We Are Back From Japan And Moving Projects Forward

If you’ve been following our work, blog and social media channels, you know that we spent most of October in Japan. It was an exciting trip for us because it was our first time visiting Aridagawa since we finished our community design workshops in 2016. We were anxious to see the results of the community design process and some of the completed work that came out of those workshops.

We’re happy to report that our Japanese friends flourished with the community design process we introduced to them. Here are a few of the results:

  • The construction work has started, with the roof being replaced, seismic upgrades complete, and renovations to the public spaces within the building (bathrooms, etc.) wrapped up.

  • The main design move, cutting a hole through the building to better connect with the shrine to the north has been completed. There is now a wonderful covered outdoor room with stairs and ramps that lead down to the shrine complex. This was an important connection for the community and it was great to see it take shape

  • The community is now looking for small business and entrepreneurs to rent space within the building. The goal is to have each tenant design their individual interior space, bringing a diverse range of local styles to the structure. We learned that the first business will most likely be a top room, serving up local and Portland beers!

We also made new friends in Tokyo, Nanto, Wakayama, and Okayama. In each place, we met with people who are passionate about building community and revitalizing towns. We presented our work and talked about ways we could learn from Japan and share our expertise with the local communities there. What an opportunity to share concerns and passions for community-building, economic prosperity, equity, and multi-generational opportunities.

You can learn more about our international efforts through a number of articles, including:

If you’d like to know more about our community design process or about how Portland design culture contribute to the design culture where you live, give us a call. We’ll be happy to talk about ways we can improve your community together. We’ll also be happy to talk more about our trip back to Japan.


Accessory Dwelling Units

Now that we’re back in Portland, we’re catching up on work and moving all the projects in the office forward. Many of these are ADUs at different stages of development. We’ve been following up with the construction progress on 4 ADUs that are currently being built. It’s always fun to see our designs take shape.

We also were excited to get back and participate in the 2017 Build Small Live Large conference. This conference collected some of the leading experts on Accessory Dwelling Units, Tiny Houses, and small scale residential developments in the country.

It was an honor to be a part of the conference, present some of our ADU work, and participate in a round table discussion on the value of design for ADUs.

We’ll share videos from the conference on social media and our blog when they’re available.

If you’re considering an ADU or have any questions about these types of projects, don’t hesitate to reach out. We also have a lot of information and ADU resources on our website here. We love sharing our knowledge and helping people move forward with achieving their goals.


What's an ADU and Why Should I Want One?

We have been helping people with the design of ADUs for the past 4 years here in Portland, Oregon. However, as we have started working beyond the city limits of Portland, we quickly realized that these projects are called different things in each city or town. There are at least thirty different names (that we could find) for Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs.

You may call them Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs for short, Laneway Houses, Granny Flats, Alley Apartments, or Carriage Houses. You may find something called a Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit, a DADU, an Accessory Apartment, an Accessory Suite or an Ancillary Unit. Sometimes, they’re called Backyard Cottages, Basement Apartments or Dawdy Houses. Garden Cottages, Garden Suites or Grand Retreats are popular. Many people like Granny Cottages, Granny Pods or Granny Units. We’ve even seen JADUs, Junior Accessory Dwelling Units, SDUs, Secondary Dwelling Units and Secondary Suites. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Home within a Home, an In-Law Suite or an In-Law Unit? Increasingly, families need Mother-In-Law Flats, Mother-Daughter Houses, Multigenerational Homes or Next Gen Units. HGTV has popularized Tiny Houses and Hawaiians have Ohana Units. Maybe the most interesting name we’ve come across for that smaller, secondary unit is the Sidekick.

Regardless of what nomenclature you use, the theme that ties all of these together, is the desire to add an additional unit to your existing property. In North America, Vancouver, Seattle and Portland are the most popular markets for these types of homes although we have received inquiries from interested clients in the Bay Area in California, and across Colorado, including Denver, Boulder and smaller towns across the state. No matter where you are or what they’re called, Accessory Dwelling Units are growing in popularity.

But, what is an ADU and why would you want one?

By any name and in any location, an Accessory Dwelling Unit is a way to create a secondary dwelling unit (or home) on the property that you already own. Most of the time we think of these as separate, detached buildings (like a backyard cottage), but an ADU can also be a basement or attic apartment. Wherever it’s located, an ADU is a residential opportunity.

In cities where housing costs continue to rise, many of our neighbors are searching for affordable housing opportunities. Different cities and towns have their own rules and regulations concerning Accessory Dwelling Units, but the community benefits are typically the same. These housing types provide for desirable growth and opportunity.

  • Accessory Dwelling Units create opportunities to increase density and provide new affordable housing where housing costs continue to skyrocket.

  • ADUs generate additional property tax income for cities to provide valuable services and amenities to a wider range of people.

  • Accessory Dwelling Units create opportunities for cities and towns to grow sustainably by doubling down in areas with existing infrastructure and services.

  • Accessory Dwelling Units create opportunities to grow while preserving the character of our existing neighborhoods.

  • Accessory Dwelling Units create opportunities for homeowners to capitalize on their current investment (their property) and build wealth.

  • Accessory Dwelling Units create opportunities for neighbors of all family structures and income levels to build community in our most desirable residential areas.

  • ADUs provide opportunities for aging in place

  • ADUs can generate rental income for families at risk of displacement due to rising costs of owning a home.

What opportunities can an Accessory Dwelling Unit create for you?

If you want to know more about Accessory Dwelling Units and how you can build one, download our free “ADU Inspiration Book”.
When you’re ready to get started, schedule a Free Consultation with Propel Studio.

Textures of Japan

Propel Studio spent a couple of weeks in Japan in October to check in on our project in Aridagawa, as well as give presentations about our community work and design process. It was a whirlwind tour of the country, and in only two weeks we visited Tokyo, Kanazawa, Nanto, Wakayama, Kyoto, Aridagawa, Osaka, Okayama, and Naoshima. It was a lot of moving around with the help of the country's incredible train system. 

Although this was a work trip, we also were able to visit a lot of architecture, cultural attractions, and some beautiful landscapes. We each documented our trip in different ways to learn from our travels and inspire future designs. Below is a slideshow with images of textures and details of the places we visited along the way. 

We're Going Back to Japan!

If you’ve been following along with the Propel Studio story, you may be familiar with our collaborative efforts in Japan and Vietnam. We know there’s international interest in the design lessons and culture from Portland, Oregon, and we’re always excited to share our experiences.

In late 2015, through our collaborations with Prosper Portland, we had the opportunity to travel to Aridagawa, Japan to help a small town develop a new community asset. While we were there, we ran a series of community design workshops alongside PLACE studio. The goal was to engage the local residents to develop a new business incubator and community center that will help attract entrepreneurs and younger people to start business in the town.

Now, we’re going back!

This October, we’re excited to return to Aridagawa to see the results of the community design process and some of the completed work that came out of those workshops. Our new friends in Japan seemed to enjoy and even thrive in the community design process that we introduced to them and we look forward to seeing what creative ideas and businesses were started by the local community.

Community engagement workshops are a system that’s well rooted in Portland but was somewhat new to this small town in Japan. If you’re not familiar with the idea either, imagine a decision-making process for urban planning, architecture, and design that unites public, business and government needs and interests. It is a charrette process where all the diverse stakeholders convene in a place and everyone is able to communicate and influence the proposed development for the combined good of the community. In this case, we focused on how to convert an abandoned nursery school building into a thriving business and cultural hub.

When we go back this time, we’ll look forward to reconnecting with our friends in Aridagawa and hopefully, making new friends in Tokyo, Nanto, Osaka, and at Okayama University. These may seem like far-flung places, but we see a certain familiarity there. Many of the concerns and passions of our Japanese colleagues revolve around community-building, economic prosperity, equity, and multi-generational opportunities. Much of what we at Propel Studio design for and write about revolves around the same issues.

We’re looking forward to learning from new friends and hopefully sharing a little new knowledge and a process that will help build stronger, more vibrant communities for everyone involved.

You can learn more about our international efforts through a number of articles, including:

If you’d like to know more about our community design process or about how Portland design culture contribute to the design culture where you live, give us a call. We’ll be happy to talk about ways we can improve your community together.


Why Townhouses may be the most adaptive tool to Solve Portland's Housing Crisis

Housing affordability and missing middle housing are important issues to us at Propel Studio. The reason is simple: We love Portland and all its beautiful and diverse neighborhoods. Our perfect picture of Portland includes a city where everyone can afford to live, work and play in their own way. This means giving people the ability to chose where and how to live, regardless of their income level, background, or lifestyle.

We’ve talked before about our population explosion - as many as 400,000 new residents in the Portland Metro Area by 2035. As a community we need to start making important decisions on how we can accommodate our new neighbors while maintaining the vibrancy of our city, and maintain the sustainable development we have been known for.  

We watch housing trends and zoning changes with great interest because it is the roadmap for how we will address the issues brought on by our growing population. It directly affects both our work as well as where we live.

If you’re interested in these topics, we’ve written about strategies for accommodating increased housing demand:

We love the feeling and character of Portland’s walkable neighborhoods. We think those things are important to preserve, so in this installment of our housing dialogue, we’d like to talk about another type of “shared housing”: Townhomes.

From a community planning and design standpoint townhouses - basically attached single family homes - may be one of the most adaptive tools Portlanders have at our disposal.

The beauty of this version of multi-family housing is that they’re a smaller, transitional scale building designed to fit within the context of a neighborhood. Because they can fit within the footprint of a single family home, townhouses add options, diversity and density to walkable, urban neighborhoods near transportation corridors. Portland building and zoning codes make it possible for townhome projects to blend into the historic fabric of our neighborhoods as residential infill projects. They help fill the missing middle housing gap.

However, we do think the zoning code has a lot of opportunity for improvement in regards to this project type. We believe that townhouse and attached dwellings have an opportunity to increase density, while maintaining beautiful streets for people. The attached nature of the buildings means you can squeeze more houses on each block, and yet the design of each unit could still have character and style that is unique to the owner. Currently, our zoning code mandates side setbacks on almost every single family zoned property, thus preventing town houses from being an option in the vast majority of our city. It is a shame that our code is so restrictive and something our city council and staff at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability should consider changing.

From an economic point of view, townhouses create a profitable niche for developers and an affordable option for residents.


portland townhouse design architect sketch.jpg


Townhome developers in Portland can enjoy profits from renting or selling two, three or even four units for a small cost increase over constructing a large single family home. Because there are multiple units but not a multiple of the construction costs, these projects can often be rented or sold for less than the large McMansion style single family homes we see so often pop up in our neighborhoods. These types of projects provide our new neighbors the opportunity to be part of a community with options. Compared to apartment buildings, they allow residents to have indoor and outdoor spaces of their own; spaces that allow them to connect with neighbors and a neighborhood similar to a single-family homeowner on a smaller, more affordable scale.

For environmental concerns, townhouses can be efficient and low-impact.

The benefits of “shared housing” stretch beyond several neighbors ‘sharing’ the same structure. During construction, the multiple units share costs, energy and resources. A four unit townhouse project could use the same amount of land, lumber, time and workers as a large single family home. The shared walls also reduce heat loss, making them much more energy efficient against extreme outdoor air temperatures. After construction, all those shared resources can equate to half the energy use of four single units. Those are serious sustainability benefits.

If you’d like to know more about the environmental, social and economic benefits of working with an architect to develop townhouses in Portland, let us know.

If you want to know if an infill townhouse project will work on your lot, let us help you with an analysis and a feasibility study.

If this article has you wondering if a house and ADU or a triplex is better for your bottom line, give us a call. We’d love to help you be a profitable part of the solution to Portland’s housing demands.

The Community Benefits of Aging in Place

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines aging in place as "the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.”

What would it mean to you, if you, your parents, or your grandparents could ‘age in place’? What would it mean to your community if your neighbors could ‘age in place’?

As you can see from the definition above, there are many benefits and reasons to plan for aging in place. At Propel Studio we’d like to focus on how investing in aging in place benefits Portland, Oregon on the housing affordability, sustainability and community levels.

If the CDC’s definition isn’t clear to you, picture a residence where a person could live from the cradle to the grave. It’s a home where both a little baby and an elderly grandmother could live in comfort and health. Architecturally, this means designing a space that is comfortable for people of all sizes and abilities. It means designing healthy indoor environments, low maintenance homes, barrier free movement, and considering how kitchens, bathrooms, doors, appliances, etc. can be laid out for anyone to use easily.


What impact would a home like this have on your family? Imagine the affordability of buying one home that could serve your family for generations with only a few updates and minor renovations. Imagine the stability of having a place that generations of your family could call ‘home.’ It could mean a home or property that accommodates multiple generations living together and helping each other as the grow and age. What impact would a home like this have on your community? Imagine the beautiful diversity and stability of having young people, old people, and people from different cultures investing long-term in your community. It would offer the ability for people to interact, learn from another, and share responsibilities like watching children or caring for the elderly.

What impact would a home like this have on the sustainability of our City? Imagine investing in maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure to serve our aging in place community instead of shipping our grandparents out to nursing homes in the suburbs. It could mean better transportation networks for everyone, safer streets and public spaces. It also would require investment with long-term thinking, trying to design and build places that will last and be accommodating people of all abilities.

Obviously, we’re strong believers in providing the access and amenities necessary to help our neighbors continue rich, full lives even as they age. It’s an investment in the richness of our City. It’s an investment in the human capital that makes our city a vibrant place to live.


We also believe strongly that investing in aging in place projects is good for developers and provides another piece to the missing middle housing puzzle. In fact, we’re working with clients to imagine new ways to turn existing, neighborhood assets into co-housing for the elderly. We are addressing this through small scale houses and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) sprinkled throughout our neighborhoods, as well as through the design of larger buildings that become homes that care for the elderly while maintaining their presence in the larger community.

We’re looking at ways to plan and renovate homes that are already integrated into great Portland neighborhoods so that a mix of generations, even our most infirm, can contribute and enjoy the benefits of being part of a community.

As we continue to work with clients and community partners on issues like aging in place, we’ll continue to pursue the community, economic and environmental benefits of strengthening our community. It’s at the heart of what we mean when we say: “Designing beautiful spaces for people and the planet.”

If you’d like to know more about how to plan for aging in place, give us a call. If you have a home that you think may be adaptable either for yourself or as a co-housing opportunity, contact us for a consultation. We’ll be happy to talk about ways we can improve our community together.

How to Get Hired at an Architecture Firm

We are currently in the process of hiring here at Propel Studio, and I wanted to use our experience reviewing applications to give some tips to those looking for their first job in a firm, or those looking to move to a new firm you have been longing to work for. Some of this advice should be common sense and many tips are simple edits that will reduce the effort it takes to review your application. The small details matter - especially within the design profession. The most important thing to remember with applications is that you want to make it as easy as possible for someone to review your work and invite you for an interview.


  • Submit your work as a PDF
    Never send word files or other editable documents. You want to control what the reviewer sees and PDFs are a standard file type that anyone can open.

  • Keep file sizes small
    There is no reason to ever send a file larger than 10mb. Find ways to downsize or edit your portfolio to get below the 10mb threshold. I'd say 5mb is an even better target.

  • Make the file name clear and useful
    Name your files "Portfolio-Lucas-Gray.pdf" or "Lucas-Gray-Portfolio.pdf" for instance. Don't add dates, numbers, FINAL, or other text that doesn't help the firm understand what the file is and who sent it. Use your first and last name to avoid any confusion. If you are responding to a job listing, pay attention to any directions they give and follow those. If you are sending multiple files, be consistant with the file naming - if you start with your first name (lucas-gray-portfolio for instance) make sure you do that with the other files (lucas-gray-resume).


  • Include a link to an online portfolio
    I like to have multiple ways to see people’s work - PDFs, online portfolios, etc. This is especially relevant as people rely more on phones, tablets and other portable devices to consume media. PDFs are great on a computer, and we download them for our files, but it is useful to get a quick snapshot of your work by visiting a website. I usually open online portfolios before opening attachments or downloading files. You can upload your portfolio PDF to sites like issuu to act as your digital portfolio if you don't want to create a personal website.

  • Link to applicable Social Media accounts/blogs
    If you have a social media account or blog that is relevant to your work, how you design, or how you see the world, include a link to it. Instagram is great, LinkedIn is good as well. Facebook and Twitter can be good if they are curated to be professional (limit photos of food, pets, or controversial subjects). If you write or edit a blog include a link to that. We like to see how you are engaged in the profession or community outside your day job, and we also look at your ability to write which can be a great asset. 

Email Text

  • Personalize/customize the email
    Write specifically to the firm you are applying to. Tell them how you found them, why you want to work there, what projects of theirs that you particularly liked, how your design approach would fit with their firm. If you met any of the members of the firm at an event address your email to them individually as well as email it to the email address the firm posts on their job listing.

  • Keep it short
    Most people don't have hours to review every application. Writing something short and to the point is important. The goal of the email is get someone to download your files or click your online portfolio link. If I can't read the entire email in 10-20 seconds I'm probably not going to read the entire thing.


  • Put your best work first
    Most people aren't going to look at an entire portfolio unless you make a shortlist of applicants. You need to impress them with the first couple projects. Order your portfolio with your best projects at the beginning.

  • Think about how it will look on a screen
    Make sure you format the PDF to open and display the way you want it to look. If you have 2-page spreads make sure you change the settings so the file will automatically open with spreads enabled. It is annoying when you are flipping through a PDF and images are cut off between two pages. There is a setting in acrobat to have a file open to a cover page with 2-page spreads - find that tool.

  • What skills are you demonstrating?
    When I review portfolios from applicants I am looking for two things: 1) what are you design sensibilities and do they align with our firm's work? 2) What skills do you have that would be useful within the firm. Make sure your portfolio shows your experience and skills as well as your design ideas. Pretty pictures and renderings are nice to see, but I also want to see detail drawings, construction documents, built results from your drawings, and process work (sketches, models, diagrams, etc.). I want to see how you think and arrive at a design solution. I also want to see if you have been successful at communicating design intent with your drawings to contractors and actually have build examples. Even if you were part of a larger team on a project, are there specific details or small parts of the project that you worked on? Can you show some drawings you produced and then the built results of those?

  • Keep it short
    Same comment as above. We don't have much time to review every portfolio that comes to us. We usually spend a pretty short amount of time looking through a portfolio to see if you make a shortlist or not. Make a strong impact as quickly as possible.  

Resume/Cover Letter/References

I usually look at portfolios first. If the work is at least decent I will then review a Resume and read a cover letter. Usually, you would make a shortlist and be invited for an interview based on these three things. If you have good references I'd include a references document in your application. Remember, the goal is to make it as easy as possible for the firm to get whatever information they need to make the decision to hire you. Ask potential references ahead of time if you can share their contact info and if they would give a good reference for you. References are especially helpful if they come from someone we know and trust. Look through your network to see if you have anyone in common with the firm you are applying to. See if they would refer you, put in a good work, or be a reference.

Other Tips

  • Follow the firm on social media
    Make sure you follow the firm's twitter account, like their facebook page, follow their instagram, like their LinkedIn page, and any other social media accounts they use. If you are applying to a firm, it is probably because you like their work or their message. One way to stay up to date on their work, and build an intimate knowledge of their office culture is to follow their social media accounts. Try connecting with staff and principals on LinkedIn and facebook if it is appropriate. I'll probably check to see of the people who we invite for interviews, who follow us on various social media platforms. I won't make the ultimate decision based on this but it does show who is truly interested in what we are doing as a firm.

  • Network
    There is nothing like meeting in person. Emailing out of the blue, or mailing physical applications is not nearly as effective as knowing someone on a personal level. Find out what the firm is interested in, what events they might be attending, and who at the firm makes decisions. Try to meet them in person to put a face to the name. Following their social media accounts can give you some good insight into event they may be at. Don't stalk the firm, but try to find professional ways you can build a personal relationship with people there.

  • Your Added Value
    Your work is one thing that is easy to compare with other applicants. However, your interests, skills, and passions beyond production work can set you apart from others you are competing against for the job. Are there other ways that you would bring value to the firm? For instance, do you have any leads on potential projects, do you serve on a neighborhood association, are you on any organizational boards, do you volunteer for any organizations that might be applicable to the firm or potential leads? If you don't do any of those things yet, you might want to start. We are always looking at how people spend their time outside the office and how that can contribute to our office culture, and how our employees can positively impact the community. As a small firm we rely on every employee to help grow awareness of our firm and hopefully build our reputation around the city. We love when people are involved in the AIA, ULI, CNU, and other industry organizations. We encourage people to volunteer with non-profits, and get involved in their neighborhoods. Often these efforts can lead to potential clients.

Social Sustainability: How Propel Studio approaches Design for Communities

We were thinking recently about how our work impacts Portland, Oregon. Whether we are designing small urban installations, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), or larger commercial and multi-family housing projects, each can have a large impact on the surrounding neighborhood and the city as a whole. Architecture has a big effect on all of us and we take that responsibility seriously. 

We believe our designs have an impact on the sustainability of the areas of Portland where we work. That’s one of the reasons we at Propel Studio are dedicated to creating projects that have minimal impact on the environment. This is also why we are so concerned about Social Sustainability. What if the value of our work is less about specific design of space than about the reason for the space to begin with? We’re not discounting the value (or our love) of good design. We’re simply thinking about the broader impact we can lend to a community.

We love working on projects that create places for people to connect and interact; spaces for conversations that preserve and reflect what’s important to their community. Some of these projects, like the work we have done in Lents - Story Yard, the Park Pavilion, and Kiosk - may be temporary, or even conceptual and relatively small scale. Others, like the Masterplan for Park Avenue, Milwaukee, Oregon and Sugar Shack masterplan are larger scale explorations of how we can permanently build better communities through design. In both cases, we are looking for ways that our designs create spaces that bring people together, and ways that our work can foster dialogue and community interaction. 


When we’re thinking about Social Sustainability, we’re always considering how we can preserve social connections that already exist and how we can enhance what’s culturally or socially important to the area where we’re working. As an example, how can we wrap everything that Champions Barbershop means for the community into a design for their new Champions Barbering Institute? In this project we spent a lot of time listening to the clients to better understand their business, how it relates to the community they serve, and how our design can reflect the values that they hold dear. It is now a successful space that fosters an inspiring educational experience for their students as they get job training.  

Social Sustainability may be hard to define, but we think it’s an important mission. Change is inevitable. However change doesn't have to be a negative force. At Propel Studio, we want to instigate change that benefits the neighborhoods where we work and the people who call those places home. When it comes to design, we want to foster creative community engagement. We want to be community advocates because we’re creating environments for community members.

When we work within new communities our process includes asking questions and listening to feedback. We want to know how can we help you enhance your community? How can we support the best of what your community has to offer while providing places that build a better tomorrow? That’s the impact that Propel Studio wants to have on Portland, Oregon and the other places where we work.



If your community has a need you think we can help with, give us a call. Big or small, we’d love to help with your project.

How Lessons Learned from Accessory Dwelling Unit Design can Help Design Your Perfect Custom Home

At Propel Studio we’ve designed many Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) over the past 5 years. We also design larger custom homes, and recently we started thinking about how the two project types (ADU’s and custom homes) are similar. How do we apply the lessons we learn and processes we use to design Accessory Dwelling Units when we’re designing larger custom homes?

It all starts with our ultimate goal to work with our clients to create a project that is uniquely, creatively, affordably and functionally ‘theirs.’

Much of our ADU design process revolves around reducing and maximizing. That may sound like an oxymoron, but there’s sound reasoning behind it. Because they’re small (under 800 square feet), designing Accessory Dwelling Units forces us to help our clients focus intently on the way they live; the things that are necessary to their comfort and lifestyle. We reduce rooms, spaces and relationships down to functional necessities.

At the same time, we look for creative ways to maximize space. We look for ways to ‘expand’ space physically and visually. The way we define ‘rooms’ has a big impact on the comfort and functionality of an ADU. The way we extend and combine interior and exterior spaces changes how our clients feel in their tiny houses.

Not surprisingly, the same is true in a larger, custom home. The beauty of the experience and process we take from ADU design and apply to custom home design, is what makes your home uniquely and creatively ‘yours.’

As we listen to what’s important to you and learn about how your home needs to respond to your lifestyle, we apply many of those ADU lessons.

The way you live in your house, the way your guests experience your home, the way kids function versus the way adults function in your home all affect how we combine, define and separate spaces and rooms. The way you entertain helps define how your house is placed on your land and how indoor and outdoor spaces work together.

We like to think of it as choreography; movement and experience, light and darkness, sound and silence interact together to form your perfect living space. That’s what we’re after.


Whether you need an Accessory Dwelling Unit or a larger, custom home, we want to help you create your perfect living space.

If you’ve been yearning for your perfect living space, give us a call. Big or small, we’d love to help you create that space.

The Propel Studio Design Process

If you walked down a crowded Pearl District street in Portland, Oregon and asked people what great architecture is, most answers would probably be something about a building. Either a specific building they admire, or qualities of buildings that they like. Most people understand architecture as the finale - the built representation of many conversations, goals, wants, needs, and decisions.

To us, great architecture has more to do with the process of creation than the final result. It is about how conversations with clients, coordination with other experts, and collaboration with a contractor all come together into a unified design.

This is also the major difference between working with an architect as opposed to hiring a drafter. Good drafters have the technical skill to put a drawing set together, but that’s not architecture. Architecture is about crafting a beautiful building and wonderful spaces out of the many conversations, technical requirements, regulations, and materials that go into each building. Architecture is about the process of creation, turning a client’s needs into a work of functional art.

In the Propel Studio design process we don’t start by drawing a solution, we start by asking clients questions that help them (and us) understand their needs and themselves. We’re careful not to draw things too early. We don’t want to commit our clients to solutions that may not be the right fit. Instead, we start with conversations as well as research to help us understand the existing conditions and the context of each unique site, and the people for who we are designing. We strive to have our designs respond to the needs and tastes of our clients.

Architecture is creative and unique. Every project is different. Every client has complex needs that they might not even know they have yet. We use a similar design process for each project, regardless of the type, to create great architecture. Below is a rundown of our project phases and what to expect when working with us.


It may sound like a contradiction, but our design process begins with Pre-Design. Think of it as an information gathering period. Pre-Design is where we listen and explore and organize. We do background research on the site, the local regulations, and other areas that can affect the design response.

Some common Pre-Design activities include:

  • Client interviews
  • Property visits and surveys
  • Documenting existing conditions
  • Programming: Making lists of spaces, sizes, qualities, wants and needs
  • Researching zoning, historic district and code restrictions
  • Determining feasibility, challenges and opportunities
  • Understand project budgets and financing

Think of Pre-Design as laying the foundation of the entire design process. It’s where we set the starting point so we can get creative.

Schematic Design

This is the fun part. Schematic Design is where we create a variety of approaches and options. We do a lot of brainstorming and work through many iterations en-route to the recommended design solution. This phase is where we work with our clients to set the look, the feel, and the layout of the project.  

During this phase, our goal is to not get caught up in details, but to look at the overall structure and organization of spaces. We’re after a unique style and design intent. We use a variety of media and design tools to experiment with different ideas. Hand sketching, computer modeling, sharing ideas in 3D, and sometimes even VR (virtual reality), to help us see how a design idea looks and functions, while letting our team and our clients consider if we like the way it feels.

At Propel Studio, we ask a lot of questions during this phase. We give our clients homework and ask them questions like: 

  • Do you like this or not?  Why?
  • What do you like about it?  Why?
  • What don’t you like about it?  Why?

At the same time, we experiment with different ideas internally, and share the ones that work the best. We often present a few different concepts and work with our clients to whittle them down until we develop a concept that everyone agrees is the best solution to the design challenge. 

Selection of a General Contractor

Selection of a general contractor isn’t directly part of the design process, but it’s an important decision that we recommend you make during schematic design if not earlier. There are several advantages to selecting a GC at this point, not least of which is simply getting their attention. Most clients are surprised how long the design and construction process takes, so it’s never too early to get on your GC’s radar and calendar.

At this stage, your GC is a powerful ally on the team. We spend Pre-Design and Schematic Design making sense of our clients’ dreams and developing design ideas based on our conversations and research. It’s great to have early feedback from the contractor that can help us compare cost estimates of those wants and needs to the project budget. It’s the type of feedback that can help us set priorities and make design decisions while maintaining our client’s project budget.

The more engaged your contractor is early in the project, the more familiar they will be with the project and the fewer unknowns there will be during the construction process. This can help the team avoid mistakes, delays, and ultimately save the client money. It is always more economical to address design decisions on paper during the design process, rather than in the field during construction. All these things help with the execution of the final design - maintaining the design integrity of your project.

Design Development

This phase consists of refining the schematic design to develop more precise drawings and other documents which describe the size and character of the entire project. This includes more definition of the exterior and interior materials, as well as other functional elements. Our approach to design involves identifying all of the supporting functions early - organizing and incorporating every detail into a clean and simple appearance.

Design development includes coordination with engineers for structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems. This phase is where we bring the architectural design and the various systems together to coordinate the architectural and engineering design work.

Construction Documents

These are the drawings that architects prepare to communicate all the work of the previous phases; they encompass all the dreams, all the decisions, all the feedback in the form of a specific solution. Our Construction Documents translate the unique style of the project into the final solution. They are where design concepts are realized and refined into architecture.

The drawing sets include cover sheets and code analysis which addresses the local jurisdictional life safety requirements, and outlines the project and the drawings set within. We develope dimensioned plans, sections and elevations of the design. We cut sections through the building, highlighting key areas, and construction assemblies. We zoom in on important connections, transitions, and architectural elements, to develop the detail drawings needed to convey the design intent to the construction team to execute. This is also where we specify materials, finishes, systems, and other technical aspects that comprise the final building.

We continue to coordinate the architectural design work with other team members like engineers, consultants and contractors to balance design goals with performance goals, regulatory requirements, and construction costs. We refine our drawings and work with each consultant to dial in their designs into a cohesive whole.

Every last detail drawing is important to us and we believe architectural details are what make or break a great work of architecture.

Permit Acquisition

The next step in realizing a built piece of architecture from the drawings on the page, is getting approval from the local jurisdiction. This permitting process includes submitting the Construction Documents to the local building department along with other forms and information required to review the design and make sure it addresses local zoning rules, building codes, and other life safety regulations. We submit the permit drawing set your behalf and respond to review comments and questions. We act as our clients’ agent to shepherd the design through the permitting process and advocate for your project and the architectural design intent.


Permit Acquisition can be expensive and time consuming, but before your GC can start work, permits have to be issued.

Construction Administration

The day construction starts on your project is always an exciting day. This is where months of hard work and coordination between the architect, the client, and all of the subconsultants start becoming a physical reality. Just like design phases we have completed to get to this point, the construction phase is a long process. Questions and challenges are inevitable as design is interpreted into built form. This is why Construction Administration is important to maintain design integrity and the quality of the final building.

It’s a complex process filled with opportunities and challenges. We help our clients and their contractors answer questions and make sure that the decisions being made maintain the integrity of the design concept and intent set from the start. We make routine site visits to check in on construction progress. We also work from our office to answer questions from the general contractor and to clarify our design drawings and details. We review substitutions of materials when proposed and communicate with the GC and clients to make sure decisions or changes meet the required regulations, performance goals, and are acceptable to the clients.

We’re your ally throughout the process of translating the design drawings and turning them into a beautiful piece of architecture.

At the conclusion of Construction Administration we have a full building that has passed inspections from the local jurisdiction and is ready for your to move into. Hopefully the result is a beautiful building that meets your needs and will have a long life. That’s why we’re so adamant about the design process. It’s what insures that the final solution fits the original goals of each of our individual clients. It’s what leads to building something that is beautiful and that our clients will love.

If you're interested in great design and understand that there’s a process to the magic, we’d like to talk. We’d like to listen to your stories, understand your values, and together develop architectural solutions to your needs. How can we help you build great architecture?

A Community of Champions

When Propel Studio was introduced to Jamaal and Christina Lane through our mutual clients, we had no idea where the conversation would lead.

Jamaal and Christina owned Champions Barber Shop. Like us, they were a small, locally owned, emerging business. They’d already built Champions into more than a barber shop. It was as much community center as anything.

Champions Barbershop is a place where you can get a great haircut, bring your family, hang out with friends. It’s a business that enriches the surrounding neighborhood and slows gentrification. Our conversation with the Lane’s revolved around a need they noticed in the community. 

Jamaal grew up a few blocks away Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where most of Portland's African American barbershops reside. “I wasn’t able to go to the barbershop much, which led me to be self taught” Jamaal indicated. His first attempts on his and his friends’ hair developed into a hobby that eventually led him to school. After opening Champions, Jamaal noticed many young barbers didn’t have the skills and training to cut at Champions or the other shops around the neighborhood.  

What came of our conversation was Champions Barbering Institute.


Image courtesy of Champions Barbering Institute: https://www.instagram.com/cbi_life/


The Lane’s were the type of client we love; engaged and constructive. By partnering with them and Prosper Portland (formerly known as Portland Development Commission, PDC), our team was able to leverage a modest budget to transform a former Police Bureau Office into the first barbering school in Portland in almost 25 years.

The result is a testament to the power of an engaged team devoted to a common goal. It’s an example of the creativity that engaged client and design team can generate as they strategize priorities make design decisions to maximize reuse and minimize demolition in order to stay on time and on budget.

In the end, Portland got a much needed barbering school, Jamaal and Christina expanded their business venture, our community is strengthened and we gained new friends and found a new place to take care of our hair.

How can we help you? Get in touch! We love to support clients who champion their communities.


Five Ways to Finance an ADU

For homeowners that are considering building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (or ADU), one of the biggest hurdles is often financing the construction.  It is common practice to begin by figuring out a budget and then design and build to that budget.  The first step should be finding out how much you can qualify for and how much you can realistically afford.  In most cases, an ADU will generate positive cash flow even if it is constructed with entirely borrowed funds.

There are Five ways to finance an ADU.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  The key is to work with a professional with knowledge in each area and develop a funding strategy that best suits the unique situation of the customer.



#1  HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit)

 A HELOC is a second mortgage for homeowners to utilize to access some of the equity in their home.  These are adjustable rate loans with interest rates around the Prime Rate.  They typically have a 30-year amortization with a 10-year Interest Only period.  So, HELOC customers have the option to pay interest only (like you can do on a credit card) without needing to repay any principal.  After 10 years, the loan goes to fully amortizing, meaning the customer must make a payment high enough to repay all principal and interest in the remaining 20 years of the loan term.  HELOCs are good for smaller loan amounts that can be paid back in a short term.  HELOCs can have a loan to value from 80% to 100% of the appraised value of the home.

#2  Cash Out Refinance

A cash out refi is a mortgage that pays off an existing mortgage and gets additional cash out.  These loans typically have a fixed rate and a 30-year amortization.  There are closing costs associated with a refinance, but they are rolled into the new loan amount and are not required to be paid out of pocket.  The payment will be higher than a HELOC because the borrower is making a fully amortized payment from the beginning.  The benefit of a refinance is that the principal and interest payment will remain constant over the life of the loan.  Most cash out refinances can go to 80% of the appraised value of the home.

#3  Construction Loan

A construction loan is a specialized loan product where the appraisal is based on the after completed value of the home.  The closing costs and interest rates on construction loans are typically higher than on a standard refinance.  If a borrower wants to remodel their home and does not have sufficient equity based on the current home value, a construction loan, looking at the after improved value instead of the current home value, may be necessary.  


Standard refinance

  • Current home value: $400k
  • Current loan amount: $200k
  • Standard cash out refinance to 80%: $320k.  
  • Cash out: $120k minus closing costs.

Construction loan

  • Current home value: $400k
  • After renovation home value: $500k
  • Current loan amount: $200k
  • A construction loan to 80% of after improved value: $400k.  
  • Funds available for construction: $200k minus closing costs.



#4  Personal Line of Credit

Many banks offer personal lines of credit for borrowers with good credit scores and income.  These lines are typically free to set up and can range from $10k to $50k.  They are, however, at higher interest rates than mortgages and HELOCs.  They typically require less documentation than a full mortgage.  

#5  Cash/Other  

Some people have cash on hand for home renovation/remodeling projects or pull cash from retirement or investment accounts.  There are no costs for using these funds unless they are pulled from an IRA or 401k where there are early withdrawal penalties.  The only “cost” associated with using these funds is the opportunity cost of not being able to utilize these funds elsewhere.

This was a guest article provided by Eric Dunlap, a mortgage advisor at Peak Mortgage.  

Eric Dunlap
We Lend Where We Live

If you, or anyone you know, are thinking about financing and building an ADU, give him a call!  He will be happy to help and would love to be a resource for you. 


Our Approach To Multi-family Housing Design In Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon is a beautiful place to live, and thus a desirable city to relocate to, for people across the country and around the world. It is projected that there will be 400,000 new residents in the Portland Metro Area by 2035. As residents and architectural design professionals, we watch Portland housing trends, zoning changes, and population projections with great interest as it affects our work and can reflect future growth for our profession and firm.



What we've been noticing, is that the projected population growth will vastly outweigh the existing housing supply, and we aren’t building fast enough to accommodate the new people moving to the region.

We’ve written before about housing and some strategies for accommodating increased housing demand. We shared our knowledge of Accessory Dwelling Unit development in “5 ways Portland, Oregon Community Development Corporations (CDCs) can Benefit from the ADU Craze.” In “Why Affordable Housing is Important to the Quality of Living for Communities,” we discuss the importance of diverse housing types.

As multi-family housing developments pop up around the city and sometimes take over entire streets or neighborhoods, we’ve watched with keen interest. We’re not opposed to mixed-use apartment projects and believe that increased density brings a lot of community benefits. We’ve been involved with many multi-family projects in Oregon and California, including projects that located along NW 23rd and SE Hawthorne Street. However, it is vital that these projects are designed with the community in mind, and contribute to a good pedestrian focused urban environment.

If you notice one theme that runs through our philosophy and work at Propel Studio, we hope it’s that we have a deep love and concern for our community. At the heart of our work is the desire to make our city a better place for people. This means we design with a tripple-bottom line philosophy, where our buildings address environmental, social and economic sustainability for our clients, the tenants and users of our projects, and for the community at large.

Market-rate housing is much needed in Portland, as proven by the high demand and skyrocketing rental rates. As a city we need to continue to build and prioritize housing projects in all neighborhoods. However, we also know that in order to sustain and even thrive, our communities need more diverse options, and the market won’t always deliver the variety of unit types that are needed. While we understand there is a financial model developers use as they consider the value of each available parcel they pursue, we as designers, residents, and community members also want to think about the impact of these projects on our neighbors.

We’re excited by the prospect of creating multi-family projects that consider and fit into our neighborhoods. For instance, there is a lack of units with multiple bedrooms and the space needed for families. There is also often a lack of response to context and scale in the design of new developments. We enjoy the challenge of designing within an urban context, in a way that respects the past but provides the needs of current and future generations.

The truth is, not everyone needs or can afford the 1-bedroom or studio apartment units that make traditional pro-formas work. That’s why we enjoy being part of the conversation where we combine our expertise in creating efficient dwelling spaces for a variety of family sizes and lifestyles with our experience in designing multi-family and mixed-use housing projects.

We’re passionate about bringing our commitment to durable, high-performing, sustainable designs to projects that build value into a community. That theme that runs through Propel Studio, the thread that binds our work together, drives us towards projects with strong community components, affordability, and shared public spaces.

Let’s talk about ways to help Portland continue to grow, but let’s do it in a way that strengthens and supports our neighborhoods and all our neighbors. Let’s do it in a way that we’ll all be proud of for decades to come. Let’s do it in a way that prioritizes people, and makes places that welcome both newcomers and existing residents.

If your mission includes fostering community and improving the quality of life and housing options for all our neighbors in Portland, we’d like to talk. Let’s make Portland better, together

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!