Architecture for Architects

by Sam Sudy – Designer at Propel Studio – 02.03.2015

The architecture world is a savage beast. Pressures to find that next job, paying for the latest software updates, or design deadlines are only surpassed by the struggle of finding that unicorn of a “work-life balance.” It’s no wonder that the environment in which we work can be swept under the rug as a matter not pressing enough to be dealt with. How ironic, considering the importance of context and environment is one of the driving factors in architectural design. Although it is brief, the following is an attempt at scratching the surface of rediscovering architecture for architects.


The Monitor Less is not more

Architects love their pencils, pens, markers. Sadly, as the era of hand-drafting is retiring, computer modeling has refocused our attention towards our screens instead of our paper. With the monitor, came the dual-screen, and with that came the double monitor. Now, the new trend has emerged as the ultra-wide screen. It’s little wonder why two screens might be better than one. With more screen realty comes the less scrolling and zooming, multi-window options and ultimately higher productivity. What the ultra-wide screen brings to the table, however, is more than aesthetic appeal and simplicity. Say goodbye to the two monitor frames breaking up your view; and, yes there is more counter space with only one monitor stand instead of two. But, where ultra-wide screens thrive is in their ability to offer more flexibility and productivity. Not only do they offer the same benefits as the double monitors, with less scrolling and zooming; but, now resizing your windows to fit either screen is no longer necessary. One larger screen can be divided into thirds instead of just halves and quarters. Revit, arguably the most important and popular architecture software today, does not play nice across two screens. With that being said, Revit can easily and begs to fill up one large wide screen, allowing the model windows to get bigger and the extra width for accommodating properties panels, etc. Although some might argue that more screen can mean more distraction in a profession that does a lot of zooming and panning, bigger is better [1].

With that being said, there are a lot of options out there. Even as I type this, there might be a new ultra-wide monitor coming out, hopefully from Apple. For now, the best seems to be the LG 34UC97 34” Ultra-wide [2]. Some might take their first look at this monitor and think, Really? A curved screen? What a pointless gimmick. I was a skeptic myself until I looked more into it. Although some people might argue its value, there is evidence that a curved screen, used by an individual and not shared by an audience, allows the viewers eyes to remain closer to the same distance from all surfaces of the screen. For example, if the same monitor were flat, there could be a 25%  change in distance from the monitor’s surface to the user’s eyes. Why does it matter? Distance equals distortion. In a similar way to an IMAX movie, a curved screen will provide a more natural and undistorted viewing experience, potentially even alleviating neck and eye strain.

How does the LG Ultra-wide 34” compare to the ever popular and sleek iMac 27”, one of my office’s favorites? First, either would be a winner in my book. They are both clean in appearance and large in performance. Although the resolution quality of the iMac is higher, the LG makes up for it in size, having the same pixels in height, but even more in width than the iMac [3]. Because the iMac is a computer and monitor in one, it is an appealing option for an office environment. But, where the LG excels is in its flexibility with the option of connecting to a portable laptop. Price-wise, an LG 34” ($1000 [4]) paired with a decent laptop (~$1000) is comparable to the iMac 27” ($1800 [5]). For $200 more, the flexibility of being able to take work wherever you want seems like a small price to pay.

  • Lg Monitor 3LG 34UC97 34″ Ultra-wide Monitor + Laptop (we prefer Macbook Pros) – $1000 each [4]
  • iMac 2iMac 27″ w/ Retina Display (monitor and computer in one, however it lacks mobility) – $1800 [5]


The Desk To each his (or her) own

Until everything is virtual and in the cloud, a desk does not work for an architect unless it has enough space to easily manage a 24”x36” or larger construction document set. Assuming you need additional space for your computer accessories, that means most desks are going to be following the same guidelines as monitor screens, more is more. That is, as long as everything you need most often is within arm’s reach it will work.  L-shaped desks are also very convenient in that offer for usable space within arm’s reach.

Other than size, the height of a desk is also an important factor for productivity and user comfort. Some are sitting, some are standing, others are over-achievers and can be adjusted to suit. Tall or short, it should fit the user, or be adjusted to do so. After that, it’s whatever strikes your fancy — just make sure it looks good.

  • stilvoll crescendo 2
  • Stilvoll’s Crescendo C2 Maximus (it’s sexy and an over-achiever) – $Unknown [6]
  • bekant-corner-desk-right-white__0313028_PE513495_S4
  • Bekant Corner Standing Desk by IKEA – $659 [7]
  • Thumb_tone-880,4
  • Tone Corner Base Desk by Knoll – $3705 [8]
  • Envelop Desk by Herman Miller – $1274 [9]
  • DU6ACT
  • Renew Sit-To-Stand Desk by Herman Miller – $1499 [10]


The Chair Shake your money maker

Similarly to the desk, a chair is an individual choice, but should be fit and adjusted to the user, with respect to the desired desk height. A properly adjusted chair is not only comfortable, it prevents fatigue and promotes good posture. But, a straight back is more than what we are after here. There is a strong link between posture and the human psyche. Slumping has been statistically linked to sadness; those that have good posture tend to be happier, as well as more confident and content at work [11].

Other than correcting adjustments, what most office chairs seem to be missing a majority of the time is movement. Studies have shown that sitting still for upwards of eight hours a day has a detrimental impact on our health, energy, and even our productivity [12]. Seats that offer a flexible range of seating options are also good promoters of switching it up and moving around. Chairs that not only support the body, but encourage movement will make us better for our own sake and for the sake of our work – if you’re your own boss, then this is a win-win.

  • ÇÜP
  • Aeron Chair by Herman Miller – $555 [13]
  • generation
  • Generation Chair by Knoll – $499 [14]
  • hag capisco chair
  • Capisco Chair by HAG (saddled for the Equestrian) – $856 [15]
  • varier activ chair
  • Activ Chair by Varier(amorphous for the Hipster) – $795 [16]
  • varier balans kneeling chair
  • Balans Kneeling Chair by Varier (rocking for the Led Zeppelin) – $425 [17]
  • varier move stool
  • Move Stool by Varier (minimalist for the Mies van der Roh) – $520 [18]


The Accessories It’s the little things

Wrist rests are often incorporated into the office setting because of wrist related and carpal tunnel issues. However, some studies suggest that wrist rests are only a bandaid for the problem, and can even make matters worse [19]. Wrist strain seems to to stem from poorly adjusted desk heights, not solid versus soft surfaces. Of course, if the desk height is correct and wrist problems persist, a wrist rest might be the resulting option.

Selecting a mouse that feels right can also aid in preventing wrist strain. However, it is interesting to note, in a profession that got its start with pen and paper that the architecture industry has not switched to a pen and graphics tablet in lieu of a mouse. Not only does working with a pen more natural feeling, and thus more comfortable, but it also offers the user more control [20]. As our profession turns more and more digital, mastering a pen and tablet could eventually lead to an easier transition from paper to digital sketching as well.  

Good lighting can help the fight against eye strain and also increase productivity. LED and full-spectrum light bulbs have been proven to be more pleasing and can even combat the negative psychological effects of being in darker spaces, especially during the winter months.

Foot rests and floor mats are great options depending on desk selected. If desks are higher or even at standing height, foot rests can help align the user’s legs correctly with the floor and floor mats can help with fatigue while adjusting to a standing height desk.

Screens or desk dividers can provide privacy and functionality in an open floor plan office layout. As is mentioned more in the next section, an wide and expansive office layout is not conducive to productivity and comfortability for everyone. Desk screens are a great option that do not stifle the creative and collaborative benefits of an open office. They also offer, depending on the material: magnetic, tackable, dry-erase, space to pin up business tasks and personal items that can make a space feel more personal. Most manufacturers carry module designs that can fit a variety of desks, like LOFTwall [21].

  • wacom-intuos-pro-medium-p_34674877f
  • Intuos Pro Pen & Touch Tablet by Wacom – $230 [22]
  • Logitech-VXNano-L23-6313-mc
  • VX Nano Mouse by Logitech – $124 [23]
  • herman-miller-y6470_im_395
  • Flute Personal Light by Herman Miller – $259 [24]
  • knoll-copeland-light-1
  • Copeland Light by Knoll – $209 [25]
  • humanscale-fm-300-foot-machine-footrest-15
  • Humanscale Foot Machine by STI – $99 [26]
  • Topo-Barefoot-1000x525
  • Topo Standing Desk Mat by Ergo Depot- $119 [27]
  • LOFTwall-4-Privacy-Desk-Divider-LWDD41-AM
  • Desk Dividers by LOFTwall – $varies [21]
  • buzzispace-buzzispace-buzziwings-p695-3136_image
  • BuzziWings by BuzziSpace – $varies [28]


The Environment Options over form + function

With the plethora of introvert and extrovert personality traits out there, it is impossible to design one space that will be the perfect fit for everyone. Yes the open-floor layout is trending right now because of its presumed creative and collaborative benefits. However, there is a reason why the cubicle or closed-office layout still exists. Sometimes space and openness can lead to distractions and a lack of focus. The best environment is therefore the one with the most options. If there is an open-floor layout, then provide smaller nooks or enclosed work spaces that can be utilized when workers are feeling more private or need to focus. If there is a cubicle or closed-office layout, then make sure to provide comfortable lounges or communal spaces that allow for co-mingling and socialization during breaks.

Light is another rising star in office importance. Natural light is always a plus, but too much leads to glare and makes for a fairly hard to read screen, especially if monitors are the modern glossy type. Dark spaces are also depressing, stale, and spells nap-time. An ideal balance would be to have soft indirect natural light, accomplished with window orientation or soft window shades, as well as interior artificial light, mixed with brighter task lights that can be turned on or off based on user preferences.

(Extra tip: Plants help reflect light throughout spaces and can liven-up even seemingly hopeless spaces. They also contribute to good indoor air quality and other health benefits.)

Some Favorites:
  • wieden kennedy work ac
  • Weiden + Kennedy Headquarters designed by WORKac
  • Biodiversity lab TEN ARQUITECTOS
  • Biodiversity Lab designed by TEN Arquitectos
  • docklands phone booth
  • Phone Booth sold by Docklands



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  12. ErgonomicsMovementInTheWorkplace.pdf
  13. 13. oCFYU9aQodyCsFqw
  14. 40756415617&device=c&matchtype=&network=g&gclid=CKHSs5DakcoCFYMDaQodC4IP-g
  16. googlepla&variant=376326903&gclid=CI70uqzckcoCFUiBfgodb-0Isw
  18. 7cVAR953&gclid=CJPf1dTckcoCFY17fgod4yUIGQ
  22. utm_medium=CSE&utm_item=WCPTH451&CAWELAID=230005120000252100&catargetid=23000512000078998 0&cadevice=c&gclid=CKXR_enjkcoCFVBlfgodF6kGdQ
  23. /310870753?gpid=68416460341&gpkwd=&goog_pla=1&gclid=CPyo2rTRm8oCFcZbfgod1OEAuA
  24. 15617&device=c&matchtype=&network=g&gclid=CKHSs5DakcoCFYMDaQodC4IP-g
  26. scale-Foot-Rests&Store_Code=S&gclid=CLn6_oPnkcoCFQuLaQod5BsEig
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How Much Will My Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Cost?
Sustainable NW Modern ADU in Portland, Oregon

Sustainable NW Modern ADU in Portland, Oregon

One of the first questions we get from every client is: How much does an Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU cost? At the same time, we get a lot of clients that come to us with a budget and ask if an ADU can be built for their available funds. The problem for any designer is that it is impossible to answer that question without knowing more about the unique aspects of the design that addresses the client’s needs, wants, and site conditions. However, we thought we should at least share  a breakdown of the costs for a recent ADU project to give a realistic guideline for you to base your budget on.

Below is a rough construction cost breakdown for a 795 square foot sustainable ADU that was built in the summer of 2015 in Portland, OR. This design has a few unique elements that are reflected in the cost breakdown. The design includes a high performance envelope – typical wall construction with standard BATT insulation, plus an additional 2” of rigid insulation on all the walls, 3” of rigid added to the roof, and a fully insulated slab. We also designed in radiant floor heating with an on-demand hot water system. There was also a couple of unique custom windows that are significantly more than a standard window would be – however they were important to the design and function of the spaces.  Finally, this breakdown is for the construction costs and doesn’t include architectural or structural design work. The design fees vary depending on the complexity, size and budget of your project. 

Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Cost Breakdown
Permits $10,000 This includes the current Portland SDC Waiver that is expiring in July and all of the individual trade permits.
Excavation $10,000 around a 600sf slab area including the exterior decks. Also included excavation for a couple landscaping retaining walls on the property.
Footings & Retaining Walls $20,000 This includes work needed for the ADU plus a couple of retaining walls needed as part of the surrounding landscaping.
Framing and Sheathing $20,000 typical 2×6 stud wall construction and 2×12 roof joists and supporting structural posts and beams
Siding $8,000 Hardi siding with vertical tongue and groove cedar highlights in some areas and cedar soffit
Roofing $10,000 Standing seam metal roof
Windows and Doors $10,000 2 custom windows, 3 skylights, 8’ front door with side lite, 8’ two panel sliding door, and a few standard vinyl windows.
Concrete Slab $5,000 exposed concrete slab for floor of main level
Plumbing $12,000 includes radiant floor installation and on demand hot water system
Electrical $11,000 electrical panel, electrical wiring and outlets
Insulation $9,000 batt insulation in walls and ceiling stud cavities, 2″ rigid on exterior walls and 3″ rigid on roof
Sheetrock $8,000 drywall, mudding, taping
Interior Doors $1,000 2 standard doors, 1 pocket door and 3 closet bi-folding doors
Paint – Exterior $4,000
Paint – Interior $7,000
Trim Work $3,000 painted MDF, plus clear coated fir window sills
Cabinets $4,500 Ikea kitchen and some custom work
Countertop $2,500 Wood butcher block
Tile $6,000 Kitchen backsplash and shower – materials and labor
Staircase $2,500 off the shelf spiral staircase
Flooring – loft $2,500 solid white oak, prefinished
Cable Railing $2,500 off the shelf system
Appliances $4,500 stove, oven, washer, dryer, refrigerator
Electrical Fixtures $1,500 lighting fixtures, installation, etc.
Additional Plumbing $1,500 plumbing fixtures, installation, etc.
TOTAL $176,000 Includes all materials, labor and contractor fees

This is a relatively typical cost breakdown for the ADUs we work on. This isn’t an extravagant project, and although there are a few places where the client invested in a bit of a premium (custom windows, skylights, radiant floor heating), the rest of the project is pretty straightforward. I think this is a good resource to base your project’s budget on.

One thing of note, is that each site condition is different. Excavation and concrete work costs can vary greatly depending on the complexity of the site, ease of access, and amount of fill to be added or removed. Cost can also rise dramatically depending on the exterior siding materials and interior finish materials. There were some unique aspects for the concrete work that drove up the cost and we did have some premium siding materials in certain areas of the exterior. Even then we don’t really see the cost of a custom designed ADU dropping below $150,000 when all is said and done.

It is also important to consider that a cost per square foot calculation is not a great way to determine the cost of a project like this. With smaller projects, the money that goes towards the expensive parts of a house – kitchen, bathroom, mechanical systems, excavations and concrete – don’t get offset by the cheaper square footage of bedrooms, dining rooms and other spaces.

If you have any questions don’t hesitate to CONTACT us. We are always happy to talk about the unique aspects of your projects and discuss your ideas and goals for a sustainable Accessory Dwelling Unit. If you would like to see some of our other ADU designs click HERE


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Young Firm Propels School Project – from the DJC Oregon

When Lucas Gray and his girlfriend, Kristin Slavin, bought a house in Northeast Portland a few years ago, they quickly became involved in their neighborhood.

Both have their master’s degrees in architecture, so they approached the Vernon School PTA and offered pro bono professional design services.

“We said, ‘What do you want? Is there anything you need professional design services for?’ ” Gray said.

As it turned out, the K-8 school had a play area that flooded in rainy weather, Gray said, so a team from the firm he co-founded three years ago, Propel Architecture, designed a covering.

“The idea was to do a quick rendering to get people excited (and) to put on their website,” Gray said. “Then the PTA talked more and discussed more with the parents at the school what they really needed, and narrowed it down to focusing on the community garden.”

The little garden on the school’s west side is open to both neighborhood residents and students, and the PTA decided that it could become more of an educational tool if an outdoor classroom were created. Propel donated design services and finished preliminary plans. Fundraising has begun – though more dollars are needed to cover the cost of construction and materials.

“We’ve designed a split-roof structure with the idea that one of them will be a planted roof facing south,” he said. “The other will be a metal roof to collect rainwater, and they can use the rainwater to water the gardens and keep the plants growing.”

The project will create opportunities to teach kids not only about gardening, but also about sustainable building and making a structure “environmentally conscious,” Gray said.

The project started with contributions from students and plenty of input from PTA members, said Eileen Hendrickson, PTA committee chairwoman for the outdoor classroom. About three years ago, students in grades 6-8 created concepts that the professionals were able to build on, she said.

“Propel and parents (on the committee) took it through several iterations to enhance the durability, simplify the mechanics and try to find an affordable way to build,” she said. “I’ve been really touched by this team’s work, which is not just four posts and a roof. They’re doing it in a very thoughtful manner.”

Propel has provided leadership via “constant attention and feedback over the course of the last year,” Hendrickson said.

Developing the drawings for design and engineering of the outdoor classroom and garden has been a tedious and time-consuming task, Hendrickson said, and Propel has been a guiding force.

“Propel has always been on the forefront, helping our PTA moving forward,” she said. “But it has very much been … a collaborative effort, with other parents who are architects and engineers who have worked with Propel.”

Hendrickson said she hopes that Propel’s involvement will encourage other design firms to get involved with community projects.

“It is very beneficial to have a local architecture firm doing a lot of the grassroots projects and outreach,” she said. “By the very nature of them talking with other groups and companies it encourages others to build community where it needs to be built.”

But construction costs money, Gray said, and the Vernon School project will receive none from Portland Public Schools. His conservative cost estimate is about $50,000, but that would include donated materials and reliance on volunteers to contribute some of the labor.

Hendrickson said a general contractor is needed, and she is hoping that a local construction company will contribute some man-hours.

Donations of cash as well as materials to the Vernon PTA are tax-deductible, Hendrickson said. Anyone who wants to help can contact Gray at

“They can contact me and I’ll put them in touch with the right people,” he said.

Project construction is just the beginning, Hendrickson said. She hopes the outdoor classroom will become an evolving space based in part on input from future students.

“The subcommittee working on the drawings was also thoughtful on how the structure can evolve,” she said. “We hope to have future students play a role – maybe an art project or some other idea so that students will have hands-on experience.”

To Download a PDF of this story click here.


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