Propel Studio Award for Design Excellence 2017

We are proud to announce that the innaugeral winner of the 2017 Propel Studio Award for Design Excellence is William Chandler.


We recently partnered with the Portland State University School of Architecture to create an award for graduating architecture students: the "Propel Studio Award for Design Excellence." We are giving a $500 prize each year to a student based on their body of work during their studies with an emphasis on design quality. The faculty of the School of Architecture will be selecting the winner each year.

Our goal is to build a strong relationship between our firm and the university as well as support Emerging Professionals as they continue their career growth. The one requirement for the award is for the student to visit our office and present their work to our firm. 

For more information about the PSU School of Architecture, click here:

ADU Requirements around Portland Metro

Lately we've been branching out and providing ADU design outside of Portland. Since the requirements for ADU's can vary depending on your property's town or county, we decided to share these requirements in the list below.

Although there are many similarities with requirements for Accessory Dwelling Units in areas outside of Portland, Oregon (or even Washington and California) there are aspects of the general requirements that we also see vary by town or county jurisdiction.  What we've noticed that can change across jurisdictions are:

  • the size of ADU's (ex. 400-1000sf)
  • the types of ADU's allowed (ex. Detached, Attached, Basement, Garage..)
  • the number of bedrooms (ex. 1, 2, no limit)
  • and how ADU requirements vary within a jurisdiction by zone (ex. allowed, not allowed, 500sf max, 700sf max..) 

The common theme is that town planning departments and communities generally accept Accessory Dwelling Units, although they aim to "maintain the character" of the neighborhood, and this sets the setback(s) and/or limits the height so that the primary residence remains the dominant element present to the street. We also see some towns imposing different aesthetic requirements.

In order to help clarify all of these differences, please see our list below. While we're only covering a few of the towns outside Portland to the south and west, we hope to add more to this list over time, so if you would like us to look into and add your town to this list, please get in touch!

Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU Requirements, by town:

Clackamas County ADU Requirements

Clackamas Maps

Clackamas County Zoning Map (PDF)

Clackamas County Zoning Code Table 315-1: What Zones are ADUs allowed in

Gladstone R-5 ADU Requirements

Gladstone R-7.2 ADU Requirements

Milwaukie ADU - Attached

Milwaukie ADU - Detached

Oregon City ADU Requirements

Tigard ADU Requirements

Portland ADU Requirements

How to select a construction contractor for your project

One of the questions we get a lot at Propel Studio, whether for a large project or small project, is “Who should we hire to build our project?” It is an important question and an vital decision to get a high-quality end result. 
Our team likes it when our clients ask us to recommend a contractor for their project because we understand how important a good relationship between the design and construction team is. We always have a recommendation at the ready for a wide variety of project types to help find the right fit for each unique situation. We find it is important to find contractors with experience and expertise in the project type we are designing. 
The most common follow up question after the recommendation is: “Why do you recommend them?” We always recommend someone we know we can have a good working relationship with. Open communication and trust are the most important things to consider when selecting a team to construct your project.  
That’s usually the factor that determines whether or not a construction project follows a smooth process and has a positive outcome. Because of this, we’ll always suggest that you ask your architect first when you start looking for a contractor. Find out who they’d recommend, who they have worked with before - and who would have the experience needed to deliver a great result - while working well with the owner and architect along the way.

Our recommended process is for you to bring your architect and contractor together at the beginning of the project. The contractor can be a great resource for the design team as we work through concepts, layouts, details and other important design decisions. This strategy can help set workable budgets and even expedite portions of the design process. This also allows the contractor to build an intimate knowledge of the design before construction begins which can prevent errors or missed information.

As with every important decision, we recommend you reach out to a few contractors and interview them to understand how they work and to get different perspectives on how they would approach the project. During this process ask for the contact information from previous clients so you can hear first hand, what it is like to work with them and how they manage the job site and communicate with the owner and design team. Also visit their website and social media pages to get a sense of their work style, quality and values. 
If you are struggling to find a contractor that is right for your project, you can always reach out to friends, neighbors, community groups or your architect for additional recommendations. It’s possible that none of the people that fall into these categories are experts in the design and construction fields, but word-of-mouth is powerful and incredibly valuable.
What do you do once you’ve assembled a list of potential contractors? What are you looking for in order to narrow that list down? 
Talk to the contractors you’re considering. Ask them direct questions like:

  • Who are a few past clients I can talk to?
  • Have you worked with architects before?
  • What types of projects do you like to work on the most?
  • Are there any projects you have recently completed that I can visit?

When you follow up with their past clients, ask them:

  • What type of project did they build for you?
  • Did you enjoy the process?
  • Would you hire them / work with them again?
  • Was the construction on budget?
  • Was the construction on schedule?
  • How did they contractor communicate with the project team?
  • Were there any issues along the way? And did the contractor do a good job at responding to and addressing any concerns?
  • Did they keep your project site clean, organized and safe?
  • Were they reliable?

The answers to these questions should help you narrow your list down and ultimately decide who to hire. However, we recommend you take your time and make sure you are comfortable with them. Construction can take a long time and it is important that you trust and have a great working relationship with the Contractor you hire. 
It’s probably obvious by now, that this is a question that we really care about and believe is important for our clients. We care about it because a good project team (your architect, your contractor, and other consultants involved) is the key to a successful project. 
A good project team will anticipate and head off issues that may come up during the process. 
A good project team will work well together and be responsible to each other. 
A good project team will make your life easier and the process more enjoyable for you … and to us.
A good project team will have open communication, be transparent on how decisions are made, and be honest when inevitable issues arise. 
If you’re wondering who you should hire to build your project, give us a call. We’d love to talk and make a recommendation. We’d love to help you assemble a great project team that is tailored to your specific needs.

Why Affordable Housing is Important to the Quality of Living for Communities

Have you ever lived in a city where you couldn’t imagine a day when you could afford permanent housing, whether a renting or owning a home? Is Portland, Oregon becoming that city?

Consider this quote submitted as part of Portland for Everyone’s “My Housing Story” initiative:

“I am a 26 year old renter who can’t imagine buying in Portland as it is currently zoned. I work for a non-profit. Can I even live here long term? My long-term stability and the health of my neighborhood will be strongly affected by the diversity of the neighborhood. I wish I knew I could stay here long-term. More diversity… more opportunity.”

As architects and designers, at Propel Studio we understand the cost and economics of profitable development, while at the same time we realize Portland is facing a housing shortage and an affordability crisis. Affordable housing is a vital aspect of the livability and vibrancy of our communities. This is why we’re committed to a triple bottom line approach to our business and to partnering with organizations that share a similar commitment. It’s one of the reasons our co-founder, Lucas Gray, has become a SEED certified professional.

We believe that balancing social, environmental and economic impacts are important to the sustainability of both our practice, the projects we work on, the communities we work with, and our city. This begins with housing, but spreads to all project types. 

Since we’re active members of our communities, we’re passionate about building community. Whether that means partnering with developers and organizations to design sculptures to satisfy 1% for art requirements, working with community groups on creative tactical urbanism installations, or designing multi-family housing that provide much-needed housing, we’re all in. 

A strong, diverse stock of affordable housing is important to the quality of life in all Portland neighborhoods. We strive to work with people, organizations, developers, and communities to design housing that addresses affordability, equity, diversity and creates thriving neighborhoods and wonderful places to call home. Similar to the holistic triple bottom line approach we use in our architectural work, Public Interest Design that focuses on all aspects of quality of life and affordability is vital for our city.

It’s not surprising that our market has plenty of beautiful, one bedroom and studio apartment options that are priced for young professionals and upper-income couples. If you’re a single person or a young couple there’s probably an option that fits exactly what you need. However, we are missing diversity in the housing options being built, and we aren't providing housing diversity in all neighborhoods throughout Portland. This is why we are so interested in Missing Middle housing options, and finding creative ways we can fit higher density housing options into our existing neighborhood fabric without dramatically impacting the quality of life people in those neighborhoods are accustomed to.

What if you’re a young family with small children, a single parent, a multi-generational family unit or an aging couple? How can we as a community meet the affordable housing needs of all our neighbors? How can we give people choices on where they live - allowing affordable options close to the city center, in desirable neighborhoods, close to schools, jobs and other amenities?

We’re excited to join the discussion and partner on projects that range from tactical urbanism to multi-family projects; including renovations, designing to anticipate for the residential infill project, or creating accessory dwelling units; that consider historic housing types and walkability. We want to build lasting relationships with for-profit developers, Community Development organizations, non-profit organizations, affordable housing developers, and government agencies, to design impactful projects that address our housing needs with beautiful and sustainable architecture.

If your mission includes fostering community and improving the quality of life for all our neighbors in Portland, we’d like to talk. Let’s get to know each other and figure out how we can work together on something large or small. We are looking to build lasting relationships and are passionate, energetic and ready to make a positive impact on your next project!

Affordable housing is important to us because it’s important to our community and our neighbors.

Why do Architects Think so much about Design, Learning and Education?

At Propel Studio, we think a lot about the role design plays in learning and education. We imagine many architects do the same. This is because, as architects we don’t just accept the way things are or the way things have always been done. We’re trained to see possibilities; to think about how we can make things better.

That’s why we relish the opportunity to be a part of the process of thinking about, discussing, and designing ways architecture can impact learning.

The team at Propel Studio is inspired by ideas like Integrated Curriculum. We love the opportunity to discuss topics like this, but we want to take it even another step further.

Let’s not only talk about how to integrate studies across subject matters in order to discover important connections. Let’s also talk about how to integrate learning, playing, and exploring with the physical design of our buildings and outdoor spaces. Architecture itself can actually become a tool for teaching and learning.

We’ve enjoyed the opportunity to engage with Portland-area Parent-Teacher organizations and public schools like Vernon Elementary and Vestal Elementary to create visions of outdoor classrooms and covered play areas. These are places that will encourage kids to get outside and do activities in fresh air and learn from the natural environment around them. They are spaces that will create connections between what students read in a book and what’s crawling around on the ground outside.



We’re inspired by projects like Tezuka Architects’ “Ring Around A Tree School” in Tokyo. It’s a place where kids are safe and secure and encouraged by both teachers and the building design, to explore. In this example, the architecture becomes the playground, and the children are free to climb, run and interact with the building in playful creative ways. It gets them to think creatively and look at their environment in new ways.

In our minds, like the Ring Around A Tree School, architecture should trigger the senses and develop occupational familiarity with 3D space. Movement and playing in 3 dimensions should happen indoors and outdoors. As children play, they learn to cooperate, share, take turns and communicate with their peers. Our designs should create buildings and landscapes that integrate the inside and the outside with the curriculum and the life experience.


Ring Around the Tree School in Tokyo, Japan by Tezuka Architects

Ring Around the Tree School in Tokyo, Japan by Tezuka Architects


The last thing we want to do is a design a box to contain teachers and students and then select generic, prefabricated play equipment to place in the middle of a mulch bed. We can and should do better, and a collaborative design approach can lead to inspiring new school designs.

As architects, it’s our job to design safe, healthy and responsive buildings. As school architects, why can’t we create safe, healthy places for kids to explore? Why can’t we create places where the learning, the experience and the designed environment are all integrated as one - where the school’s architecture becomes integrated into the educational curriculum?

If you wonder about the same things, let’s talk!

How Propel Studio uses VR and why it Matters to our Clients

Most tech experts agree that VR (virtual reality) is the future of experiential technology, but how do Architects use VR and why does it matter to their clients?

At Propel Studio, we already use virtual reality to help design our projects. We also think VR technology is a powerful way to help us communicate our designs to our clients and the public. But, there are even larger implications for the success of our projects so we continue to push the bounds of how we are using VR and introducing it to the people we work with.

If you’re familiar with virtual reality, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that sometimes we sit in our office, stare into our VR goggles and “experience” a project we’re working on. As a client, that should make you happy. We’ve been sketching and drawing and building for years, but now we can experience a project before the first shovel breaks the ground.

-Please enjoy our VR visual. You can use your mouse (or finger on mobile) to view-

Admittedly, as a small firm, we have an advantage in that we can discover new technology and implement it in our office almost immediately without the burden of spending the thousands of dollars and hours necessary to take similar steps in larger firms. We love incorporating tech tools, like our VR goggles and Google Pixel Phones and visualization and modeling software like SketchUp, Revit and Photosphere renderings into our design process. It’s amazing to take an idea from our minds to paper to a computer and suddenly be able to ‘walk through’ it using virtual reality.

Why does all this matter to our clients though? Let’s imagine a few, realistic scenarios: Have you ever looked at a floor plan? Maybe it was for your new house. You saw all the lines that represented your home office and heard your Architect promise that all your furniture would comfortably fit in the room and that there would be beautiful natural light that would be easy to work by, but you really didn’t understand what the room was going to look like. Now imagine you’re sitting in Propel Studio, looking into our VR goggles and virtually seeing your furniture and all that natural light. Virtual reality can help us communicate our designs to our clients more clearly.

What if you were ‘walking through’ your new house through our VR goggles and you noticed the kitchen didn’t function quite as well as you hoped it would. Imagine having the ability for Propel Studio to change the design of the kitchen before construction begins; before that realization becomes a change order. Virtual reality can save our clients time and money. You’ve may never have designed a project for a Portland neighborhood. You may not have had to balance the needs of your client and the concerns of the neighborhood. Imagine you’re an Architect that’s able to ‘see’ all aspects of your design before it’s built. Virtual reality helps us make sure we’re serving our clients and being true to the neighborhoods where we work.

Is VR the future? At Propel Studio we don’t think so. We know VR is the present and that matters. That matters because as our client it helps you understand exactly what we’re designing. That matters because it can help us save our clients money by heading off problems. That matters because it helps us know that we’re doing the right thing for everyone involved.

If you’d like to know exactly what we’re using and what it’s like to work with Propel Studio, please schedule a consultation with us. It’s free!

For additional VR tours, visit the project links below and scroll to the bottom of the page:

Architects in Schools (AiS): Working With Kiddos by Sam Sudy

I’ve had the pleasure of participating in a volunteer program called Architects in Schools for 5 years now. As an architect/design professional, you apply and get assigned to an elementary school by the Architecture Foundation of Oregon staff. In the past I have worked with 4th and 5th graders, but this year I was chosen to work with a third grade class at Creston Elementary School, alongside my friend and old schoolmate Rachel Zanetti, who currently works for FFA. 

From past experience, I’ve realized that there is large learning gap between 4th and 5th graders. This year I came to discover that gap is even greater between those grades and 3rd graders. Even so, the class this year was spectacular and still exceeded my expectations as far as what they were capable of, especially the level of their creativity. 

The way their minds work is astonishingly unique from individual to individual. Yet, no matter what we threw at them, they were able to really take it and make it their own. This year we focused on having the kids create their ideal city. This involved not only the programmatic designations of their buildings, but also the structural integrity of their building frame. They also had to consider how those buildings related to each other on a block, and how those blocks worked together to form an urban environment. But that’s jumping ahead a bit. 

The first few weeks of lessons we like to think serve as the building blocks for what the kids will need to know in order to execute the final project. We started with a brief historical background of iconic historical architecture, while also touching upon how those buildings perform structurally. To do this, we had the kids use their bodies to mimic the structures. For example, a flying buttress (like those seen in the Notre Dame) were demonstrated by having the kids lean against a nearby wall, while trying to hold it up with their hands and arms outstretched. For the Roman Coliseum, we had the kids join hands in a circle and slowly lean outward. Architects in Schools is all about making the field of architecture fun for kids. 

To teach the kids about the roles and responsibilities of an owner, an architect, and a builder, we had them take turns playing each role in order to complete a paper mask. They learned quickly that being the client means you get to make decisions, but if you’re not thorough enough in explaining what you want, the architect could design something else. As the architect, they learned that they need to draw and label all aspects of their design for the builder, or else gaps in their information could get filled in incorrectly. The builder learned that working to satisfy both the client and architect can be a losing battle sometimes. In the end, I think the kids finished that lesson with a better understanding of how all of those roles can be really challenging and complex at times.

A brief video of students participating in Architects in Schools lead by Sam Sudy of Propel Studio Architecture in Portland Oregon.

As you can see, a series of 1.5 hour lessons can be really impactful, especially with adolescent brains, sponges more like it! I’d encourage any other architects or designers in the industry to volunteer their time and sign up for Architects in Schools. They consistently have more schools and classes that would like to participate, but there just aren’t enough professional volunteers to go around. And, working with kids isn’t just fun for them, you’ll have a blast doing it! Just look at the pictures if you don’t believe me!

5 Tiny Tips for Designing and Building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in Portland, Oregon

ADU’s are hot. High land costs and permitting concessions from the City of Portland have made the thought of building an Accessory Dwelling Unit popular among homeowners and want-to-be homeowners in the last couple years. Have you ever thought about building an ADU? 

Over the course of our past couple articles, I’ve talked about reasons most people want to build an ADU and a few things that surprise most people who start the process of designing and building an Accessory Dwelling Unit.

Today, I’d like to wrap up our series on Accessory Dwelling Units by sharing a few tips that may help you in the design and construction process. Some of these tips are covered in our free “ADU Inspiration Book” so I hope you’ll download that free guide if these articles have piqued your interest.

1. Think about WHY you’re building an ADU

This is the tip I can’t stress enough. You need to understand WHY you’re building an ADU before you do anything else. 

Are you building a place for your parents to live so they can be close to the grandkids? Are you providing a home base for your parents when they’re not traveling? Are you investing in a unit to list on AirBnb? Are you creating a backyard apartment? Are you building a home so you can downsize?

Whatever the reason, WHY you are building an Accessory Dwelling Unit will dictate many of the design and budget decisions you make. Let’s get that nailed down first.

2. Tiny Houses really are tiny

Tiny houses can live large. We set out to design Accessory Dwelling Units so that they are comfortable and livable similar to any other home, but ADU’s in Portland, Oregon are limited to 800 square feet in size.
That means, we have to make smart decisions and set real priorities. Are you willing to give up a full size refrigerator and stove to gain a dedicated work space? There are lots of tiny options out there. We need to figure out what’s really most important to fit into your tiny house.

Accessory Dwelling Unit Plans

3. Understand your budget

If you read “5 Biggest Surprises our Clients Discover when Designing and Building an Accessory Dwelling Unit in Portland, Oregon” you know that, although tiny houses are tiny, they don’t necessarily come with tiny price tags. 

You need to understand your budget. How will you finance your ADU? Is it an investment property? Will you split the cost with your parents or tenants? How much money do you have available?

Once we’ve determined a realistic budget, we can talk about priorities and ways to maximize your tiny house.

4. Educate yourself

The best consumer is an educated consumer. The same goes for ADU clients. 

As you decide WHY you want to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit and start to understand your budget, look around. What are other people doing in your neighborhood? Do a little research. Download our free “ADU Inspiration Book”. Understand what you like and don’t like; what you need and don’t need. Be proactive, talk to an Architect, understand the process.

This can be a lot of fun, but it’s a journey that can be full of surprises if you’re not prepared. 

Portland Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit.jpg

5. Your Architect is better than your best friend

Even though it sounds a little self-serving, this is my favorite tip. An Architect may be a total stranger, but we can help you make the best decisions in what can be an emotional process, especially if parents and family are involved. An Architect is sometimes your counselor. 

Talk to an Architect sooner than later. As you decide why you’re doing this and you get a sense of what your budget, we can help you dial in what you can really do and what you can really afford. We’ll help you be proactive, we’ll provide research, we’ll guide you through the process of creating your Accessory Dwelling Unit.

I hope this series of articles about designing and building Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in Portland, Oregon has been interesting and helpful. If you missed the previous articles, you can click here to read “Why do You want to Build an Accessory Dwelling Unit in Portland, Oregon?” You can click here to read “5 Biggest Surprises our Clients Discover when Designing and Building an Accessory Dwelling Unit in Portland, Oregon

If you haven’t already, please download our free “ADU Inspiration Book” and start dreaming about your Accessory Dwelling Unit project.

When you’re ready to get started, give me a call at Propel Studio by dialing: (503) 479-5740

5 Biggest Surprises our Clients Discover when Designing and Building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in Portland, Oregon

Many of our clients are surprised by some of the things they learn during the ADU design and construction process … and that’s ok! 

How many times have we talked to a friend or read an article or seen something on tv only later to find out that what we’d heard didn’t tell the whole story?

We don’t expect our clients to be experts on design and construction when they walk in the door. That’s our job! That’s why we wanted to share 5 things that often surprise our clients when it comes to the design and construction of Accessory Dwelling Units in Portland, Oregon.



1. ADU’s are not one-size-fits all. 
In our first article in this series on Accessory Dwelling Units in Portland, Oregon, I asked you to consider WHY you want to build an ADU. There’s good reason for this: ADU’s are not one-size-fits all. Not every ADU design is fit for every ADU dweller. 

A place for your parents to live is different than a place for a family. Long-term renters (think apartment) have different needs and expectations from short-term renters (think AirBnB or hotel).

Before you take the leap, please think long and hard about WHY you want to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit. Then, let’s talk about how that WHY will guide the design of your ADU.

2. There’s a limit to every ADU.
There are different reasons to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit. See “ADU’s are not one-size-fits all” and “Why do You want to Build an Accessory Dwelling Unit in Portland, Oregon?” 

While an ADU for your parents or for yourself will be different than an ADU you plan to list on AirBnB, the size of every ADU in Portland, Oregon is limited to 800 square feet. That means that all the design considerations we need to make for your ADU dweller, even if they’re in a wheel chair, has to fit within that tiny size limit.

3. Tiny houses don’t necessarily come with tiny price tags.
This may be the biggest tiny house surprise of them all. Even though you’re building a tiny house that’s limited to 800 square feet, your Accessory Dwelling Unit may not come with a tiny price tag. 

The reality of the situation is that even though you’re ADU is limited in size, you’re still building a kitchen and bathrooms and bedrooms. And, if your project is in your back yard there are often logistical challenges for your contractor. 

There are important design and budget decisions we need to make (do you really need your full-size, side-by-side refrigerator in your tiny house?) that will affect the cost of your ADU, but the bottom line is: don’t expect your tiny house to have a tiny price tag. 

4. All ADU renters are not created equal.
One common reason homeowners build an ADU on their property is to generate income. They envision renting the tiny house like a backyard apartment or for overnight guests like a hotel or AirBnb. The problem is, a long-term renter and a short-term renter are different. They have different needs and wants, both inside and outside.

Before we start designing your Accessory Dwelling Unit, we need to understand who’s going to be living or staying there. We’ll consider what they want in terms of privacy and amenities. We’ll even consider the quality and durability of materials that are necessary for your ADU to be manageable long-term.

5. Your parents may not want to live in your backyard.
Wouldn’t it be great to have your parents living in your back yard? They can be close to their grand kids and can help out as they get older! Did you ever think that your parents may not want to live in your backyard? I don’t mean that literally because hopefully, if you’ve decided to build an ADU for your parents you’ve already talked with them about it. 

Think about living in your backyard from your parents’ point of view. There are a number of things to consider when designing an Accessory Dwelling Unit for your parents. Things like their needs today, as well as in the future are important considerations. Privacy and the feeling of a place for themselves can be critical. You even need to talk about who’s paying for the project and how. 

When we sit down with you to design an ADU for your parents to live in, we’ll probably ask you to bring them to the table for some of the meetings.



Are you surprised?
These are some of the things we’ve found that usually surprise our clients that decide to build Accessory Dwelling Units on their property in Portland, Oregon. Did any of the things on our list of 5 things that surprise our clients surprise you? 

We don’t expect you to be an expert and we don’t expect you not to be surprised. Just like every design and construction project, there are lots of things to consider and lots to learn. We’re here to be your guide, sometimes even counselor, and help you through the process.

It’s important to understand that every scenario comes with it’s own design challenges and opportunities. Each requires special considerations in order to make the project successful.

If you’re thinking about an Accessory Dwelling Unit, please download our free “ADU Inspiration Book”. If you haven’t read it already, you may be interested in our previous article: “Why do You want to Build an Accessory Dwelling Unit in Portland, Oregon?” We hope you’ll also watch for the final article in our ADU series where we’ll cover helpful tips for designing and building an ADU.

Why do You want to Build an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in Portland, Oregon?

ADU’s are hot. High land costs and permitting concessions from the City of Portland have made the thought of building an Accessory Dwelling Unit popular among homeowners and want-to-be homeowners in the last couple years. Have you ever thought about building an ADU?

Over the course of our next few articles, I’ll talk about reasons most people want to build an ADU, several tips that will be helpful if you decide to take the leap and even a few things that surprise most people who start the process of designing and building an Accessory Dwelling Unit.

I’d like to start our series on Accessory Dwelling Units by asking you to consider WHY you want to build an ADU.



The Parents

The idea of downsizing is not new. Many more mature adults decide to move into a smaller home when they retire or when the kids leave home or even when they begin to travel and need a more modest home base. Sometimes those decisions are financial and sometimes they’re based on the amount of time and effort that goes into keeping up a larger home.

The emerging popularity of Accessory Dwelling Units in Portland have given downsizing homeowners a new option to consider. Whether it’s an ADU built in an adult child’s back yard that allows grandparents to be close to grandkids or a tiny house on the parent’s property to give a young-adult child a jumpstart or an ADU in the neighborhood that downsizing parents love and don’t want to leave, ‘The Parents’ is one popular reason to decide to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit in Portland, Oregon.



The Income Generator

It’s not hard to figure out. If you’ve lived in Portland long, you know land costs and housing costs are high. Designing and building an ADU to rent out on your existing property is a popular idea for homeowners who want to generate some extra income that may help cover those high costs.

When planning and designing and building an Accessory Dwelling Unit that becomes an income generator, most homeowners consider one of two types of renters: long term renters and short term renters. Keep in mind, there are important factors to consider after you’ve decided which type of renter you want to attract. Think about the different wants and needs between someone that rents an apartment and someone that rents an AirBnB or hotel room.



The Money Saver

What happens when your income changes because you’ve changed jobs or careers or you’ve retired? What happens when you have your first child or your children go off to college? Costs and mortgage payments rarely go down. That’s why some homeowners look at ADUs as money savers.

This scenario is much like the Income Generator, but opposite. Some homeowners decide to invest in designing and building an Accessory Dwelling Unit on their property so they can move into it and rent the main house. It gives them the opportunity to save money on their own living expenses while generating income on the house they used to live in.

Does one of these scenarios speak to you? Do you have parents that want to downsize? Maybe you are an adult that’s ready to downsize. Are you interested in generating some extra income on property you already own? Or, would you like to save money while generating income?

These are all common reasons homeowners in Portland, Oregon decide to build Accessory Dwelling Units on their property. It’s important to understand that each of these reasons comes with their own design challenges and opportunities. Each requires special considerations in order to make the project successful.

If any of these reasons interest you, please download our free “ADU Inspiration Book” and watch for the next couple articles where I cover helpful tips for designing and building an ADU and also things that often surprise our ADU clients.

Article 2 of 3 in this series is "5 Biggest Surprises our Clients Discover when Designing and Building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in Portland, Oregon"

Article 3 of 3 in this series is up next!  Stay tuned!

How an Architecture Firm Can Help You Apply for Grants

If anyone reading this has prepared a grant application before, then you know it can be an extremely daunting task.  Collecting data, writing testimonials, narratives, finding supporting documents and all the information that goes into a grant application is enough to want to throw in the towel.  What if you had a field expert to help gather information and write it in a way that would effectively appeal to the foundation or organization you’re applying to?  That’s where an architect can help.  That’s right; an architect.  Below are a few specific ways in which an architectural firm can make your search for project capital much easier.

Project Narrative

Many grants require a persuasive narrative that should be equal parts descriptive and technical information.  If you think you may be out of your technical element, don’t fake it. The people reviewing these applications are likely professionals in the field and if they see information that doesn’t seem professional, they will toss your application on the spot.  Architects have the technical industry knowledge to help prepare a fantastic narrative.  Further, they are experts at marrying the technical with the emotional - capturing people’s imaginations while grounding your project in reality.  If you have an idea or a concept that you think is impactful to the project narrative, an architect can help supply supporting statistics and data that will back up your claim.  

Visuals and Graphics

Visuals are a high impact way to drive your point across and convey the big picture.  Architects are literally experts in creating models, renderings, plans and other visuals to reference in your grant application.  While most granting foundations are more interested in the details, providing a few well positioned visuals can separate your project from another competing applicant. Talk to your architect about the different visuals they can provide.  In our digital age, architects have the tools and expertise to generate renderings, walkthroughs, flyovers, animations, site and floor plans, and even 3-D models.


Presentations and Interviews

On larger scale grant applications, you may be asked to present your project or attend an interview – most likely with a panel of people or judges. Having an architect that knows your project there with you will not only help you answer questions correctly, but will also give you a professional appeal to the other side of the table. If they see you walk in with an architect, they will know you are taking the project seriously. Beyond the clout of having an Architect on your team, and the graphics architects create, they are also (generally) very good at giving presentations and talking to groups about conceptual ideas, design features, and the technical aspects of design and construction. They know how to appeal to different audiences and also how to say (and not say) the right things. 

If you have a great idea or an inspiring project in need of funding and feel overwhelmed with grant writing, visit Propel Studio to discuss your project.  Involving us at the beginning of a project is ideal so we can best help you focus your ideas and help tell the story of your project. Not only does adding an architect to your team add project value, it can also help rake in the capital to make the project happen.  

Tell us how we can help with your project by filling out our contact form here:

Hire an Architect before you sign a Commercial Lease!

We understand that opening a business is a gigantic undertaking.  Thousands of hours are spent honing your craft, creating a business plan, branding and marketing, licensing, registrations, and more. The process is long, exhausting and takes a lot of care and attention. When it comes time to decide where to locate your business, we understand the urge to want to jump on the first commercial space that feels like a good fit and works with your budget.

However, there is more to consider than just location and area of a potential space. At Propel Studio we have worked with many clients who have opened their small business in existing buildings. These businesses have included restaurants, bars, cafes, yoga studios, creative office space, and many other business services. Depending on the condition and configuration of an existing building - opening a new spot can be simple and straightforward - or it can be complicated, time consuming, expensive, or not even feasible. We want everyone to succeed, so here are some of our recommendations on things to consider or questions to ask before purchasing or leasing a commercial space.



Are you Changing the Occupancy or Use of your space? 

If your business will use the space differently than the previous tenant, or there was no previous tenant because it is a new building, you may need to apply for a Change of Use or Occupancy of the space as part of your commercial permit. This process can trigger a re-evaluation of the entire building and systems against today's code and safety standards, requiring new costs that you might not have anticipated, such as fire protection sprinklers, seismic upgrades, or increased mechanical systems.  

It is very common even in a new mixed-use development to leave the ground floor commercial level unfinished, allowing flexibility for the future tenants to customize it for their business needs and style.  This is referred to as permitting the ground level as a “Shell” space, meaning it is not ready for occupancy.  In these cases an architect can help you determine what is necessary to establish the appropriate use and occupancy for your business and apply for a Tenant Improvement Permit.

Are you increasing or reducing the number of plumbing fixtures?

You may not even know the answer to this question - and you’re not alone if you don't. Determining the number of plumbing fixtures to serve a project is not an easy task. It comes down to the anticipated population for each space based on the floor area and function determined by the Building Code. Furthermore, sometimes there are requirements for separate men’s, women's, gender neutral, and ADA accessible bathrooms. Adding or changing bathrooms can be some of the more costly parts of a construction project so it's good to find out if this type of work will be necessary on your project.  

Are you adding a kitchen or kitchen appliances?

If you are planning a Commercial Food Establishment in Portland, Oregon, Washington, or beyond, it’s important to understand exhaust and ventilation requirements based on the appliances you will have - including any cooking, frying, or dishware cleaning activities that are anticipated. Type I kitchen exhaust hoods are more intense and installed over cooking areas or appliances that produce grease while Type II hoods are simpler and used at areas which produce only steam or heat.  Adding a Commercial Kitchen hood is one of the largest single expenses in most kitchens and it’s important to know what you have and what you will need to open your doors.

Kitchens also produce a lot of water and grease that ends up down the drain. These days, almost every food or drink serving establishment would also be required to have a Grease Trap. These are containers designed to capture waste grease, allowing only water to continue through into the city’s sewer system.  These need to be installed below the kitchen floor and in some cases this may involve cutting concrete which can be expensive. With any cooking establishment, there are small details like this that we can help you identify early on so you can decide if a space is right for you.

Do you know the annual heating and cooling costs of the space? 

If you can, we recommend reviewing past utility bills of your space in order to determine any costs to operate and maintain interior comfort throughout the hot and cold seasons.  If utility bills are high it can be indicative of a poorly functioning mechanical system and little (or no) exterior wall insulation. Converting an uninsulated or unconditioned building to meet a use which will be heated or cooled will trigger insulation requirements, so exterior building envelope upgrades and associated costs should be considered.  

Would any Structural Seismic Strengthening Upgrades be triggered by your alteration project?

Portland City Code, Title 24.85 contains criteria that may trigger requirements for additional seismic strengthening when the work involves an existing building. There are many nuances to this title, but three of the main triggers for seismic strengthening occur if:

  • Percentage of net occupancy area change is greater than 1/3 the total area
  • Cost of alteration is greater than $40/sf
  • Increase occupant load by 150 or more people

We can help you determine if seismic strengthening will be required for your project.

Would any ADA Accessibility upgrades be required as part of your alteration project? 

If you are locating in an older building, there is a pretty good chance that some aspect of the parking area, routes to (and through) the building, as well as toilet and other plumbing configurations may not meet current standards.  It is a good idea to work with an architect early on to identify what you may expect to allocate to accessibility upgrades according to the Accessibility Upgrade Requirements in Existing Buildings (25% Rule)

Does the building you would be locating in meet current Planning and Zoning Requirements?

We recommend looking into whether the building you are considering locating to has any shortcomings with regard to city planning and zoning requirements.  With any alteration project, even one with interior work only, it will be reviewed by planning staff to determine if the building site meets current standards for quantity of vehicular/bicycle parking, trash/recycling, loading/unloading areas, landscaping and other site design elements.

As you can see, there are many considerations when developing and building out a new commercial business space.  Whether you are looking to open a brewery, restaurant, retail shop, office space, or other professional office, our staff would be happy to meet with you and help you understand all of your project's needs and analyze the spaces you’re considering so that you can avoid unnecessary challenges.  We want you to open your business in a space that is a great fit, without any surprises or unexpected costs.  

Please contact us today if you think there is any way we could help!



Feasibility Study

When working with new or existing buildings, our first recommendation in order to check the considerations above is to perform a project feasibility study.  This is the first phase of our architectural services and we typically perform the following tasks:

  • Create a list of spaces, their sizes, and ideal adjacencies for your businesses function
  • Visit your city’s historical permits and obtain any existing plan information on your building.  We then measure the existing space and provide CAD base drawings for design discussions over an accurate scaled plan.
  • Construction cost estimation - we work with some great commercial contractors in the Portland area who would be able to quickly provide cost feedback in order to guide your project based on your budget.
  • Create a Life Safety summary of your building project, which is necessary information to prepare and submit on commercial projects for permit.
  • Estimate permit fees - Plan Review + System Development Charges (Transportation, Water, Parks, Urban Forestry, Environmental Services)

After the Feasibility Study, the next steps in our full architectural services are Schematic Design, Construction Documentation, Bidding and Permitting, and Construction Administration.

We are a licensed architecture firm in Oregon and Washington and aim to provide service in these states and beyond.  Follow this link to view our Commercial Design Portfolio if you’re interested in seeing how we’ve helped other businesses open beautiful commercial spaces that work for their unique needs.

Additional Resources

City of Portland’s Commercial Alterations - Tenant Improvement Resources Page

City of Vancouver Commercial Building Permit Information

City of Hillsboro Commercial Building Permit Information

City of Gresham Commercial Building Permit Information & Resources

City of Seattle Commercial Building Permit Information & Resources

City of Bend Commercial Building Permit Information & Resources

Lake Oswego Commercial Building Permit Information & Resources

Creative Passageways

In many historic urban cities around the world, alleyways have been integrated into the urban landscapes, playing an important role in shaping the cultural, social and civic activities.

Alleys in some younger modern cities, however, have been viewed as service corridors between buildings, associated with crime, trash, and unpleasant for public use. How to creatively reverse this perception is the key to turn these alleys from eyesores to assets to their urban environment. By removing these passageways’ traditional role as means for commercial delivery and trash collection, many alleys have been redesigned to be a more vibrant, environmental, pedestrian-friendly, and economically viable space.

How to creatively transform underutilized alleys into urban assets?

These renovated alleys enhance safety, walk-ability, promote local businesses, and engage the surrounding community. They become spaces for people - places to gather, drink, eat, play, work, hang-out and socialize. Well-kept, pedestrian friendly, and visible-to-the-public alleys promote public presence and activity, eliminating safety issues. Revitalized alleys also bring environmental and health benefits. An alley renovation might also utilize reclaimed materials in replacement of using new resources. Alleys can also be interconnected with each other to create pedestrian networks, which encourage people to drive less and walk more. Placing public transit hubs near these alley networks can also enhance walk-ability.

Great examples of successful transformed alleys:

What are  these alleys’ key design principles?

  • Inviting space with colorful and vibrant surface treatment
  • Lighting and signage
  • Environmentally responsive design with strategic trash/recycling enclosure,
  • Pervious surfaces intertwined with landscaping
  • Active ground level with community activities, combined with storefront + retail space
  • Restricted vehicle access - pedestrian friendly environment
  • Organic and engaging design process involving surrounding communities
Design elements to reviltalize urban passageways

Design elements to reviltalize urban passageways

At Propel, we are interested in finding ways to bring inspiration from around the world, to transform the alley networks found here in Portland. There is so much opportunity to transform these under utilized right-of-way corridors into community assets. We are actively looking for opportunities and partnerships to start pilot projects and activate these urban spaces. If you know of any organizations, individuals or community groups exploring how to better utilize alleyways here in Portland, please let us know. 

In the meantime, if you are interested in reading about some of Propel Studio's tactical urbanism projects, visit here.

What if You were able to Double Your CDC’s Housing Portfolio this Year?

What if you were able to double your Community Development Corporation’s (CDC’s) housing portfolio this year? That may sound crazy but think about it, what if you were able to double your portfolio this year?

We understand that financial and physical resources are very limited. There’s only so much money in your budget and while you may be able to secure financing for new construction, deferred maintenance of your existing portfolio looms large. We also understand that your CDC has a limited physical footprint, so how could you possibly double your housing portfolio with these parameters in place?

Just last year, the City of Portland received more than 250 permit applications for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). If you dig into the reasons for the recent explosion in popularity of ADUs, you’ll find that our unique housing market and zoning codes offer opportunities for CDCs to maximize their portfolios and develop new streams of income by adding ADUs to their existing single family properties. 

ADUs are a great idea as they increase the housing stock without requiring you to purchase new land. Why not build a bunch of these small-scale houses on property you already own? They can be homes for the elderly and homes for the young. They provide rental income, investment opportunities and much needed, affordable housing … all in your backyard.

If you review your CDC’s portfolio of properties and own any properties that are zoned residential, then you have property where ADUs can be developed.

Even better, the City of Portland currently offers incentives that may allow you to save as much as $20,000 in development fees on each ADU you build. The City is currently waiving the System Development Charges (SDCs) for these project types. However, this waiver is set to expire in July of 2018, so now is the perfect time to take advantage of this savings. 

Another great cost-savings opportunity for these project types is to develop a series of prototypes that can be adapted to work on each of your properties - and rolled out simultaneously. This can save you time, construction costs and increase the economy of scale with these small projects.

There is also the option of building modular designs that can be fabricated off-site and installed in only a few days - meaning a minimal impact to existing tenants. Further, this would allow us to permit these projects through the State Of Oregon, and permit multiple projects at once. This could create even more savings. 

Are your existing properties beginning to feel the effects of deferred maintenance? Would quickly and efficiently developing a large number of income-producing properties help your pro-forma?

We’re at a unique point in our city, where land acquisition costs are high and access to affordable housing is scarce. Yet we, at Propel Studio, believe your CDC has the opportunity to meet your housing-driven mission, maybe even double your portfolio this year.

If any of our questions intrigue you, let us know. We’ll be glad to talk about them.

In the meantime, you may also be interested in reading some of our other ADU-related articles including: “5 Ways Portland, Oregon CDCs Can Benefit From The ADU Craze” and "Frequently Asked Questions about ADU Design and Construction."


Sketching Abroad

When travelling to new places, taking photographs is a great way to remember everything you've seen and experienced. At Propel Studio, we love taking photographs too. However, we find that nothing compares to hand sketching as a way to carve our experiences into memory.



Most recently, our youngest employee, Sam Sudy, went on a trip to Beijing China. The following is her opinion on how sketching has changed the way she looks at travelling and experiencing new environments.



I love sketching. Whenever I travel some place new, I try and lug my giant sketchbook with me. Usually my sketches take about 30-40 minutes, but to me it is well worth the time it takes to have a document of that experience. Since getting into this habit of drawing what I see instead of snapping a picture, I have found that I forget my camera at home. There's something more vicseral about it. Don't get me wrong, I love looking at photographs, but when I flip through my sketchbook, I remember things I would easily forget looking at a picture that I took.

I remember the hard, uneven rocks I was sitting on.
I remember the smell and weight of the air I was breathing.
I remember the heat from the sun that was hitting the back of my neck.
I remember the details I was trying to capture through my pencil.
I remember the awkward feeling of being stared at... 



Even with the awkward stares, I still think it's worth the final result. 



Now, I know that my sketches won't be hanging in the Louvre anytime soon, but the way that looking at them when I return home can bring me right back to that moment when I was putting pencil to paper, I wouldn't trade that for anything. 

5 Ways Portland, Oregon Community Development Companies (CDCs) Can Benefit From The ADU Craze

As housing costs in Portland, OR continue to escalate, while access to affordable housing redefines crisis levels, it is increasingly difficult for organizations to meet their housing driven missions.

Many Portland-area Community Development Corporations (CDCs) meet their housing access missions by developing multi-family housing projects or purchasing and renovating or constructing new single family homes. Their portfolios are effective in meeting their mission, but are ultimately hamstrung by a number of factors.

As your organization looks out 5, 10 or even 15 years, does your current redevelopment model eventually lack in housing diversity? Will your budget strain under the costs of deferred maintenance? Are you ultimately limited by the physical footprint of your CDC area? Will your tenants have the ability for their families to grow and change without being dislocated?

You’re surely familiar with the recent explosion of popularity that Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) have enjoyed in Portland and in many other cities. Last year alone, the City of Portland received more than 250 ADU permit applications. These are great ways to add new housing stock to land you already own. Many individuals have already asked the question "Why not build a small-scale house in your backyard?" Their parents could live there; renters could live there as they generate rental income; or they could live in the ADU themselves and rent the main house to a family.

Those are all great reasons to consider building an ADU, but how can your CDC benefit from the ADU craze? At Propel Studio, we believe there are 5 key ways your Portland, Oregon CDC can benefit:

1.  Quickly and inexpensively expand your housing stock within the existing footprint of your CDC.

After a thorough analysis and inventory, we can help you identify the development opportunities that exist on the properties you already own. Imagine doubling your housing portfolio without incurring any land acquisition costs. Almost every property in a SIngle Family Zone within Portland can accommodate an ADU. Often the biggest hurdle to providing more housing is the costs involved in acquiring new land. In this scenario, we can build new housing opportunity and eliminate the hurdle of purchasing the land as it is already in your portfolio. 

2.  Expand your housing stock without displacing current/long-term residents.

Developing multi-family projects is an effective way to meet your housing access goals, but these projects tend to displace neighbors and sometimes lead to gentrification in the neighborhood. Imagine developing a significant increase in your housing stock without displacing a single family. Instead, you can keep families in their long-term homes and potentially allow for these families to grow or multi-generational living to happen on a single lot. 

3.  Diversify the product mix in your housing stock.

Many times, financing and market forces dictate that a CDC’s portfolio grows in a certain direction. Maybe you’re heavy on single family homes or maybe it’s been more feasible to develop multi-family projects lately due to funding available. What if you could introduce a product mix that not only diversified your housing portfolio but also diversified residents you’re able to serve? Accessory Dwelling Units can take a lot of forms and can offer a wide range in housing types. We can design two storey 2-bedroom units for young families, or single level versions that are fully ADA compliant for ageing-in-place. There is also the option to create smaller, more affordable studio apartments. These are just a few of the wide range in housing types that can be offered through this creative project type. 

4.  Leverage available financing vehicles to cover deferred maintenance costs.

It’s no secret that it’s easier for a CDC to get financing for new construction than it is to find a way to cover maintenance costs. Many organizations like yours struggle with deferred maintenance costs. What if building a fleet of new ADUs helped generate the funds to cover much-needed deferred maintenance projects? One of the things we have been interested in, is using ADUs as a means to generate funds that can further your mission. ADUs can be rented as affordable units to low-income residents, but they could also potentially be rented as market-rate apartments, bringing in much-needed revenue that can be used for deferred maintenance and other costs on your existing assets. 

5.  Leverage existing incentives to save on development costs.

You already know that development costs in Portland are high and prices for land and construction costs are rising. What if you took advantage of the City’s ADU incentives and saved as much as $10,000-$20,000 per ADU unit in development costs? Currently, the City of Portland is waiving the majority of SDC fees until July of 2018, and permitting detatched Accessory Dwelling Units can be as low at $4,000-$5,000. Compare that to the permitting costs of a new single family house and you can see that now is a perfect time to maximize the benefits of investing in these projects. 

If your organization is looking to the future and thinking you can do more to provide better access to housing; if you’re thinking you can do more to support your neighborhood and it’s diversity, consider adding Accessory Dwelling Units to your properties in Single Family Housing zones.

ADUs in Portland, Oregon can currently help you quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively increase your housing portfolio. They can help you grow and diversify your housing stock without displacing your neighbors. They can even help you save money and solve the deferred maintenance crisis you may be facing.

If you’d like to know more about our experience with the benefits of ADU development, let us know. We’ll be glad to help. 

Smart Home Technology

Lately, we have been nerding out with new smart home technology and think it’s very cool stuff!! In case anyone reading this is not quite sure what the term “smart home” means, this post should help. Here’s what we have learned about smart home technology…  so far...



A smart home refers to the ability to connect devices such as outlets, light bulbs, and security cameras together to a central hub (aka control system). This central hub is a small device which is connected to your home internet. This internet connection extends the ability to communicate with the hub using a smartphone. Now you can control or monitor a myriad of devices from your smartphone - no matter where you are in the world.

List of devices to control:

  • Window Blinds

  • Open/Closed Door/Mailbox Sensors

  • Security Cameras

  • Smoke/Monoxide Detectors

  • Leak Detectors

  • Doorbell Cameras

  • Presence Indicators (so things can happen automatically when you leave/arrive)

  • Thermostats (Nest, Ecobee, etc.)

  • Lights - Including Dim and

  • Appliances

  • Door Locks

  • Motion Sensors

  • Coffee Makers

  • Garage Doors

  • Irrigation Systems




Are some hubs more universal than others?  

Yes!  It seems like there are many product manufacturers rushing to hop on the smart home band wagon or quickly hook you into their proprietary ecosystems.  Be careful not to fall into this trap by choosing a hub which uses multiple communication protocols and is capable of working with many products from different manufacturers, not just a single manufacturer's devices.  

Pay attention to communication protocols!  Between the hub and your home devices listed above, there are three common wireless communication protocols used. These vary in data rate which is synonymous with their power requirements.  The hub is always plugged in, but devices can vary from battery powered, to in-wall hard wired, to external wire plug-ins.  For many devices, such as a door open/closed indicator or deadbolt, there isn’t much data to transfer - so the low power usage protocols of Z-Wave and Zigbee combined with a button cell battery is adequate. For other devices, such as a security camera, the higher data rate may require frequent battery changes or a permanent power source.

Communication Protocols:

  • Zigbee
  • Z-Wave

  • Wireless IP

This is something to consider because some devices use batteries which require maintenance. Other devices like smart light bulbs or smart in-wall receptacles stay connected using a low amount of power through the socket - so virtually maintenance free.

Would you rather see this?                                 Or this?


On the left is a conventional outlet with smart outlet plugged in.    Pictured right is a smart in-wall receptacle.

On the left is a conventional outlet with smart outlet plugged in.    Pictured right is a smart in-wall receptacle.


Smart Home Hubs:  We recommend these two hubs for their compatibility combined with a user friendly mobile app. 

Samsung SmartThings


Input Devices:  Although some devices can communicate directly with Google Home and Amazon Echo, these devices don't use all 3 communication protocols, so for now, we only recommend them as an input device.  You can connect either of these to the Smart Home Hubs listed above and extend your system to respond to voice activation.

Google Home "OK Google"

Amazon Echo "Alexa"


Smart home technology is the future of our homes.  It's fun to imagine all of the possibilities and see new smart applications people are developing.  Maybe an ice bucket alarm clock is right around the corner....   Whether you are considering a home remodel, building a new residence, or even an ADU, we think you should consider smart home technology and we'd love to help you incorporate this into your project.

The Importance Of Low Maintenance Design

First, there is no such thing as no maintenance anything. So, if that’s the case, then what about ‘low maintenance?’ How can it be achieved and why is it important?

Propel Studio in Portland, Oregon has a history of bringing sustainable design to the forefront of their projects. Selecting materials and designing for minimal maintenance is certainly a component of that sustainability. 

According to Nick Mira, a Partner at Propel Studio, low maintenance design is “design that’s thoughtful; that understands fully its user and exposure … knowing when something is appropriate and when something is not appropriate.”

Designing with these things in mind is important because of reductions: 

  • in operating expenses
  • in disruption of schedules
  • in negative environmental impact 

Low maintenance can have a positive economic impact for communities because:

  • it keeps maintenance costs low
  • it maintains higher property values
  • it maintains the quality of public and retail spaces

Having a smaller footprint on the environment maintaining property values are important, but does designing and building for low maintenance cost more?

The problem with the question of cost is that most of the time when we ask it, we aren’t keeping the big picture in mind. According to Nick, low maintenance design can cost more “upfront, with a short timeframe in mind.” If we consider material replacement, renovation, disposal and the disruption to our business or home life, the question of cost can be much different. There is a “trade off for doing things the right way the first time versus the life cycle costs of doing things cheaper to save money upfront.”


Champions Barbering Institute in Portland, Oregon      Photo Credit: Josh Partee

Champions Barbering Institute in Portland, Oregon      Photo Credit: Josh Partee


For Nick Mira and the team at Propel Studio, it’s a question of balance that involves all aspects of the design and construction of a project. They consider finish materials, exterior building materials, structural systems, mechanical systems, even landscape materials. They all have a place when designing for durability.

If you’re interested in a project that’s designed for minimal maintenance, Nick suggests asking architects and contractors a few questions:

Do you have any certifications related to low maintenance design?
Do you have a large network of material suppliers so that we can get the appropriate materials for any situation?
Can we tour one of your projects that’s at least 10 years old? You’ll want to walk around and see how everything is holding up and talk to the people using the building. How’s it working out for them? 

When interviewing builders, ask for architect and client references. When interviewing architects, ask for builder and client references.

If you ask Nick Mira, he’ll tell you building maintenance “effects the environment, the budget, the economics, even the way we feel in a space. We’d rather keep money in a place where it can be invested in other places.”

What can the Design Culture of Portland, Oregon Contribute to the Design Culture of Vietnam?

To some the idea of a design firm in Portland, Oregon collaborating with a firm in Vietnam may seem odd. After all, what could or should the design culture of Portland contribute to a country with a rich culture like Vietnam?

Portland enjoys a certain status as a hub of sustainability and environmental consciousness. It’s a community often seen as keeping careful watch on how the built environment impacts the natural environment. We have a history of smart growth with careful consideration of design and development.

Portland-based Propel Studio is noted for its ability to develop relationships and conduct research, develop cultural understanding and deliver honest assessment even before a project begins.

Propel Partner, Tuan Vu talks about exporting Portland’s lessons learned in healthy growth to benefit countries like Vietnam who are experiencing high development rates. He’s concerned “about the impact of growth on the Vietnamese environment and culture for generations to come.”

Portland has been a resource for domestic cities and foreign countries alike through the Smart Cities educational series. It’s a city happy to help others learn from the successes and failure of their unique sensitivities.

Like Portland, Propel Studio is unique. They’ve become known as community collaborators. They carry a commitment to a shared vision; one that focuses on the environmental, economic and social sustainability of a community whether it’s in Portland, Oregon, Aridagawa, Japan or Hanoi, Vietnam.

According to Tuan Vu, a native of Vietnam and Partner at Propel Studio, a key to cross-cultural collaborations is to bring experience to the table, “but more importantly the design process. Our clients, the communities we work with must have ownership of the process as well as the design.” Tuan cautions that a successful collaboration comes out of “a process, not an output.”

He credits Propel Studio’s community engagement process for their history of domestic and international collaborations.

Tuan says, “The history of architecture shows great learning and collaboration over time. That’s still possible and necessary today.”

Lessons From Singapore


Propel Studio partner, Lucas Gray, recently spent a week in Singapore, exploring this modern and beautiful metropolis in SE Asia. On our travels, we are always observing the urban environment, local architecture, and trying to learn from the differences each country and city offers. For a city-state of around 5.4 million people, Singapore acts a great example of how to build a city for people, with modern infrastructure that far surpasses any city in America in quality, affordability, and effectiveness. 

Integration of Architecture and Nature

As a tropical island, located at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, just a short distance from Indonesia, architects in Singapore have the ability to design buildings that open up to the surroundings. There is no need for insulation to address cold temperatures, but rather the architecture is all about keeping people cool. Buildings achieved this goal through a variety of strategies. Most intriguing was the use of sky gardens, plants, and water features integrated into the facade of builds from street level up to the tops of towers.

These gardens both provide shading, preventing the heat of the sun from entering the building, but they also help fight the heat island affect and beautify the city, increasing greenery in a very urban environment. 

The sky gardens have another benefit, creating spaces high up in buildings to create breezy outdoor spaces for people to enjoy. Often these carve outs incorporate pools or other water features to further offer ways to keep people cool in the tropical heat. 

Modern and Affordable Transportation

Unlike America, the government and people of Singapore have built a city that is easy to navigate with public transportation. Most importantly, this network is faster, more comfortable, and more affordable than driving a car. This is imperative to creating a livable city that is sustainable and equitable. It was such a pleasure to move around the city in beautiful modern metro stations, comfortable and clean buses, and do all of this without ever having to be stuck in traffic congestion. This made the city one of the most livable and enjoyable cities I've visited. 

To achieve this, the public transportation infrastructure takes priority over all other means of personal transport. It is heavily subsidized to make it affordable to all residents regardless of income levels. Most trips within the city on the metro ranged from $0.80 to $1.80 depending on distance traveled and time of day (fees go up during peak rush hour times). Further, to fund the construction of this system and to disincentive personal car use, the city has imposed incredible steep prices on registering cars and getting licenses for private vehicles. They also tax the import of cars and have a tax on vehicle miles traveled. All of this makes almost all residents rely on public transportation, regardless of their income level. Further, it increases the funds available to provide fast, reliable and convenient public transportation systems. I don't think we ever had to wait more than 5 minutes for a bus or train to arrive. 


Pedestrian Street Use

One of the most refreshing experiences was observing streets all over the city be converted from car use to pedestrian use every day around 6pm. Each evening, the financial district barriers were pulled across a side street and satay stands and tables and chairs replaced the cars, creating an active street life that lasted long into the night. By the time we awoke the next morning the stands were gone and the street was back open for cars. This also happened in other areas of the city, with dozens of streets being converted into markets, food stands, and pedestrian walking areas in busy restaurant/bar areas. It became clear that this is a city that is designed for people, with a focus on livability and the pedestrian experience prioritized over the convenience of car use. It is a lesson that urban planners, traffic engineers and politicians across the USA should learn from and incorporate into our cities and towns. 

Scale of Development


The sheer scale of developments across the city dwarfed most of what we experience in America outside of a few select places. There are many reasons to explain why this might be the case. Chief among them is the involvement of the government in many developments across the city. Unlike the US, where blocks are divided into smaller individual properties and separate developers build smaller scale projects over time, in Singapore the government develops a lot of projects, particularly housing, at a larger more urban scale. These projects tend to be on large areas of land and incorporate multiple towers and other buildings all as part of a single development. There are definitely benefits and weaknesses of this approach to city making. Large mega-projects don't always create the best street edge and walking experience. However, the ambition of the projects and the architectural expressions are bold, aspirational, and grand in their vision - regardless of whether they are building low-income government housing, or large commercial shopping malls, hotels and casino complexes. It is refreshing to see a place take risks with their architecture. Rather than settling on safe, simple, and cheap buildings, the government and developers in Singapore are pushing the boundaries of contemporary design which is exciting to see as a designer. 

This scale and ambition of projects applied to buildings, infrastructure as well as amenities. The Gardens on The Bay for instance was a sprawling and beautiful park/garden across a protected bay from the city center. It was filled with interesting architectural follies, pavilions and large glass domed greenhouses. The scale of and ambition of this was incredible and the quality of design was incredible. 

gardens on the bay

The trip was fantastic and a great break to refresh and find inspiration for future design projects. It was also an interesting opportunity to compare American cities with another world-class city across the world. My takeaway was that America can and should look further afield for inspiration and precedents on how we can improve our urban environments for people. Too often we rely on what we have done in the past, or look to other American cities for expamples, even those cities are often burdened with the same mistakes in their evolution. We should use a wider lens, and learn from other cultures, governments and architects to see how we can best design and build our cities.