Lents Story Yard Grand Opening

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Monday August 18th saw the grand opening of Lents Story Yard, Propel Studio’s first public project. Over 100 Lents community members and business owners converged on the site to celebrate with us. With a grant provided by the Portland Development Commission, and collaborating with ROSE Community Development and photographer Dawn DeAno we turned a vacant lot in Lents Town Center into a community asset. We utilized gabion baskets to build walls that defined space, paths, and supported the photography exhibit, and wood benches. A stage was located in the center of the site and we hope it will be activated throughout the next 18 months by local community groups and neighbors. Tis project is a great example of our dedication to Pubic Interest Design. We believe architects have the ability and responsibility to improve our communities and quality of life. We take this responsibility seriously and are looking for new opportunities to collaborate with communities on projects like this. If you want more information about the photography exhibit, or would like to hold an event at the site, visit the website


Portland Development Commission
Regional Arts and Culture Council
The Kinsman Foundation
Lents Grown
Dawn DeAno Photography
Portland Youth Builders
Lents International Farmers Market
Mt. Scott Fuel Co
Pro Photo Supply

To see the project page with renderings and more information go here:

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Contemporary Cob Architecture


Throughout Portland, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, cob (an ancient building technique of mixing clay, sand, and straw) has found new appeal. Associated closely with the Natural Building movement, cob benches, ovens, interiors, studios, sheds, and even entire homes now accent our community. Most recent cob structures carry strong ‘organic’ and capricious’ imagery; evocative of an expressive and whimsical way of building. Though cob has found acceptance among alternative builders and do-it-yourselfers who embrace these features, it remains almost wholly absent from the Architecture community as a whole. Even in one of the most progressive, sustainably minded cities in the country, cob and cob building remain fringe movements.

But as a material, cob need not be defined through a certain appearance. This ‘alternative’ approach to building embodies many redeeming characteristics that most people would embrace. In residential, commercial, and community work, cob’s potential remains largely untapped. Sculpted cob elements can become creative and functional centerpieces in an entertainment space, provide unique seating in a sunroom, or create the focal wall in a restaurant. If we can move past certain preconceptions of what cob has to be, we will find at its core a material fully compatible with contemporary design. This post aims to challenge those preconceptions, explain what value cob can bring to a space, and offer ways for the design profession to embrace this most elemental of materials.



The approach to unbaked earth most common in this region is known as ‘Oregon Cob’; the latest in a line of adaptations having evolved over centuries to suit a vast range of climates and cultures. In fact, handmade, unfired earthen mixtures comprise one of the oldest, most ubiquitous building materials employed by humans. Its endemic use spans across Northern Europe, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America, and throughout Asia as well. Through the 18th century, cob building became commonplace throughout much of England and Wales. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, this and other forms of vernacular construction tended to give way to the new, prefabricated materials now readily available.

Still, earth building remains in widespread use throughout much the world. And over the last several decades, cob has made a resurgence within England and the United States. Here in the U.S., this revival began off the grid, as an alternative movement lending itself to use in eco-communities and small, unpermitted projects. As interest has grown, so has the push towards bringing cob into the spectrum of ‘accepted’ materials. But even with greater acceptance and understanding, cob’s use within conventional architecture and design remains limited.



Cob is ECOLOGICAL (in the very real sense of the word); composed of unadulterated, and, ideally, locally sourced materials, most cob buildings maintain a low embodied energy which don’t require large-scale mining or other destructive practices to obtain.

Cob is HEALTHY; in both its final and component forms, cob contains no synthetical chemicals, nor poses longterm concerns for indoor air quality due to off-gassing or VOC’s. This remains true throughout its lifecycle.

Cob is SAFE; with only your hands, feet, tarps, buckets, and a few hand tools, most phases of a cob project can be completed without the dangers of power tools or machinery. This means anyone, regardless of age or ability, can learn to safely work with cob – and often they will actually enjoy the process!

Cob is FLEXIBLE; and can be made to take on nearly any shape. Unlike concrete, cob is fashioned from its base up, not poured into formwork. This methodology lends itself to asymmetrical and undulating forms, varying wall thickness, custom built-ins, and creative openings all personalized to the specific contexts of a project.

Cob is SUBSTANTIAL; its mass has implications both in terms of passive solar heating as with the tectonics of building. Load-bearing cob is structured similar to bearing stone; it likes thick walls that taper as they increase in height, and are strongest at their curves. Openings, vaultings, and niches are all constructed with a similar respect to stereotomy.

Cob is FORGIVING; just as with building a sandcastle, until dry, cob can be continually edited and changed as you perfect your work. Even once set, cob does not cure in the way concrete does; there is no chemical alteration to the materials. If allowed to sufficiently soak, cob will turn back into exactly what it was at the time of installation.

Cob is IMPERFECT; as with anything handmade, the print of the maker is always left in the final product. Contrast your favorite hand-thrown coffee mug to a factory-made ceramic one. The imperfections vitalize it with character and feeling. Just as with people, our idiosyncrasies define us, make us unique, and ultimately special. Picture your mug again; now imagine living in it!

Cob is TACTILE; compare the pleasant physical connection of wood to that of steel. That is analogous to the difference between a cob wall and most fashioned from concrete or gypsum board. Formed earth is warm, inviting, and somehow soft even when it is hard.

Cob is INEXPENSIVE; all necessary materials can usually be obtained cheaply. It is however a labor intensive way of building. Under a conventional model, the human hours needed to complete a cob project may outweigh the initial savings. This is one reason many cob projects have been owner built.



Sustainability, safety, personalization, and warmth are all commonly sought characteristics by people wishing to build or renovate their home. So why is cob construction mostly missing from contemporary design? There are perhaps several contributing factors, but two stand out in particular.

The first is that cob has developed to cater towards a certain aesthetic. Since cob lends itself so well towards organic forms and sculpture, many cob buildings end up expressing these qualities. The effect has been to suggest this is the only way for the material to be used. Although not true, this mentality seems nevertheless to have framed cob’s use within a narrow context. Materials don’t necessitate style, and cob can be articulated as ornately or plainly as the maker desires. This can range from the sculpted animals, trees, or patterns presently common, but could also include a more minimal interpretation, one where the use of sleek lines and subtle textures carry their own power.

The second reason comes down to finances and logistics. Although the raw materials are inexpensive, cob itself requires a lot of manual labor. This of course translates into many hours and/or people to produce. As a result, practicing under the conventional building model, a house built from cob could be comparable or even more expensive than a stick-build one. Even someone who desires the intrinsic characteristics that make working with cob advantageous, the added financial burden may still make it difficult justify.



To succumb to these concerns would be to miss what could be the real potential for cob within our modern context. A material so positive at its core should not be neglected by the design profession, but embraced and pushed to into new arenas. Here are two scenarios where the use of cob, under the focused leadership of an experienced designer, may be financially viable.

Where cob is concerned, there is actually a potential group that might be employed to circumvent those high labor costs; ourselves. Here is how this might work. Your community has decided it wants to add a shade and picnic shelter in the local park. Typically, any funds need to be donated, raised or otherwise obtained to cover every stage of the project including the materials and labor. But what if instead a significant portion of those materials were excavated from the site itself, and the vast majority of labor was donated by the very families whom the shelter would later benefit?

Because cob is fun, safe and conducive to large, unskilled groups, the entire building process can become a community event! Families with children, local politicians, students interested in learning, or simply anyone otherwise curious could join in. The experience would be educational, productive, and most importantly social, as it fostered real interactions between people. With direction from an experienced designer/builder, the greatest challenge would become organizational, not financial. After a few weekends, the new shelter would be well on its way, and the beautiful walls, benches, and floors would have been hand-made by the very hands that would continue to use them. The completed structure would add identity and character to the community.

A second set of situations looks at using cob and natural building practices as a supplemental rather than driving force within design. For both new construction and renovations, if cob was viewed primarily as a great material to accentuate those special moments in a home and not necessarily as comprising the main envelope itself, associative costs would become less prohibitive.

Imagine folding the thermal mass of an elegant cob wall around the wood stove in your contemporary cabin. Your study could enjoy the warmth of a cob floor which sweeps up to form a cushioned window bed mimicking a chaise lounge. Maybe you renovate your standard dining room to flaunt chamfered corners and elliptical walls which bulge around a live-edged table. An accent wall with custom niches and openings could display your praised artwork or travel collections. Or perhaps your favorite room to meditate, which appears rectangular from outside, could actually flow and undulate in ways evocative of nature.

The potential here is limitless, restricted only by our creative ability to reflect personality and preference in built form. Accent walls, hearths, window seats, niches, floors, sculpted room transitions, daybeds, deeply set fenestration, room partitions, or even completely reworked larger spaces are all viable targets. So too would outbuildings, additions, or any other number of elements relating to the specifics of a space. Juxtaposing the handmade character of cob with our common repertoire of factory fabricated materials could truly vitalize a space and infuse it with identify. These would, almost by necessity, be truly customized and formed to compliment the lifestyle, habits, characters, and passions of the owner(s). By focusing on elements and not the whole, we could contain their expense without restricting their expressive nature and the aura of authenticity they bring.



The true spirit of cob lies in its flexibility, flexibility of form but also in how those forms are articulated. By using cob in combination with and as part of a greater sustainable whole, we open ourselves to its vast, overlooked potential. The use of earth in building is as ‘modern’ as we make it; and depends entirely on how it is conceived. Through challenging current assumptions of when and where cob is deemed appropriate, these possibilities for handmade community buildings and accent architecture become viable. Both scenarios embrace the nature of the material itself and the ways it ‘wants’ to be used. Through these practices and others, we can explore, and redefine the notion of ‘contemporary cob’.

Curious about contemporary cob building? Interested in seeing if this unique material might be a good fit for your new construction or renovation project? We are looking for opportunities to explore contemporary uses of Cob in Portland, Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Contact us for a free design consultation.

- Weismann, Adam, and Katy Bryce. Building with Cob.
- Evans, Ianto, Linda Smiley, and Michael Smith. The Hand-sculpted House.
- Elizabeth, Lynne, and Cassandra Adams. Alternative Construction.
- Lehm und Feuer |

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Students from Forest Park Elementary School help build an Interactive Wall
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Our most recent project had us team with ADX Portland, Intel, Design Museum Portland and the Forest Park Elementary School to design and build a giant interactive snap-cirucit like installation titled Circuit-Tree. We led the conceptual design aspect of the project, utilizing input from parents and faculty from the school, and the fabrication team here at ADX. Our renderings offered guidance for the students to come into the ADX shop and actually design and build elements for the installation. Kids learned how to solder, design an electrical circuit, use the bandsaw, carve and sand wood, and develop designs for aspects of the wall.

More on this project here:  Circuit-Tree Interactive Wall

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A Design Guide to Portland ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) – PART I

“An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is a second dwelling unit created on a lot with a house, attached house or manufactured home. The second unit is created auxiliary to, and is smaller than, the main dwelling. ADUs can be created in a variety of ways, including conversion of a portion of an existing house, addition to an existing house, conversion of an existing garage or the construction of an entirely new building.” – City of Portland Development Services

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are growing in popularity throughout the Portland metro area as a way to add a rentable, revenue generating unit to a standard residential lot. ADUs are a great way to increase property value, increase revenue for property owners, and increase density within our residential neighborhoods. Propel Studio recently completed the design of an Accessory Dwelling Unit in NE Portland and we want to share some of the lessons learned.

Section view of an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU)

Considering the size of the project – only 704 square feet – the ADU presented some unique design challenges. The client was looking for a 2 bed, 2 bath unit that he could live in and rent out the second bedroom. Given the size of the existing primary residence – the project had to be less than 75% of living area of the existing home – this became a very tight fit into our limited square footage. We were also faced with the unique challenge of siting our design in the front of the existing house, which is located at the back of the lot, forcing us to design our project as an attached ADU. Finally we had to overcome the obstacle of creating a modern project within the strict design guideline that pushes all ADUs to match the qualities of the existing house.  Follow progress on this ADU by clicking here.

Portland’s Design Standards
Although the city is actively promoting ADUs, unfortunately Portland currently has some very strict design guidelines that limit the ability of creative architects to flex their design muscles. The city’s regulations call for all ADUs to reflect the existing house in style, roof pitch and window proportions. Basically they want ADUs to be mini replicas of the primary house. Through our experience with the NE ADU shown above, Propel Studio has worked within the system, played some design tricks, and accomplished a contemporary NW Modern design that creatively fit within the city’s guidelines.

The City of Portland currently incentivises Accessory Dwelling Units as a sustainable way to increase density in our residential neighborhoods. When you build a new home, addition, or renovation, you pay System Development Charges into a fund which goes to Portland Parks, Environmental Services, Transportation, and Water Bureaus. However, in order to encourage urban development Portland will not assess these fees if an ADU project is submitted for permit before July 31, 2016. This is a significant savings – about $12,000 for an average size ADU – making it an ideal time to consider adding an ADU to your property. For the ADU project that we got permitted, the fees came in at just under $5,000 for a 2 bed, 2 bath unit. Not bad for a $150,000 project that could earn $1,500 a month or more in rental income.

Portland ADU

At Propel Studio we strive to address the three areas of sustainability – economic, social, and environmental – in each of our projects. ADU’s are a great way of addressing sustainability on a typical residential lot. First they offer property owners a new revenue source which could easily cover the financial investment in getting it built – economically sustainable. ADUs also bring small affordable rental units into the heart of the city, providing affordable workforce housing close to jobs while increasing the density of our neighborhoods – socially sustainable. Finally our design was carefully considered to make the best use of the site and natural resources: shed roofs are oriented to allow for the future installation of solar panels; stormwater runoff is returned to the water table through a drywell on site; landscaping consists of native plants; large overhangs over the south facing windows allow in the winter sun and block the summer heat – environmentally sustainable.

Increasing Density
Another benefit is that ADU’s are a great example of sustainable urban infill development. An ADU built in Portland offers urban living at an affordable price, but the real beauty to the idea of ADU’s is that they work to focus population where city life, services, and utilities are as well. This prevents additional sprawl into undeveloped areas, depletion of additional wildlife habitat. When people live far out, not only are they commuting in, but theres a huge energy cost to building and providing utilities further out as well. (electricity, trash,water to name a few)

ADU’s can provide for many functions such as a guest house, an art/music studio, or other live/work possibilities. …and the time to consider building an ADU in Portland is right now.

Contact us for a free design consultation to discuss your thoughts and ideas on adding an ADU to your property.

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Building A Future: Mapping, Molding and Measuring Educational Success Through Architecture
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A scale model of the neighborhood east of Berlin’s iconic TV tower was recently conceived by the Year 1 class at Berlin Bilingual School. Doused in vibrant colors and with new buildings sprouting from the children’s imagination, this model represents the dreams of our future architects, designers, and politicians. The Junior Architects Project conceived by Jessica Waldera, founder of Kleine Baumeister in collaboration with the AEDES Junior Campus Workshop was a unique opportunity for 6 and 7 year olds to engage their built environment. The ultimate goal was to build a 3D model of the school and it’s surroundings; in the process they achieved much more. This was truly a cross curricular project, where the children applied math skills, had geography lessons, discovered the science of mixing colors, and learned valuable lessons in team work.

The Architecture Forum AEDES is uniquely focused on exposing architecture and urban design through the local and global community. This international association, who runs a gallery and holds workshops for university students, generously donated their facilities and supplies for the children to engage in the creative rethinking of their school’s neighborhood.

This project was the culmination of a larger “building” theme at school, where the children at BKIS had been learning about iconic structures around the world, including Berlin, and the elements of architectural design. Equipped with basic knowledge of construction materials, structure and building features, they were eager to apply their junior architectural skills. This exploration into the world of design began with the children analyzing various chairs around the school and discussing their peculiarities and purpose. Using these observational techniques, they embarked on a local scavenger hunt where they photographed their environment, sketched buildings, counted windows, measured car lengths, read street names, took note of colors, shapes and sizes, and democratically decided how to spend 3€ on a sweet treat for 9 people.

Next the students were given maps of the city, the country and the continent, which they intently and industriously examined. With the help of their teachers and a street index, they found their homes on a large map of Berlin and marked it with a pin and ribbon measuring the distance to BKIS. Surrounding this chart, which is now a permanent fixture in the classroom, are drawings of the students’ homes and their own visionary portrayals indicating their route to and from school. This taught not only map reading skills but also gave the children an understanding of context in relation to the urban environment.

This led up to 3 intensive days at the AEDES campus, where the children were able to explore the current exhibit and make use of the studio space. Working mostly at stations and in small groups, the tasks were laid out in a fashion that allowed the children to work freely and at their own pace. On one large table was an enlarged scale map of the area surrounding Berlin Kids International School. Here each child used tracing paper to contour an existing building they wanted to model. They took this outline, cut it out and pinned it to a piece of polystyrene which they then took to the hot wire cutter – the most exciting part of the process. At this station, which was the only one constantly monitored by an adult, the children used the tool to carve out their building, sometimes doing it twice in order to more accurately represent the scale of their structure.

The next step was coloring their replicas. Some children used pictures that they had taken earlier in the week to guide them in painting a semi accurate representation but most of them just adorned their models in a color they thought to be appropriate with the attitude that “anyone can leave a building white, only we can make it colorful”. As adults and educators, we had to step back and suspend our conventional preconceptions, allowing the children to be masters of their design.

Finally, paper roads were painted, polystyrene trees were planted and water fountains were given life on the model. The climax of the week was a vernissage of sorts in which reporters, parents and peers were present to bask in the children’s vision of our future metropolis. The students presented the result of their hard work – including the older classes who created a newspaper of the project, documenting interviews they conducted as well as stories and poems inspired by architecture and the city. The finished model will now be permanently displayed at BKIS.

Normally children do not find themselves in a workspace containing pristine white walls, high ceilings and designer chairs, so all tolled their conduct in such circumstances was very commendable. They worked with professionalism, pride and proficiency, and despite longer than normal work days, were cheerful and energetic as always. It was amazing to watch the children concentrate so hard when given the responsibility to use the wire cutter or discuss how best to represent their neighborhood.

The significance of a project like this should not be underestimated. The children were able to apply what they learn in the classroom to something very real. They understood why they need to measure or count, why communicating ideas is so valuable and how vital team work is. Moreover, they were able to apply their own special skills and expertise, that do not necessarily emerge in the classroom. The theory of multiple intelligence is truly applied in an activity like this and highlights the advantage of project-based learning in schools. It also gave the students an opportunity to express their creative sides and comment on the state of our built environment. Often architects and elected officials get it into their heads that they know what the best vision for a city is. When offered the opportunity this class of first graders completely re-imagined the city in which they live and gave it a vibrancy lacking in so many cities today.

by Kristi de Bonville and Lucas Gray

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