gave it its double entendre name, (the) Community Building. The team felt strongly that the interior spaces should be more than simply functional – they should be aesthetically pleasing as well. As a result, the Community Building is a warm and inviting place, built with loving attention to detail. From the warm wood floors to the ubiquitous original art and big windows, it is an exceptional place for working and gathering.

If you care to pop in for a visit, the building’s purpose and atmosphere is well represented in the large, elegant lobby on the ground floor. The space is sometimes quiet and empty; sometimes filled to the gills with a CD release party or political rally. No matter what’s afoot, you’re welcome to come in and join the fun, or simply relax for a spell on one of the comfy couches.


Right next door to the Community Building is the stately Saranac, a further extension of Jim Sheehan’s vision. It is recognizable and unique with curved solar panels and a garden on its rooftop, and the Magic Lantern Theater, Saranac Public House, and Saranac Art Project at street level.

Sheehan was inspired to take on the dilapidated Saranac in 2005 when he  found himself facing a shortage of space to house worthy tenants,  and felt bolstered by the support and energy generated by his original endeavor at 35 West Main.

His  vision for rehabilitating the Saranac turned out to be even more ambitious than his Community Building project. Sheehan and his team undertook a $4 million ‘sustainable building practices’ renovation, one of the first in Eastern Washington. His goal was to create a model of environmentally friendly construction while providing a place of connection and dialogue among tenants.


The Saranac Hotel was originally a single room occupancy (SRO) facility, and was operated as such for almost a century. It was constructed in 1910 by Hiram “Harry” Hutton during Spokane’s most significant period of growth and provided lodging for working class clientele. Old census records show the Saranac’s residents included laborers, cooks, a restaurant owner, a waiter, a brick layer, a carpenter, a railroad repair worker, a bridge carpenter, and a bridge mechanic. They came to Spokane from  Japan, Sweden, Italy, France and Poland. Many stayed at the Saranac until they could gain firm footing in the new frontier.

The Saranac changed hands many times. Several businesses rotated through the street level commercial spaces, while the upper stories remained occupied by single room tenants. Finally, in 2004, the entire building was vacated and Sheehan purchased it shortly thereafter. The grand re-opening in 2007 brought a wealth of nonprofit organizations under its rooftop garden, including the Upper Columbia United Tribes,  Community-Minded Enterprises and The Lands Council. These organizations share the desire to enrich and improve important aspects of community life. Sharing a physical space allows partnerships to flourish and encourages collaboration beyond the walls of the building.

The Saranac Building’s renovated physical attributes reflect this desire to encourage positive change. Designed according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum standards, the Saranac boasts an extensive use of energy and resource-saving technology, making it one of the greenest buildings in Washington.

Green Features

Sheehan and his team are among restorers and builders who have dedicated themselves to a bottom line that’s not just about net profit, but rather economical, ecological and social responsibility. This “triple bottom line” embraced at the Saranac and the LEED internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building was designed and built using strategies to improve energy savings, water efficiency, and indoor air quality, reduce CO2 emissions and foster stewardship of natural resources.

Green Roof Space: Three rooftop gardens deflect sunlight, reducing the heat typically created by roofing materials as well as greenhouse gases such as CO2.

Insulation: The building’s walls are insulated with post-industrial recycled cotton, left over from blue jean production.

Air Conditioning/Heating: The Saranac uses a ground-source heat pump to utilize the earth’s constant thermal source. Furthermore, the building is able to “share” heat by forcing it from one region to another. For example, if The Saranac Pub’s managers want the restaurant cooler and the fourth floor needs more heat, hot air is sucked out of the restaurant and transferred to the fourth floor offices.

Energy: The Saranac building boasts 100 feet of solar paneling. Ambient light sensors also contribute to lower energy costs. The sensors detect natural light coming through the window and dim or brighten interior lights accordingly.

Water: Two rooftop silos can collect excess rainfall, saving up to 39,000 gallons of water annually. The building conserves another 55,000 gallons of water by using waterless urinals and using groundwater with its fuel-flush toilets.

Construction: All lumber was purchased locally and is Forest Stewardship Council-certified as a sustainably harvested material. Ninety percent of construction waste, such as cardboard and scrap wood, was either recycled or reused. All of the building’s supplies came from within a 500-mile radius to reduce the carbon-emissions associated with transportation. Paint, varnish and other finishing materials used were either non-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) or low-VOC.

Rooftop Gardens:

  • How many are there? There are three rooftop gardens. One garden is adjacent to the second floor just above the Saranac Public House. One garden is adjacent to the fourth floor of the elevator tower, just beneath the solar panels. One garden is on the rooftop of the Saranac Building.
  • What are they for? Two of the gardens are designed as outdoor patios with meeting space, tables, chairs and an array of drought tolerant plants. One garden (at the rooftop of the Saranac Building) is intended specifically as a “living roof system”: It is cooler. It is aesthetically appealing. It produces oxygen. Bees seem to like it.
  • Were they hard to build? All three areas were constructed on top of traditional roofing materials.
  • How much additional support was needed? Additional consideration was given to the construction of the two patio areas to account for additional weight of people on the rooftop. The existing rooftop of the Saranac was adequate to carry additional loading created by a lightweight soil medium and plants.
  • How long will the roof remain water tight? The roof has an expected minimum life of thirty years without any additional waterproofing. It is a proven and time tested technology.
  • What if you get a leak? Any leak can be easily identified, located and repaired.
  • What about the rooftop of the building where I work? Is your roof relatively flat? An analysis of your structure will quickly tell you if you are a candidate. Have you considered installing solar panels?

Water Tanks in the Basement

  • How big are these tanks? 2000 gallons each
  • How many tanks are there? There are six tanks
  • What are they for? Four of the tanks help us manage the ground water running across the floor of our basement. When Jim Sheehan purchased the building, there were 2500 gallons of water running across the floor of the basement every day. This water ran down little troughs built into the floor and discharged into the City of Spokane sewer system.  As an initial test of water quality (and just for the fun of it), we placed gold fish in the stream…they survived quite nicely several months  until removed to facilitate construction.
  • Two of the tanks help us manage the rain water that falls on our roof. A great portion of the surface area in the downtown core is hard surfaced (asphalt, concrete and building rooftops) impenetrable by water. This is by design and for the most part these surfaces need to be weatherproof. Rain water that is not absorbed by the ground in the downtown core is diverted into the City of Spokane sewer system. It becomes mixed with our sewage waste and becomes a burden on our wastewater management people to treat additional volumes of water that was once already clean.
  • What happens to the water after it is collected? The water collected in our ground water tanks will be used to flush our toilets. The water collected in our rain water tanks will be used to irrigate our rooftop gardens as needed. Water in our sinks and kitchens is domestic water purchased from the City of Spokane Water Department. (Even though our groundwater was goldfish certified and approved.)

Heating System – Ground Source Heat Pump

  • What’s the big deal? We have installed a heating and cooling system which should help reduce our overall energy consumption by 80% compared to the building’s original condition. The ground source heat pump should out-perform newly constructed conventional heating and cooling systems by a factor of 40%.
  • How does it work? Just below the Earth’s surface, the ground temperature remains fairly constant at around 52 degrees F.  We will  pump water from the ground, pass it through a heat exchanger and re-inject it into the ground. On the other side of the heat exchanger (withing the building environment) we have numerous heat pumps which are a combination furnace and air conditioner.
  • What is the advantage? Most heating/cooling systems are at the mercy of outside air temperature with a range of sub-zero to 100 degrees plus. When you need heat the most, the outside air is the coldest. Our base line for heating and cooling is a consistent 52 degrees. It requires less energy to regulate the the temperature in our building because the earth has already done some of the work for us.
  • Are you tapping the Spokane Aquifer? Our wells are 300 feet deep and are well outside the boundaries of the aquifer.
  • Any special permits required? We successfully made application with the Washington State Dept. of Ecology for a permit which grants us a “Non-Consumptive” water right permit. All water removed is replaced in the earth and is protected from outside contaminants. The permit process took about one year with a prescriptive notification process and comment periods.

Video: Jim Sheehan on Community Building