tactical urbanism

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. 

 
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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. 

 
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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. 

Metro
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.

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.

Pre-design

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.

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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?