urban design

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.

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.

 

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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.

Social Sustainability: How Propel Studio approaches Design for Communities

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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?

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADU Requirements around Portland Metro

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

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

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

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

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

Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU Requirements, by town:

Clackamas County ADU Requirements

Clackamas Maps

Clackamas County Zoning Map (PDF)

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

Gladstone R-5 ADU Requirements

Gladstone R-7.2 ADU Requirements

Milwaukie ADU - Attached

Milwaukie ADU - Detached

Oregon City ADU Requirements

Tigard ADU Requirements

Portland ADU Requirements

Vancouver, WA ADU Requirements

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Parents

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

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

 

 

The Income Generator

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

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

 

 

The Money Saver

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Hire an Architect before you sign a Commercial Lease!

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

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

 

 

Are you Changing the Occupancy or Use of your space? 

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

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

Are you increasing or reducing the number of plumbing fixtures?

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

Are you adding a kitchen or kitchen appliances?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Feasibility Study

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

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

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

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

Additional Resources

City of Portland’s Commercial Alterations - Tenant Improvement Resources Page https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/38578

City of Vancouver Commercial Building Permit Information http://www.cityofvancouver.us/ced/page/commercial-building-permits

City of Hillsboro Commercial Building Permit Information
https://www.hillsboro-oregon.gov/departments/building

City of Gresham Commercial Building Permit Information & Resources
https://greshamoregon.gov/permits/

City of Seattle Commercial Building Permit Information & Resources
http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/permits/permittypes/constructionaddalt/default.htm
http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/permits/permittypes/constructionnewbuildsingle/default.htm

City of Bend Commercial Building Permit Information & Resources
http://www.bendoregon.gov/government/departments/community-development/building-safety-and-permit-services

Lake Oswego Commercial Building Permit Information & Resources
https://www.ci.oswego.or.us/building

Aridagawa Design Charrette with Propel Studio and PLACE

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Propel Studio  traveled to Aridagawa, Japan last October to run a community design workshop in collaboration with PLACE and the Portland Development Commission. The local town government is interested in the Portland planning process of engaging the public and community members. Our team ran a series of workshops to explore ideas for how to reuse a soon to be closed Nursery School building as a community focused entrepreneur center, how to activate a bike path that runs through the town, and how to make the town a more livable, sustainable and attractive place to live.

This video shows the design team working at PLACE's creative office space, developing our design ideas to present to the town this June.

Thank you to PLACE for producing the video - http://place.la/

Propel Studio + PLACE run a series of community design workshops in Aridagawa, Japan

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【有田川という未来vol.3】まちづくりワークショップ@ポッポみち from まっくす on Vimeo. 有田川という未来vol.3まちづくりワークショップ 「あったらいいね!」を自分たちで描いてみよう! ********************* ポートランドのまちづくりチームが再び有田川にきて 住民の皆さんと一緒になってワークショップを行いました。 有田鉄道の線路跡から生まれたポッポみち。 みなさんから「もっと楽しく使えそう!」という声が 多く寄せられる有田川町のお宝について 暮らして楽しいまちになるための人が集まる 繋がる必要なものがなんなのか アイディアをみんなで出し合いました!

Nick and Lucas recently traveled to Aridagawa, Japan to run a community workshop with PLACE and the PDC. The local government is interested in the Portland planning process of engaging the public and community members. Our team ran a series of workshops to explore ideas for how to reuse a soon to be closed Nursery School building as a community center, how to activate a bike path that runs through the town, and how to make the town a more livable, sustainable and attractive place to live.

‪#‎Japan‬ ‪#‎Portland‬ ‪#‎CommunityDesign‬ ‪#‎PublicInterestDesign‬ ‪#‎ilookup‬

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

“An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is a second dwelling unit created on a lot with a house, attached house or manufactured home. The second unit is created auxiliary to, and is smaller than, the main dwelling. ADUs can be created in a variety of ways, including conversion of a portion of an existing house, addition to an existing house, conversion of an existing garage or the construction of an entirely new building.” - City of Portland Development Services Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are growing in popularity throughout the Portland metro area as a way to add a rentable, revenue generating unit to a standard residential lot. ADUs are a great way to increase property value, increase revenue for property owners, and increase density within our residential neighborhoods. Propel Studio recently completed the design of an Accessory Dwelling Unit in NE Portland and we want to share some of the lessons learned.

Section view of an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU)
Section view of an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU)

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

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

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

ADU Plan - A simple 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom design
ADU Plan - A simple 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom design

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

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

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

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

Building A Future: Mapping, Molding and Measuring Educational Success Through Architecture

[soliloquy id="1603"] A scale model of the neighborhood east of Berlin's iconic TV tower was recently conceived by the Year 1 class at Berlin Bilingual School. Doused in vibrant colors and with new buildings sprouting from the children's imagination, this model represents the dreams of our future architects, designers, and politicians. The Junior Architects Project conceived by Jessica Waldera, founder of Kleine Baumeister in collaboration with the AEDES Junior Campus Workshop was a unique opportunity for 6 and 7 year olds to engage their built environment. The ultimate goal was to build a 3D model of the school and it's surroundings; in the process they achieved much more. This was truly a cross curricular project, where the children applied math skills, had geography lessons, discovered the science of mixing colors, and learned valuable lessons in team work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes a City Beautiful?

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This is a question I ponder as I visit cities throughout the world. Is it the surrounding landscape - like the snow capped mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans? Is it the awe inspiring skyscrapers or beautiful old churches? Or could it be something else - perhaps a more human scale built environment, or widespread parks, trees and other green spaces?

On a recent trip around the world I visited a vast range of urban conditions that were often disheartening, sometimes stunning and yet often enough too similar. From Japan to Russia and on to Europe cities tended to blend from one to another losing the unique qualities of regional architecture. Landscapes were too often obscured by towers or tucked away below roads, bridges, buildings and other concrete monstrosities. Skyscrapers are all too familiar, boasting smooth glass facades while towering over adjacent concrete apartment blocks. Whether in Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney or Toronto the buildings didn't reveal the uniqueness of the local climate.

I look at cities that celebrate their unique conditions and that is where I find the beauty. Berlin celebrating the river Spree and its many canals lined with parks and grand public buildings pops into my mind as a beautiful urban environment. Hong Kong with its stunning architectural skyline backed by a beautiful mountain and stunning views of the harbor is another example of a city that is complementing the grandeur of its environment.

Too often in America, cities turn their back on their environment. Elevated roads and rail yards separate downtown districts from adjacent lakes, rivers, or coastlines. Buildings rely on air conditioning and other mechanical systems to ignore the influence of the climate. Other cities blessed with an abundance of stunning landscapes lack great architecture - Portland and Vancouver pop into mind. Montreal turns it back to the St Lawrence River. Bangkok has replaced the majority of its hundreds of canals with roads. At least Sydney has embraced its water front and historic harbors.

I know there is not an easy answer to this question. Cities are huge complex entities that grow and morph over hundreds of years. I believe that urban planning and architecture that celebrates the local climate, landscape, materiality and culture is a step in the right direction.

Portland Street Seats Design Competition

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We are proud to be the recipient of an honorable mention in Portland's 2013 Street Seats Design Competition. Congratulations to all of the other participants and Bob Trempe for his winning design. If anyone would like to build The Portland Bench outside of your business, let's talk!