Meet our newest team member, Lara LaFontain

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by Lara LaFontain

I am so happy to have found architecture as my profession. I can’t imagine anything else that combines my many interests in such a meaningful way. As an architect, I get to work every day towards designing spaces that make a positive impact in people’s lives. I also believe that architects have a unique opportunity to create a more sustainable and resilient world when we work to be leaders within our communities. In doing so, we can use our skills in design and collaboration to be advocates for environmental stewardship, equity for under-served populations, and a more beautiful, inspiring vision of what daily life can be like in the communities we build together.

What is your architect “origin story”?

When I was growing up in Saint Louis, there were several buildings in the city around me that really captured my imagination and became some of my favorite places. I loved making things and experimenting with different materials - as a kid I would secretly stay up past my bedtime working on crafts in my closet! Great preparation for late nights in architecture studio to come.

The Pulitzer Art Foundation by Japanese architect Tadao Ando; one of the world’s first skyscrapers, the Wainwright Building by Louis Sullivan; the Climatron greenhouse by Buckminster Fuller; urban exploring in one of the city’s many old warehouses.

When I was in high school, I was involved in two very different programs that made a huge impact and were formative in my interdependent worldview. The first gave me a full time summer job in a neuroscience laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, where I marveled at the beautiful natural forms of neurons under a microscope. The second program was through the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis  and involved a weekly series of workshops with local and international artists. I loved both of these experiences, and they made me realize that I wanted to pursue a career that somehow combined creative thinking, hands-on making, and research.

A photo I took of neurons; the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis by Portland’s Allied Works Architecture

However, I didn’t really know any architects or truly even realize that architecture was a profession that I could pursue. As I headed into college, I received a generous scholarship to attend The University of Arizona, which is located in Tucson, and I initially chose to major in engineering and art. But after a couple years of going from calculus class to figure drawing studio I wasn’t feeling inspired, and I was bored from all the math homework! So I ended up reading through the course catalog to find something new and took a class in architectural programming, where I started to learn about the problem-solving processes architects use. Finally, it was like people were speaking my language! A professor encouraged me to apply to the architecture program, and from there I began my journey to become an architect.

How did studying architecture in Tucson shape your point of view as an architect?

Studying architecture in Tucson was a phenomenal opportunity to learn how the built environment can relate to and be inspired by nature. Tucson’s desert landscape is so awe-inspiring, with mountains all around, vast skies, monsoon rains, and really interesting plant life. Most of all, it gave me a big-picture, holistic perspective on sustainability. It’s not simply adding solar panels, or using a particular material. Sustainability is a responsibility, it permeates the whole design process, and is not simply a switch to flip on at the end of a project. The concepts I learned about designing for a harsh desert climate can apply anywhere-- rainwater harvesting, solar access, celebrating natural materials, an attitude of resourcefulness. I think a lot about inside/outside connections and creating space that exists between those two realms.

 A desert vista in Saguaro National Park  

A desert vista in Saguaro National Park

What has been your favorite building that you have worked on, to date?

I am enjoying the ADUs I’ve been working on with Propel because it’s fun to work on small scale projects with a short timeline from design to construction, where we can really hone the details, pay attention to materiality, and work closely with clients.

The project that has made the biggest impact on me so far was my last project with my previous firm, a 77-unit sustainable senior living community in Seattle that is pursuing Living Building Challenge Petal Certification. It’s being billed as “the most sustainable senior living community in the world”, and I got to be involved with the project from schematic design through design development as project designer. I think this project really will make a difference in the lives of its residents. Working on a project within the framework of the Living Building Challenge has helped me develop my holistic perspective on sustainability and learn concrete strategies that can be used in a variety of project types. The project upholds very rigorous guidelines in terms of healthy materials, connection to nature, energy and water use, human-centered living, net positive waste...the list goes on and on. I’m excited to bring the strategies that I learned from the Living Building Challenge to my projects with Propel.

A Living Building: in-process views of a senior living community in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle.

What part of the job as an architect do you like best, and what are you most excited about in terms of being part of Propel Studio?

What I love most about architecture is how interdisciplinary (or anti-disciplinary) it is, and how often we think about big-picture ideas. I think my background in a couple different disciplines gives me a unique perspective on how to collaborate with people on projects. I love design charrettes, design thinking, the process of making, of following a thread of an idea and exploring it and making it real.

I am loving being part of such a collaborative passionate team of people, who are motivated to deliver great design to our clients and the communities we work in. At larger firms I’ve been a part of I didn’t enjoy the lack of communication within teams, the lack of efficiency or design focus, and not being able to fully explore one’s own abilities. Being part of Propel feels so much more personal-- I have more communication with our clients, and I get to directly see the impact we’re having through our projects and community involvement.

What’s currently inspiring you? What’s next on the horizon?

I really want to explore further how to integrate landscape and outdoor living spaces more, no matter the project type. I think it’s really important to focus on creating spaces for health and inspiration. I think making these things priorities can really improve well-being.

Also, I want to further pursue some of my long-held interests in craft and natural materials. My partner is a woodworker and he has built out a full shop in our garage, so I am really excited to utilize that and get back into the regular habit hands-on making that made me first interested in design. I bought myself a benchtop sander and I am going to start experimenting with making small sculptural objects out of scraps of wood with irregular grain patterns or weird shapes.

A painting inspired by Mt Hood; a wood sanding experiment.

As an architect, I want to figure out how we can collaborate with and support local craftspeople more in our projects. The entrepreneurial spirit of Portland is part of what makes it such a great city to live in, and I think people here truly value handmade local goods. I want to work with clients to find ways we can incorporate one of a kind handmade elements in their projects, to support local makers, and to connect to culture and history.

Speaking of culture and history...stay tuned for a future blog post after I return from a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico this May!

Glenn Murcutt International Master Class

In 2008, Propel partner Lucas Gray participated in the Glenn Murcutt Master Class, a two-week intensive design studio. Participants included 30 architects from around the world who came to learn from the incredible tutors of Glenn Murcutt, Richard Leplastrier, Brit Andresen, Peter Stutchbury and Lindsay Johnson. The studio took place in Australia at the Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Center in Riversdale, and architecture studios a the University of Sydney. The above documentary followed the 2008 Master Class as they explored design ideas in small groups, under the guidance of the tutors. 

This experience has helped shape Lucas's approach to design and passion for sustainable architecture that responds to the natural surroundings.

For more information about the Glenn Murcutt International Master Class or to apply for one of their upcoming programs visit: 

2018 Forty Under 40 Awards


Propel co-founder Lucas Gray, was recently recognized by the Portland Business Journal in their annual Forty Under 40 Awards. Each year they recognize forty young professionals for outstanding leadership in their careers and compelling community involvement. 

Congratulations to Lucas, and thank you to everyone who supported his nomination.

Architects and Grassroots Leadership

by Lara LaFontain

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the American Institute of Architects’ 2018 Grassroots conference. This annual event brings together AIA leaders from across the country and focuses on empowering attendees to best serve their chapters, communities, and the profession. As someone actively involved in events with my local chapter (AIA Portland) and recently elected to its Board of Directors, the Northwest and Pacific Region awarded me a scholarship to attend the conference. This was my first time attending a national AIA event, and it was an inspiring experience.

   Lara with fellow Northwest and Pacific Region scholarship recipients, from Hawaii, Alaska, and Oregon.    

Lara with fellow Northwest and Pacific Region scholarship recipients, from Hawaii, Alaska, and Oregon.

The first thing that hit me as I attended the opening receptions was the huge scale of the organization. The AIA was founded in 1857 and currently has over 90,000 members with over 260 chapters around the world. At Grassroots, I met people from all over the country and all over the world, from Hawaii to New York and Brazil to Hong Kong. It was really cool to talk with so many people with such different backgrounds, and to find so much in common via our shared experiences in the profession.

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The conference’s three days of panels, talks, and workshops explored the theme of “leading through influence”. Participating in these events gave me a better understanding of the depth and breadth of what architects can accomplish in our communities, from assistance with disaster relief programs to values-based legislative advocacy. Building on that idea, the final keynote of the event by William Taylor of Fast Company really hit home for me the idea of design leadership. We are living in a time of rapid change and disruption to the status quo--to truly be an innovator, one cannot play it safe. As architects we can embrace how we see things differently and use design thinking to drive positive change.

   Stepping outside my routine to find inspiration-- and purple sand dollars on the beach.    

Stepping outside my routine to find inspiration-- and purple sand dollars on the beach.

Grassroots was a fantastic opportunity to step out of my routine and be inspired by new ideas and ways of thinking about the impact that we as architects can have in our communities. I am so thankful to have had this chance to meet other designers from around the country and understand what architects can accomplish beyond the scope of a typical project. I am inspired by the work of other chapters to bring new ideas back to Portland, and I am so excited for what the future holds as I grow in my career as not just an architect, but a design leader.

Lessons From Columbia

The entire Propel Studio team is inspired by the world around us; and it inevitably influences our office’s design work. Both for pleasure and business, we spend a lot of our time traveling, exploring new places, and learning what we can in order to design and advocate for better cities back home. The following post is a continuation of our thoughts while experiencing new or far off destinations.

La Ciudad Perdida

Propel designer, Sam Sudy, spent a week in Santa Marta, Colombia, exploring la Ciudad Perdida (or “Lost City”). Older than its similar counterpart, Machu Picchu by some 650 years, Ciudad Perdida is an archaeological site of an ancient city in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. The site consists of over 150 stone terraces carved into the mountainside and a network of tiled pathways that connect smaller grassy plazas. The hierarchy of the stone terraces is evident in that there are distinctly two larger rings among the rest. These foundation relics were where the men and women’s wooden huts once sat. The men’s hut faces the landscape and any pending attack from down the hill. The women’s hut faces the community where the rest of the terraces meander up the mountain. It was a spectacular view, either way.

… But to get there, you have to hike for a few days. There are no roads to la Ciudad Perdida, just a trail.

The Trek

The trail to la Ciudad Perdida can be considered slightly treacherous, requiring a good level of fitness. As a long distance runner, I thought it would be a breeze. But after just the first day, out of four, I was questioning every ounce of weight in my backpack that I had brought. The trek had it all. A stark contrast of obstacles are scattered along the trek: sketchy rope bridges, steep inclines and declines, river crossings sans shoes, boulder hopping, sun exposed dry stretches, jungle humidity, and a scourge of mosquitoes, just to name a few. To top it all off, the trek also equates to the distance of a marathon up and down a 4,000ft mountain.

Compression and Release

In architecture, we have a phrase called “compression and release.” It is the practice of creating smaller, compact spaces and hallways that then open up onto more expansive rooms or views. This architectural device has a profound impact on the psyche, evoking appreciation, awe, and sometimes spiritual illumination.

After trekking my butt off through the Sierra Nevada jungle, I realized upon reaching the precipice of la Ciudad Perdida that I had bared witness to the very device I utilize in my practice - and it felt amazing gazing over the open terraced hills after emerging from the compression of the jungle confines. All of the hard work it took to get there made the experience that much better. The claustrophobic, stuffy jungle had been preparing me for the contrasting grandiose, expansive views I was inundated with upon reaching the summit.


Too often, modern day architecture does not make use of compression and release. With technology at our fingertips, our society has adapted to become impatient, and that has translated to the design of our built environment as well. This “mundane architecture,” as I like to call it, has filled our public spaces with uninspiring banality, where the flow from space to space offers little, if any, variety.

One thing that was very evident in Colombia, was that society seemed more present. People still know how to take their time. Sometimes, there must be toil before reward. We forget it is this struggle that makes each accomplishment that much more gratifying. This is true in life as well as architecture, where the choreography of a building, and the flow of spaces can have a dramatic impact on our experience and enjoyment of the built environment.


Hiking through the Sierra Nevada jungle has reinvigorated me to bring the idea of contrast, compression/release, hierarchy of scale, back to my design efforts. Most days, I am working on the ADU designs that come through our office. But, just because projects are inherently small, does not mean they can’t have big moments.

¡Gracias Colombia!

Lessons from Quito, Ecuador

All of us at Propel Studio are inspired by the world around us. We learn from places we visit and use this information to help inform our future design work. Particularly, we are fascinated by the diverse urban environments of cities around the world. Both personally, and for business, we spend a lot of our time traveling, exploring new cities, and learning what we can so we can design and advocate for better cities back home. 

Propel partner, Lucas Gray, spent a week in Quito, Ecuador exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town with hundreds of churches, dozens of plazas, winding alleys, and mountains surroundings the city. His main takeaway is that Quito is doing many things that Portland and other American cities can learn from. Even though it is still a developing nation and a city still modernizing, it is far ahead of most cities in America, especially with their transportation systems and creating places for people. 

Bike Share
Although Quito is still car-based, there are a range of other options to navigate the city. They have a bike-share system within the urban center with bike docks scattered around the more popular neighborhoods. There many bike lanes lining the streets and alleys, and many of them are protected - separated from cars with curbs or bollards - something Portland is sorely lacking, and seemingly afraid to implement despite our reputation as a bike-friendly city. 


Bus Rapid Transit
The other big lesson is their use of Bus Rapid Transit as a primary form of public transit. Their system uses traditional and all-electric buses, and most importantly the main routes have dedicated lanes. This means busses can zip around the city even as the streets clog with car traffic. Portland's traffic is getting worse and there is no reason buses should be stuck in the same traffic as cars and other private vehicles. We need to prioritize efficiently moving people and creating dedicated bus lanes is something that is relatively affordable and something we could implement immediately. It is only a lack of strong leadership and vision that is preventing Portland from adopting this proven, safe and efficient system in our city. 


The bus system in Quito doesn't stop at just dedicated lanes. Another impressive feature was that many of the bus stops are designed to resemble metro/subway stations, with elevated platforms, fully covered stations, and glass enclosures with doors that opened upon the arrival of the bus. This gives the system an elevated status and comfort not found with our dingy little bus stops that can't shelter more than 2-3 people from the rain. Comparatively, Quito's bus stations could easily and comfortably shelter 100 people or so, a huge benefit that affects the comfort and image of the system. The glass doors also increase safety as people are protected from traffic and moving buses until they are stopped and ready to board.

Further, the buses themselves more resembled long metro cars than typical city buses. They often had 3 segments, with a variety of seating and standing roof designed to fit as many people as possible. The design of the buses to accommodate so many people is imperative considering how popular the bus system seemed, as each time we rode one it was packed. 

The next lesson learned is that the City of Quito is forward thinking and not settling for it's existing infrastructure. A new underground metro is being built which will further complement the existing bus system. Although only one line is currently being planned, stations are already under construction. This shows that even a developing city with fewer resources than a place like Portland can see the advantages of investing in mass transit, as a better alternative to moving people around the city - opening up new opportunities and better serving the diverse residents. 

Meanwhile in Portland, rather than thinking big and investing in public transit systems, we are about to spend over $400,000,000 widening a 1-mile stretch of freeway. Imagine what our city would be like if we took a lesson from Quito, and adopted a range of proven, safe, efficient, and environmentally friendly public transit systems like Bus Rapid Transit, an underground metro to compliment the MAX and streetcar lines already in place, and a network of protected bike lanes. We could start living up to our reputation as a city that is transit-focused with progressive urban planning that focuses on moving people rather than cars. 


Tactical Urbanism
Beyond the transit systems, pedestrian streets and plazas in the old town, and bike lanes throughout the city, it was also fun to stumble upon some tactical urbanism installations that reclaimed parts of the streets for pedestrians. Propel Studio has designed a handful of street seats/parklets around Portland and it was fun to see these types of projects were happening around the world. In the trendy neighborhood of La Floresta we stumbled upon a series of installations including traffic calming devices, painted street art, parklets and artistic bollards and benches that reclaimed street corners for people. 

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Our time in Quito was a wonderful experience, and our first taste of South America. It offered an incredible diversity of urban environments from colonial small towns, to historic dense urban villages, to high-rise business districts. It is bustling with life and is surrounded by dramatic mountainous landscapes. The people were welcoming, the food was delicious and the historic buildings and plazas were fun to explore. I'd highly recommend Quito as a destination for architecture lovers. It will only get better as the metro line opens, more streets are pedestrianized and the bike share system expands. We look forward to returning again soon.

Custom Homes Can Be More Affordable Than you Think

Many people assume they can’t afford to hire an architect or build a custom home. Instead, they settle for purchasing an existing house. The problem is, that house isn’t tailored specifically for their family and their lifestyle. Most buyers end up in homes designed by developers, contractors, or mass produced homes with no designer at all.

The truth is, although there are some additional costs, working with an architect can be affordable and you can often get a better result. In today’s market, in order to have a home customized for your needs, it’s possible that working with an architect can be more affordable than purchasing an existing home on the market. The good news is that a custom architect designed home can also be a great investment that appreciates in value over time ... usually outperforming typical single-family homes.

If you’re considering buying a new home, consider the benefits of tailoring that house specifically for you. Then talk to an architect and discuss the process and costs involved with building new vs purchasing a house already on the market.

If you’ve ever wondered, “Can I afford to build a custom home?” or asked yourself “What would it take for me to be able to hire an architect to design my home?” here are some things to think about.

Land Costs

The biggest hurdle in building a custom home is finding land that fits within your budget, in an area you want to live.

In cities, it is often difficult or expensive to find vacant land in mature and desirable neighborhoods. With some patience, a good realtor, and the web based tools now available (Zillow, Redfin, Google Maps, (or your local GIS website), etc.), this is a challenge that can be overcome. This is also something an architect can assist with as you look for land that is suitable to build on.

If you are looking outside the city or in rural locations, there are many factors to consider before making an offer. Do you have good access to roads and utilities and the surrounding infrastructure? Will the landforms and topography of your site necessitate an unusual amount of earthwork? What are the local or regional land use regulations that might affect the property? These are things that can have a dramatic impact on the cost of construction, and important research an architect can assist with.

We recommend engaging an architect to develop feasibility studies on any property you are considering before you put in an offer.

Construction Costs

Your regional environment, fluctuations in material and labor costs, and the general health of the economy all impact how much you’ll pay to have your home built. The important thing to remember is that your architect’s job is to develop a strategy for maximizing your home even if you have a low budget. It will take creativity and careful planning but even if your construction budget is $200,000 you can get a nice little house.

We’ve designed a lot of 800 square foot ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) that have come in between $160,000 to $200,000.

As you can imagine, the larger the home, the more it costs to construct it. If you move up from an ADU to a 2 or 3 bedroom, 1,200 square foot home (or even larger if you have a large family) it’s possible to design a nice house with a construction cost between $250,000 and $350,000.

Of course, if you are looking for something larger, have a complex site, or are looking for a more luxurious project, those costs can go up to whatever you are willing and able to spend. We’re currently working on two modern homes in rural locations. Each has a construction budget between $500,000 and $600,000. They’ll be beautiful projects when they are complete, but they’re beyond the budget of many of our clients.

Design Fees

Architecture fees will vary, but will likely fall in the 8-15% range depending on the firm, the complexity of the project, and the scope of work. Ask your architect if they include structural engineering in their fees or if they break those out in a separate contract. Still, these fees are a relatively small percentage of the full project costs, and your architect can help you strategize for ways to create efficiencies and actually save money overall. 

If your land is sloped or presents other complications, other design fees from Civil Engineering, Geotechnical Engineering or Landscape Design may come into play. These are typically additional consultants, but your architect will help select the right firms, negotiate fees for their work and coordinate and manage these team members throughout your project.

Permitting Fees

Permitting fees also vary by jurisdiction, but will probably contribute another 5% to the total budget. You’re dealing with your local government, so the fees won’t be negotiable. They are simply the cost of doing business. However, in some cases local governments will decide to incentivize certain types of development and lower fees like Portland, Oregon has done with Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Your architect will also be able to give you a rough estimate of fees in your area.


When you’re trying to navigate the existing vs new, custom home question, it’s important to keep the total budget in mind.

If you’ve considered a move into an existing home, look at the housing market and the cost of the home at the top of your list. Subtract all the fees above (including the cost of a similar parcel of land) from the asking price of that home. What’s left would be your potential construction costs for a custom home.

Take those numbers to an architect and see if building a custom home, suited to your unique needs would be feasible for the amount you have to work with.

It’s true, affordability can be a challenge. Many of the costs are fixed or don’t have much wiggle room. Materials cost what materials cost. Land costs what land costs. Labor is determined by the market and not by the architect. However, there are still hundreds of decisions that affect the overall project cost.

Often, architects can find creative ways to maximize the return on your investment. Their expertise revolves around finding creative solutions to challenges, and designing beautiful spaces that fit within client’s budgets and responds to their unique needs. When designing and building a custom home, everything comes down to decisions you make. Clients control the budget and program and architects are the experts to help you achieve your goals. Even with tight budgets architects can deliver great homes that will fit you better than existing houses on the market.

The good new is, when you come out the other end, you’ll have a better quality home and a more enjoyable place to live than you would if you purchased a home that was designed for someone else, or not designed at all.

Book Giveaway: Backdoor Revolution - The Definitive Guide to ADU Development

A friend of Propel Studio, Kol Peterson, has published a new book: "Backdoor Revolution - The Definitive Guide To ADU Development. It is specifically written for planners, ADU advocates, and homeowners who aspire to build ADUs, and we think it would be a great resource for our clients and future clients. 

ADU Book Poster.png


About The Author

The author, Kol Peterson is an ADU expert based in Portland, Oregon, who has helped catalyze the exponential growth of ADUs in Portland over the last decade through ADU advocacy, education, consulting, policy work, and entreprenuership. He is the owner of Caravan- The Tiny House Hotel, the first tiny house hotel in the world, and organizer of Portland’s popular ADU Tour.  He consults with homeowners about ADUs on their property, and teaches ADU classes for homeowners and for real estate agents. He edits and manages,,, and

Purchase the book here:

What A Custom Home Should Be

For decades clothing, athletic and even technology brands have trained us to expect innovation, quality, inspiration, and purpose in our favorite products and devices. These companies constantly push cutting-edge design and style to be a valuable aspect of their products. This is why people covet Apple products, Nike sneakers, or Tesla's cars. Why shouldn’t you expect the same out of the design of your home? Why settle for a house designed by a builder rather than Architect? Why do people value old houses designed for a different time and lifestyle, than contemporary design that addresses how people live today and incorporates the latest systems, technology and materials?

For many people the previous statement is challenging. Most people have not and never will seriously consider hiring an architect to design a home that inspires them or is customized to address their lifestyle. Most will never own a home that is an extension of themselves and their family. And many still prefer antiquated styles rather than contemporary architecture, mostly because that is all they see on the market.

One issue is that a custom designed home is out of reach for many people, just like the new $1,000 iPhone X, a custom pair of Nike VaporMax, or a Tesla Model S is financially out of reach. We believe that architecture is actually a lot more accessible than people believe. We will be posting a follow-up article soon about the costs associated with custom homes. 

At Propel Studio we strive to offer innovative design to people of all income levels. Our work on custom homes has ranged from small urban infill for middle and working-class families, to contemporary houses in Portland’s West Hills. Regardless of the budget, we try to find creative design solutions to create innovative architecture that responds to the unique needs and lifestyles of our clients. We want to make contemporary design available to everyone and show the value that a well designed modern home can offer.

Have you ever wondered what a home ‘should’ look like? Rather than start with a specific style or aesthetic, why shouldn’t the design of every home be an exploration into how it feels, how it interacts with the environment and what the implications of all the materials inside and outside are? In our view, every decision that’s made, every detail, every texture and color should be an authentic reflection of our client, the homeowner, and address the context and climate in which it lives. Our firm isn’t limited by a set style, but rather with each project we set off on an exploration of how a building can best serve the end users. There is a famous saying that “form follows function.” We strive to follow this doctrine but add that a great work of architecture needs to also be beautiful.

We love to work with clients who want to push the boundaries beyond what they see on HGTV and we understand what their home means to them and how it enhances and supports their lifestyle. We find that the best architecture comes from the best clients. Our best work is a result of great collaborations with the people we are designing for. We like being challenged to come up with creative solutions that are both functional and beautiful. 

We believe that high quality doesn’t have a specific style. We believe there’s beauty in design that responds to and performs in its natural environment. We believe the most sustainable building is one that is loved by and cared for by it’s users for generations to come - that sustainable architecture must be high-performance as well as beautiful, durable and timeless. We believe in the value of making the right decision for the long-term. These are the values that direct our design process and the conversations we have with our clients.

If you’re interest in building a great home that meets your needs and unique lifestyle, we’d love to talk. Our goal is to help you wake up in a place where you know you belong, because it’s the perfect reflection of you.

Insulate! The Value Of A Great Building Envelope

By Nick Mira

Ever since I purchased my first home in 2009, I’ve been incrementally insulating.

The house was built in 1906 and I’ve spent the last 8 years working to make this old home more comfortable, energy efficient, and quiet. You might guess that there are a lot of differences between a home that was built 111 years ago and those we build today. When I moved in mine wasn’t the epitome of modern design and efficiency. It was drafty, creaky, and acoustically it sounded like there were hardly any walls at all. This is a far cry from the more tight and thermally controlled envelopes we design for custom homes today.

As I forked out more and more money, tore up walls and ceilings, rewired electrical circuits, replaced pipes and crawled into weird, dusty spaces, I realized it is difficult and frustrating to go back and modify something after it has been constructed. This has helped define our approach to house design as we know how important getting things right the first time is, and how designing for future performance and adaptability is incredibly valuable.

As I made these upgrades over time, I also wondered how much wood, heating oil, and electricity has been consumed by this old house and its inhabitants over the last century just to keep those living here comfortable through 111 winters. That thought really drove home my responsibility as an architect.

In our role as architects we are responsible for the buildings we design from conceptual ideas, through construction and into their long future life. One of my top design priorities is to see that we push for the best building performance possible, focusing on the lifespan of the building, rather than just the up-front costs and client’s immediate needs. That means we have to get the layers of insulation within a wall tuned correctly for the specific climate we are design in, so that we can achieve the comfort, energy efficiency, and quiet I’ve been searching for.

As you can see from the experiences I had with my old house, the time to get it right is at the beginning, during the design process. That’s also the best time to budget for a little extra investment for health, energy savings, acoustic benefits and comfort (all those things I’ve been pursuing since I bought my home). It is always cheaper to work out these important aspects of a home, while it is still just lines on paper. The more time and money invested in this phase of the project saves 10x that cost in construction and over the lifespan of a house.

Think about your favorite winter jacket. Just like your jacket, the best insulation and building performance solutions are not one-size-fits-all. And like your jacket, building performance has nothing to do with aesthetics or style. Regardless of the exterior aesthetics, your home should wear a custom jacked that is calibrated for the specifics of your environment. There are many products and systems available that work together so your building performs the best for you and your environment.


 Pictured Above - Thermal conduction in an exterior wall is reduced dramatically with the use of continuous exterior insulation. Helooooooo Comfort!!

Pictured Above - Thermal conduction in an exterior wall is reduced dramatically with the use of continuous exterior insulation. Helooooooo Comfort!!


Luckily, modern technology and building science is on our side. Whole-house systems design approach is an integral part of our design process and we continually educate ourselves on the best practices and current materials and technology. Whether we’re designing ADUs or custom homes, meeting Passive House standards or simply exceeding code requirements, the ultimate goal is designing a building that is high performance, minimizes life-cycle costs, and creates a comfortable indoor environment for families to enjoy.

If you’re wondering what that building looks like for you, schedule a free consultation with us. We’d love to help you live in a home that’s quiet, comfortable, and efficient 111 years from now.

ADU Design and Innovation Slam

In the fall of 2017 Portland hosted the Build Small Live Large conference. Propel partner Tuan Vu participated in a Design and Innovation Slam, where 5 firms gave short presentations about innovative or creative projects they were working on. Tuan presented a recent ADU project that focused on Aging-in-place and designing for multi-generational living. Watch the full video:

This fast-paced, image-heavy session features exciting small home projects that address real needs in the market, including workforce housing, modular designs and age-friendly features.

Bring Back the Row House | Missing Middle Housing and Diversifying our Neighborhoods

Have you noticed how many movies and tv shows are set in neighborhoods teeming with old, brownstone row houses, lively sidewalks filled with shops and people, and roads lined with street trees? Sure, our images of Brooklyn, historic Philadelphia, even pre-war Portland neighborhoods are idyllic, maybe even of a bygone era, but there’s a deeper reason these communities are so celebrated.

If you look closely at these scenes, not only are the houses connected, but the people are connected too. Those bustling sidewalks are where chance encounters take place. Stoops and porches are hubs of activity that build community. Even the tree-lined streets connect to a world of transportation and jobs.

Look even closer and you’ll notice that not everyone is alike. Not everyone is doing the same thing. Not everyone is going to the same place. Not everyone is living the same lifestyle. These dense neighborhoods bring all sorts of people together, and the housing types and built environment supports a wide range of family structures.

“The greatest asset of our city is its people, and our city is at its best when it facilitates connections among those people: cultural, economic, and social.” - Portland For Everyone

It’s no secret that modern Portland is facing a housing crisis. Whether your concern is affordable or market rate housing, we’re not building enough to keep up with future demand. And the way we’re building is throwing barriers in the way of connections.

Many cities and suburbs try to organize development in order to protect something. They create zoning codes to protect property values and sensibilities, traffic flow and commerce. Often, these codes were first implemented to keep certain types of people out or to preserve one lifestyle over another. These codes often miss the mark and do little beyond separating things and preventing change and progress. They are also one of the primary reasons we have a housing and affordability crisis on our hands. 

For instance, zoning keeps younger single people and less affluent renters away from wealthy families by preventing building apartments and narrow houses close to larger, single-family homes. On one level, it keeps traffic and noise away from areas where small children play. On another, it separates income classes and segregates lifestyles. On yet another, it can keep grandparents from living near their grandchildren or prevent multi-generational family units from living together on a single property.

We all love walkable communities, where we don't need a car to access services, restaurants, shops, cafes, entertainment, etc. Currently, our zoning laws dictate vast swaths of land exclusively for monotonous single-family homes, preventing diverse uses within our neighborhoods. The laws keep restaurants, shops and entertainment away from most of our homes. On one level, it keeps congestion and noise away from where people sleep and play. On another, it keeps baristas and servers and clerks away from their jobs, it promotes a car-based lifestyle, and limits neighborhood businesses where people come together to interact with their neighbors. These tactics remove connections.

Diversifying Portland housing by reintroducing smaller, attached, and multi-family housing into neighborhoods near our commercial centers and transportation corridors may be the key to bringing lost connections back. Allowing large footprint, single-family homes to be re-developed as apartments or condominium properties can preserve community character and provide housing opportunities. Loosening up our zoning laws to allow community retail, and removing side setbacks to allow for row houses, will be a step in the right direction to address our housing crisis, while making our neighborhoods a better place to live, with stronger community ties. 

It is possible to provide affordability and equity in small-scale developments. It’s possible to design and build value into small-scale projects. It’s possible to bring connections back and retain, even enhance the quality of our neighborhoods by allowing more diverse housing types.

These possibilities and connections are why Propel Studio is committed to working with clients who recognize the lack of housing options, and have the desire to reintroduce missing middle housing. We’re committed to working with clients who want to provide affordability and equity in smaller scale developments. We’re committed to working with clients who understand the higher financial returns possible from developing multi-unit projects, while building a better city.

How can we help you? Do you need us to be part of the development team, leveraging design services for equity in a project? To facilitate the pro-forma process? To help with due diligence and feasibility studies? To provide full design services for your development? We are passionate about diversifying the housing opportunity in Portland as well as communities around the country. If you are interested in these issues and small-scale incrimental developments, please get in touch. 

Hidden In Plain Sight | Gateway Green Wayfinding

There’s an area in East Portland known as Gateway. About 5 miles outside of downtown, this regional center is a big transit hub, shopping destination, and is rich with ethnic communities that make it one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Oregon. It is a vibrant district that has tremendous assets and opportunity for growth that is starting to take shape.

Gateway is exactly that; a gateway. It’s at the confluence of many of Portland’s major transportation corridors. It is connected to Portland and the surrounding region through 3 max lines, multiple bus routes, I-84 and I-205 highways, arterial roads, bike paths, and is networked with the world through its proximity to Portland International Airport. For some families, it’s also a gateway to a new life in a new country. Being one of the more affordable areas to live, many young families are flocking to this part of Portland to take advantage of the quality of life, diversity, and easy access to the city.

Now, a new urban oasis has grown out of the tangle of freeways, multi-use paths and light rail lines. It’s a park fittingly dubbed: Gateway Green. This is big news for an area that’s historically been underserved in terms of amenities; especially parks.

If you’re familiar with the area, you may wonder how you overlooked 25 acres of unused space. That’s because it is a sliver of land nestled between the freeways, north of the transit center along hte multi-use path. If you’ve passed through the district recently, you may have noticed construction on a piece of land that you can see, but can’t seem to get to. The problem is, even if you live in the Gateway area, you may not know how to access the fun and natural beauty the park promises.

In a way, Gateway Green is hidden in plain site.

Even though it’s a short, 5 minute walk from the Gateway Transit Center, the park is only accessible by walking or bike riding along the I-205 multi-use path. Currently there is no road access to the park and that’s where our challenge begins.

Over the course of a decade, the City of Portland, State of Oregon, Friends of Gateway Green, Portland Parks & Recreation, Prosper Portland and many other partners have worked hard to create this unique amenity. How do we let neighbors know the hard work has paid off? Maybe you’ve heard about the park or maybe you’ve seen it from the train or the freeway, and wondered how you get there.

Our friends at Prosper Portland asked us to consider these challenges and create a system to guide neighbors and visitors alike to the park. Over the next few months, we’ll create a series of designs for elements that will become part of a wayfinding system in the area. If you’re not familiar with the term “wayfinding,” it’s refers to all of the ways that we orient ourselves and navigate (or find our way) from place to place.

These tools will include installations, kiosks, signs, and other smaller interventions that will work together to help people learn about and find the park. These will extend out to the neighborhoods in all directions, attracting new users to the park to experience the bike trails and other recreational amenities as they get improved over the next few years.

After working over the summer and into the fall, studying the area, hearing from neighbors, conducting surveys, and gathering feedback from stakeholders, we are starting to develop some of the designs.

On a small scale, you will start to see some signs go up around the transit center that helps direct people and bikers towards the park. Some will be attached to fences and other elements in the built environment, while others may be painted directly on the streets. On a larger scale, we hope to create kiosks and public art that become directional signs with maps. On an even larger scale, we’re shooting for a shelter that becomes a drop off and meeting point for the park.

As the design of these object are underway, there may even be fun, creative opportunities to use street painting, sidewalk chalk or drawing on bike paths to create temporary, ‘gorilla style’ wayfinding. These tactical urbanism strategies can help engage people while testing out possible strategies to attract attention for the park. We are currently working on some grant applications that could fund some temporary events and interventions.

The City of Portland and especially the communities around Gateway have waited a long time for this unique park in this part of town. We think it’s only right to work with as many stakeholders and collaborate with as many groups to make as big an impact as possible.

In the end, we believe we can do more than guide neighbors to Gateway Green, a gem that’s hidden in plain site. We believe we can help them embrace it as their own.

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.