ADU Costs and a Proforma Worksheet

Although they are small in size, ADUs are still a large investment for most people that we work with. To make sure we understand priorities and how to best design within a budget, we start the design process by discussing the client’s wants and needs, and understanding the budget and goals for the project. Although the design process takes a significant amount of time, and it is difficult to know exactly what the construction costs will be when the design is permitted and ready to break ground, we try to design projects that are reasonably close to our client’s stated budgets.

At the same time, having clients that understand their financial goals and potential returns for these investments, makes these discussions easier. It is important that the people we work with have realistic expectations for the costs of ADU projects in today’s market, as well as understand what they should expect for potential rents and the revenue they can expect compared to the costs. Too often people come to us with expectations based on information that isn’t correct or that is out of date, which makes these early budget discussions difficult. Even just a few years ago it may have been possible to build an ADU for $125,00 to $150,000, while in today’s construction market it is difficult to get even a simple ADU built for less than $175,000.

To help you make a more informed decision, and have more realistic expectations, we have developed a tool to help calculate the costs and corresponding payback period and return on investment for ADU projects. This Proforma worksheet outlines the costs and ongoing expenses along with the revenue for an ADU rental unit. Although it doesn’t include fees and other costs for a loan product, it should give you a rough idea of what it takes to build an ADU and what revenue you can expect when it is complete. All you have to do is input some numbers based on your local market and the spreadsheet calculates the rest. It is a free download - just fill out the form below and a link to download the spreadsheet should appear:

Name *

Sneak Peak of Our Latest ADU Project

Our latest ADU in SE Portland was recently completed. Our whole firm met there last week to preview the project and do a final punch list walk through with the client and contractor to identify and final things that needs fixing or adjustments. The best part was to see how happy our client was and to see the results of over a year of hard work by everyone involved.

We were all really pleased with the result. It all came together beautifully and the contractors - Billy Spear and the entire Evergreen Craftsmen team - did an amazing job. Also, because it was a typical rainy Portland day we got to see the scupper and water fall in action!

Below are some sneak peak phone photos I snapped during the walk-through. We are currently scheduling a photo shoot with a professional photographer and will get those up on the website soon.

Top reasons NOT to do a Garage Conversion ADU

We continually get inquiries from prospective clients looking to convert their existing garages into Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). The main reason people give for wanting to go this route is that they think it will save them money with lower construction costs by reusing a structure that already exists. Although, this is a great goal in theory, for almost every inquiry we recommend not going with a conversion but rather demo the garage and build the new ADU from the ground up. There are many reasons for this recommendation.

Working Within Existing Structures is More Work

Garages weren't designed and built for living in, and many are older and need extensive repairs and alterations to make them livable.

In our experience, renovating garages are often difficult and complex. Garages weren't designed and built for living in, and many are older and need extensive repairs and alterations to make them livable. Documenting the existing structure takes time and multiple trips to the site to verify dimensions over the course of the project. Often roofs are in poor condition and need repairs or replacements, there aren’t windows, or if there are they are small and in awkward locations. Existing walls are often not structurally sound and many garages don’t even have proper structural footings. There usually isn’t plumbing hookups and if there are, it still requires cutting through the concrete floor to get the plumbing the correct places for adding kitchens and bathrooms.

All of these, and other potential complications, means it is more work for the design team as we document the existing space and try to design a new dwelling unit within these limitations. It is more work for the contractors because they have to work around what is there and are limited in what equipment and construction methods they can use. There is more work that needs to be done by hand, and there is more unique measurements and one-off pieces that makes construction longer and more expensive.

As one example, we recently designed an ADU Garage Conversion for a home in the Irvington neighborhood here in Portland, Oregon. As we analyzed the existing structure we found that there wasn’t adequate footings under the exterior walls of the garage. The only way to add footings without compromising the structure, was to dig out 4-foot sections under the existing walls by hand, pouring a new concrete foundation, and then moving on to dig out the next 4-foot section. This is labor intensive work that takes a lot of time. This alone added around $12,000 in construction costs.

That is one example of the additional work and associated cost. On top of that, there is more design time needed for architectural and structural engineering, permit reviews can be more time consuming as they check the plans to ensure they meet today’s code and structural requirements, and construction can often take just as long and face lots of difficult conditions - all of which add cost and make these projects not as affordable as they first seem.

Garage Conversion ADU.jpg

Garage Conversions Don’t Save You Money

Based on recent projects, we find that the cost of renovating an existing garage is often around the same as demolishing the garage and building a new ADU, and the process is much more difficult.

We find that the construction cost of most ADUs in the Portland area come in between $175,000 and $250,000 (or higher if you want higher-end finishes and products). With the cost of labor in this tight market, import tariffs, and demand on material supply, costs have gone up significantly over the past couple of years. Those numbers don't include the design fees (estimate around 10% of construction costs) or permitting fees (between $6,000 and $12,000) depending on the design and existing conditions. Even garage conversions are within those ranges. There may be some savings if the existing structure is up to code and in great condition, but rarely is that the case. Typically garages have damaged roofs or siding, no windows or existing windows that need to be replaced, insufficient structure, and often the concrete slab and foundations are cracked, damaged, or non-existent. Often, it costs the same amount to upgrade and repair the existing structure, as there are savings by reusing the garage.

Once you are spending the same amount of money, why limit yourself to working within the garage rather than designing a custom ADU that can be more beautiful, responds specifically to your needs, and fits in better with your property?

New Construction can be Healthier, more Comfortable, and more Sustainable

Keeping our buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter is one of the biggest uses of energy.

With all of our projects, we approach the design process by considering how to create beautiful spaces that are comfortable for occupants, have a healthy indoor environment, and are as sustainable as possible within our client’s budget. Achieving these goals is often more complex and difficult when renovating an older structure rather than building new. Most older garages are built out of 2x4s where contemporary homes often have 2x6 thick walls, and 2x12 roofs. This extra wall and roof cavity space allows us to better insulate our buildings, and insulation is the first step in creating comfortable and sustainable buildings.

Keeping our buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter is one of the biggest uses of energy. Increasing the R-values of our walls and roof (a higher R-value means better insulation) is the cheapest and easiest way to reduce our energy use, make our interiors more comfortable, and reduce CO2 emissions.

To achieve similar insulation values in a garage conversion project, it involves sistering new deeper studs and rafters to the existing framing - basically re-framing the entire structure from the inside. The alternative, is to simply insulate the existing wall cavities, regardless of the thickness of the structure. This leads to lower R-values, more drafty homes, and more extreme temperature fluctuation based on changing weather and outdoor temperatures. This can make the ADU feel too cold, too warm, or rely on intensive energy use to heat and cool the space. And remember, higher energy use means higher energy bills for the entire life of the building. This increased life-cycle costs is worth considering as you budget for your project.

You Don’t Actually Get What You Want

Garages aren’t designed, built, or sized for people to live in, or for the rooms and spaces we need to make a great place to live.

Being restricted to the existing size, shape, proportions, and height of a garage can be extremely limiting. When we have worked on these projects in the past, often we start the design process with our clients by creating layouts within the existing garage footprint, and they end up being frustrated when the learn more about the restriction and limitations of the design. The spaces end up being smaller than they anticipated, and the complications of adding onto, or lifting the roof to add extra space, ends up being expensive and usually far beyond their budgets. Rather than limit the possibilities by sticking with the existing garage, we encourage our clients to build a new custom ADU that responds specifically to their wants and needs, and the unique aspects of their property.

Converting a garage into an ADU has a time and place. Sometimes it is the only option to create a second unit based on the property. Other times the garage is newer and in great shape and can be more easily converted within a tight budget. However, the vast majority of the time, in our experience, these projects are more trouble than they are worth and don’t actually save any money. It is for those reasons that we usually recommend designing and building a new ADU that is exactly what you want, rather than limiting yourselves to working within the existing confines of a garage structure.

If you have questions or want to discuss some particulars about your unique situation, don’t hesitate to contact us. If you are considering adding a new ADU to your property you can schedule a consultation here:

If you are looking for more information about ADUs and our design process, project costs, and services check out our ADU page: https://www.propelstudio.com/accessory-dwelling-units-adu/

What you need to know when beginning a custom home project in the Portland Area


Through our work on custom residential design projects, we have realized that there are some common misconceptions that people have about the custom home design process. Choosing to realize your dream of building your family a custom home is a huge decision in your life and we want to make sure you’re starting off on the right foot. To help you understand the process and all the things you don’t know you need to know, we’re kicking off a blog series on custom home design in Portland and the surrounding areas.

Over the articles in this blog series, we will cover topics such as:

  • What is Pre-Design and why it’s the most important step in designing your custom home?

  • How does the design progress from schematic ideas to a thoroughly developed design?

  • What happens once your construction documents are finalized and your permit is approved?

  • When do you engage a general contractor, and how will you, the contractor, and architect work together to realize your design and stay on budget?

  • How long will your project take to complete, and what are the steps along the way?

  • Questions your architect wishes you’d ask?

  • How to select an architect for project? (And why it shouldn’t be based on fees)

  • Principles for creating a sustainable custom home.

In this article, we’ll discuss the first step in the custom home design process: the Pre-Design phase and explain why its essential to a successful project.


When engaging with Propel Studio on a custom home project, the first step of our process is to undertake an in-depth analysis of the project and goals. The Pre-Design phase outlines the project schedule and identifies all of the milestones, it includes a site evaluation, outline of the project program (all the things you want and need us to include in the design), and documents the project budget. This information gathering process begin with the client interview.


Client Interview

The client interview is where we find out the basics of what is important to you – what you are looking for in a custom home, what your lifestyle needs are, what your future plans are for your new home, what styles appeal to you, and what you think your budget target is. Even if you don’t know all of the answers, this starts the conversation and we can help you develop the needed information as we do more research and assign some homework assignments. Our goal is learn more about you, your family, how you live, and how you want to live. This is where we get to know you better and build a strong foundation for future phases.

Site Evaluation

This is incredibly valuable and absolutely necessary because each property is unique and different localities have different requirements and regulations that can affect the design of the project (and these can change from year to year). If your site has specific characteristics such as a steep slope or a stream running through it, there will be local requirements that your custom home design must meet to get approval for construction.

Our side evaluation starts with us visiting the site with you. We walk the grounds and discuss things you like about the property, ideas you have on project location, identify any key features or aspects of the property you want to preserve, or special views you want to take advantage of. We document this with meeting notes and lots and lots of photos. We also take general measurements, and locate any existing structures or specific features that would affect the design - like large trees, retaining walls, landscape features, etc.

Once we have an understanding of the property itself we research what the local jurisdiction may require for the project. In some areas, you will be required to connect to the city utility system and in other more rural areas you may be able to connect to a well or septic system. It’s a good to know what this and other requirements from the start, as this will influence your home design and your budget. As part of the site evaluation part of the process, we’ll research the local zoning laws and building code restrictions, and help explain to you how they will impact the project.  

Tip: before you decide on a property for your new home, meet with the town development office to ask questions on rules they expect you to follow. At this point, you’re just getting a general picture of possible restrictions there are for your site. Typically, larger cities like Portland have a longer list of requirements than smaller towns. It is good to know what is needed before you put in an offer on the property or get too far into the design process. If you are unsure of where to start or what questions to ask, this would be a perfect time to engage an architect for your project.

Programming and Feasibility

Programming is the process of documenting a list of spaces, sizes, and your needs for your custom home. This is realized from our interviews with you. Think of it as a wish list of all the things you’d want in your new home, including the must-haves and the would-be-nice-to-haves. We try to list everything to start, and then go through the document to set priorities on what is most important and what might be nice to have only if the budget allows it. We take this list and develop it in relation to the unique qualities of your site, identifying any overlooked opportunities and any possible challenges. It’s common for your program to change over our various conversations with you. We work with you to figure out what program is best for your dream home.

Budgeting and Scheduling

By doing all of this initial work with site evaluation and programming, we can develop a realistic preliminary budget and also the project schedule. We discuss both the soft costs (design, permitting, and other fees) and hard costs (construction costs) involved in a project, so you can have a full understanding of what the custom home may cost and develop a budget accordingly.

The information from the Pre-Design phase sets the parameters from which we design your new home. The next phase is Schematic Design and this is where the fun begins! Our next article will delve into what happens and how we keep your project on budget through Schematic Design, Design Development, and the Construction Document phases.

If you are ready to start the process please contact us or schedule a consultation.

Sustainable ADU Challenge

Join us in pursuing the challenge of designing and building the most sustainable ADU in the world!

One thing that keeps us passionate about architecture and design, is that we are constantly undertaking new challenges and learning about new materials, technology and systems. We love using this knowledge to make our projects better places to live for our clients, and more sustainable for our environment.

As a firm that specializes in ADUs (accessory dwelling units) we are constantly trying to balance modest budgets with the desire to pursue innovative construction techniques and lofty sustainability goals. We try to incorporate passive strategies in all of our projects, and when the budget can afford it, we look for more active strategies, like adding geothermal heating, solar panels, heat exchangers, etc. We do what we can to lower energy costs, reduce water use, and minimize our carbon footprint.

However, we feel that we are just scratching the surface of what we can do with ADUs. We would love to find clients that are ready to challenge the status quo and set lofty sustainability goals for their projects. We are looking for clients that want to pursue Living Building challenge certification, Net Zero energy use, and Passive House certification, among others.

If you are someone looking for an ADU and would like to collaborate to create the most sustainable project possible, let us know. We are open to the challenge and currently looking for people who want to push the boundaries of sustainable ADU design.

How We Balance Design And Budget In A Custom Home Project

Every project, no matter how big or small, has a budget and it is our job as architects and designers to meet a client’s needs within their stated budget. This can be a challenge and is often the part of a project that is the most stressful - especially for our custom home clients.

One of the main reasons people hire architects to design a custom home, is that they want a space that is tailored to their specific needs, values, and responds to their family’s lifestyle. This often means that when we first meet with our clients, they already have a good idea of what they want and need in their new home. The challenge occurs when their list of wants doesn’t align with the budget for a project they can afford to build.

The Wood House - Interior.png

We start each project with a programming meeting with our clients. This includes a conversation where we discuss everything that will be going into the new house before we even put pencil to paper to start the design. Together we identify all of the spaces, unique features, specific wants, and the overall needs of the client. We discuss general style consideration, and document any specific things the client would like us to include in the project. Once that list is defined we can then go through it together to prioritize what is most important vs what would be nice to have, but if budget becomes a concern we could do without.

We use this programming document as a basis for the design work for the custom home. With the wants and needs in mind we start sketching ideas, and coming up with concepts for how the house could fit on the site, accommodate the programming list, and be within the budget range.

Once we have some design ideas documented, we recommend selecting a General Contractor to perform pre-construction services in order to get real cost feedback throughout the design process. Contractors are knowledgeable about cost fluctuation in material and labor costs, and have the ability to give some feedback on constructibility and offer ideas on how to make things more cost effective. With a contractor on board, we get a rough estimate when we are close to complete with the Schematic Design Phase. This allows us to get cost feedback and still have the opportunity to make changes or edits to the design to bring the project in line with the budget.

Often this is the moment where clients can get stressed - when the estimated cost of a project comes back above the stated budget. This is where our value as designers can really come to play. With the cost estimate in one hand, and the understanding of the project goals we discuss with our clients what the highest priorities are, what can be sacrificed, and where we can make edits to bring the cost down. We discuss overall design goals, and then offer suggestions on what changes can be made.

This process is common in almost every project and not something to worry about. It is a time where the client takes stock of what they want in their home and what they can afford to build. Sometimes this is a point where clients decide they want to raise their budget in order to get some of the things they really value. Other times, it involves working together to make some tough decisions on what the carve out of the project in order to keep the budget where it is.

Either way, we work closely with out clients to analyze the various options and make recommendations on how they can get as close to their vision as possible while still being a project they can afford. This isn’t always an easy process, but often can lead to a better design that is more efficient and cost effective.

At the end of the day, our priorities are to provide great service and make sure our clients can get as close to their vision as possible within their budget. We strive to make this happen in a seamless, stress-free way, and guide our clients through each hurdle to the best of our abilities. Cost can be a stressful part of each project and it is our goal to collaborate with our clients to make decisions that work for them.

Lucky8 House - Interior.jpg

If you have any questions about this post, the cost of building a custom home, or have other questions, don’t hesitate to contact us.


Exciting news! The Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) at Portland State University conducted an ADU survey as part of their Small Backyard Homes Project. The survey is the first of its kind as it targeted not only ADU owners, but those who live in ADUs as well. 

The survey results are in and they are hosting a webinar to discuss its findings in more detail. We hope you join us in attending the webinar! 

The survey was conducted with with Matthew Gebhardt, assistant professor of Urban Studies and Planning, and Yael Kidron, Ph.D. candidate in Urban Studies and Planning. 

When: Tuesday, 7/31/18, 12pm Pacific time / 3pm Eastern time.

Format of the webinar:

After a brief introduction from Robert Liberty, the webinar content will be divided into three sections:

1. Background and context of the survey

2. Overview of survey results related to the construction and financing of ADUs

3. Overview of survey results related to the users and uses of ADUs

Each section is 10-15 minutes, followed by about 5 minutes for Q&A, plus time at the end. The entire webinar will run about an hour.

How to submit questions:

During the webinar, questions can be submitted via the Q&A function at the link. You will need to enter your name the first time you submit a question.

You can submit questions ahead of time (but not during the webinar) by responding to this e-mail.

AICP credit is available: the event number is #9154827.

The full ADU survey report is available below.


For more information about ADUs and our design process click here: https://www.propelstudio.com/accessory-dwelling-units-adu/

"See What’s Popping Up In Backyards" | ADU Article in Realtor Magazine

Propel co-founder Lucas Gray, was recently quoted in an article for Realtor magazine. The article, "See what’s popping up in backyards", speaks about the rise in Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) also known as Granny Flats or laneway suites, as a response to the scarcity of affordable housing. Lucas was pleased to lend his expertise to this article; Propel has years of experience with ADUs in the Portland area and appreciate the benefits they bring to our community. As a community focused design firm, it's important for us to design housing that addresses affordability, equity, diversity and creates thriving neighborhoods and wonderful places to call home. A healthy mix of single family residences, multifamily housing and ADUs as infill create vibrant communities and provides options for equitable housing solutions as costs continue to skyrocket.


Propel Studio Award for Design Excellence 2018 - Lisa Patterson

Each year Propel Studio sponsors an award for graduating Masters of Architecture students at Portland State University's School of Architecture. We are proud to announce that the winner of the 2018 Propel Studio Award for Design Excellence is Lisa Patterson. She was selected by PSU faculty for her "unique design sensibility and most exquisite hand drawings."

Lisa_Patterson_Portfolio Photo.jpg


From the Faculty:
"Throughout her Master's studies Lisa revealed herself to be a creative individual who consistently embodied a unique combination of sensitivity and rigor. She commands a graphic touch that deftly explores the intricacies of her architectural propositions, from clarifying parti to detail study. Her graphite and color wash hand-drawings exemplify, particularly in her thesis work, the subtle inscription of human occupation across the profoundly more powerful and encompassing orders of nature manifest in the dynamic interplay of landscape and river. Lisa's work is recognized with this award for offering clear evidence that ideas in architecture are deeply and generatively intertwined with the manner of their disclosure through drawing."


The "Propel Studio Award for Design Excellence" includes a $500 prize each year to a graduating student based on their body of work during their studies with an emphasis on design quality. The faculty of the School of Architecture selects the winner each year and the recipient comes into our office to share their work and design approach with our firm.

Our goal is to build a strong relationship between our firm and the university as well as support Emerging Professionals as they continue their career growth. 

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

Last year's winner - William Chandler

Architects In Schools Round 6

This is the sixth consecutive year Propel team member Sam Sudy has been volunteering for the Architecture Foundation of Oregon program Architects in Schools. Not only has Sam found that Architects in Schools is extremely rewarding for the kids, that it helps children discover the world of architecture and creative problem solving in fun and exciting ways, but it is also a great break from the office and a chance to be inspired by the creativity in the children she teaches. Even if it can be hectic at times trying to keep everyone focused on the task at hand, and juggling work commitments while being out of the office, Architects In Schools is worth the effort as it lays the foundation for future generations of architects and designers. As a community-focused architecture firm, it is opportunities like this that we are passionate about, as ways to show the value that architects can provide to our built environment and the communities that live in it. 

It seems that every time Sam enters the classroom, work and life stresses slip away and she is completely focused on making sure the kids are having fun while learning something new about the power of design. It is one of the most rewarding volunteer experiences and ultimately is what keeps Sam coming back year after year.

This year, she teamed up with a friend and colleague Rachel Zanetti and two 3rd grade teachers from Marysville Elementary School, and began using lessons from previous years that they knew where crowd-pleasers (marshmallow geodesic domes, mask building exercise with the students taking on different roles between client, designer, constructor). 

The final culminating project, however, was a first this year. The teachers asked Sam and Rachel to aide in an engineering project in which the kids teamed up to build popsicle stick replicas of some of Portland's famous bridges. With hot glue and paper templates, the kids tackled the bridge building rather well - their work was super impressive!

On the final day, the kids got to put their bridges to the test by hanging a plastic bucket off of a portion of their bridge and slowly filling it with heavy textbooks to see how much weight their structure could support. At the beginning of this lesson, the teachers were very clear in directing the children to encourage one another, instead of verbally instigate competition. "If a bridge can hold only the bucket, that's okay."

Much to Sam's surprise, the bridges held more than just the bucket... 

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: https://www.ozetecture.org/masterclass/glenn-murcutt-master-class/ 

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.

Lessons From Colombia

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, PortlandMaps.com (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. 

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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 AccessoryDwellings.org, BuildinganADU.com, pdxadu.blogspot.com, and AccessoryDwellingStrategies.com.

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.