Nomcraft Brewing, Aridagawa, Japan

Over the past 5 years we have been working with the small rural town of Aridagawa, Japan to help develop ideas to revitalize the town. Our work began with a series of community engagement workshops and led to the renovation of an old nursery school building into a new commercial and community hub. Over the past couple of years this work has started bearing fruit, with new businesses moving into the renovated school building, and new young people moving to the town. This all came together in July for the first Nom Nom Beer garden event, celebrating all of the new businesses.

One of these businesses, NomCraft Brewing, was a direct result of the community work we did. A couple of Americans heard about the efforts in Aridagawa to revitalize the town and contacted us about moving there to start a NW style craft beer brewery. They partnered with some of the local town residents and local business owners and after a year or so of work, they finally got the brewery up and running!

We returned to Aridagawa in the heat and humidity of early August to check in on the progress and attend the opening event for the Nomcraft Brewery. It was an amazing event and it was an incredible feeling to reconnect with all of our friends there, and see the community gather around this new business and the Living Room project as a new social hub for the town. The slideshow above gives a glimpse into the first event that will now be a monthly occurrence. We encourage everyone to travel to Aridagawa to check it out and taste all the beers!

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.

Portland Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Permitting Lessons Learned

Having designed many Portland ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) over the past couple years and working through the often complex and picky city permitting process, we have some lessons learned on how to best prepare drawings and make decisions early that can make permitting smoother. Below are some of the common questions or issues that arise while permitting an ADU. The earlier we can address these sorts of issues in the design process the easier it is to breeze through the permitting process and start construction on your project.

Energy Efficiency Measures Checklist

Every new project in Portland has to address sustainability in some way. For residential projects, including ADUs, there is a checklist that city asks you to fill out, demonstrating what strategies you are using to reduce energy and water consumption. This ranges from the amount of Wall and roof Insulation, type of Heating Systems, use of low energy LED lighting fixtures, and more. For the ADUs that we have been designing we have focused on some simple strategies that are beneficial for the performance of the building but also easily attainable within our client's budgets.

Exterior 1 (3).jpg

Windows vs Doors

The proportions of windows are regulated in the ADU code, requiring them to match those in the existing house. However, many of our clients request bright, open, modern spaces that connect to the outdoors. With many craftsman bungalows or mid century houses, windows were relatively small and almost always vertically oriented, limiting what we can do in the ADU. We have often received comments from the city regarding window proportions and asking for proof that we were matching the existing house. There are two ways to address the discrepancy between what the city will allow and what our clients want.

The first trick is that if you make alterations to the main house you can then match those in the ADU. For instance, if you want a large horizontal window that frames a beautiful view into the garden in your ADU, then you can have your architect also propose adding a similar window somewhere on the main house. We recently did this for an ADU project, where we have a large array of south facing windows on the ADU and in order to accomplish this proposed that the owner also install a similar set of windows in the living room of his main house.


The second work around is that nowhere in the code does the city regulate doors. To create rooms that have a strong connection to the outdoors, we have used glass sliding doors, french doors and accordion doors to create walls of glass, providing beautiful views outside and also rooms that completely open up. This allows us the design flexibility to meet both our clients' wants with the regulations imposed by the Portland ADU zoning code. In this ADU we have wall to wall sliding glass doors opening the living room up to the backyard:

On-Site Water Infiltration

Portland requires new construction projects to address stormwater infiltration on site. There are two paths to meet this requirement, depending on the area of the impermeable surface in your project (think roof size). For projects over 1000sf we place a dry-well on the site that captures stormwater runoff from the roof and allows it to infiltrate into the ground. Drywells have to be located 10' from building foundations and 5' from the property setback. Usually this isn't a huge challenge although sometimes it can be difficult to find a suitable location depending on the placement of the ADU in relationship to the main house on the site. If the roof size is smaller than 1000sf we can simply have drains or rain chains that lead to a splash pad, allowing rain to directly absorb into the ground.

Water Supply Size

There is a rather complicated equation that the city has to calculate the size of the water supply for a property. It counts all the fixtures, appliances and other water features on a property, each with a multiplier, adds them all up and this gives the size of the water supply. When adding an ADU onto a property you have to redo these calculations, adding in the toilets, sinks, laundry, showers, etc. from the ADU into the calculation. Often the updated calculations require a larger water services. This is a relatively large added cost to the permitting fees - around $2000 or more. There aren't many ways of getting around this without reducing the number of fixtures in an ADU. For instance, only one sink instead of two in the bathroom, no laundry machine, etc.


Separate Water Service Agreement

Along with water supply size, there is the issue of how the water makes its way to the ADU. Does the new dwelling split off the existing water lines running to the main house, or do you want a new water service directly from the street. The main reason to start a new water service from the street is that you can have the water bill for the ADU go directly to that address/tenant rather than being grouped into the water bill for the main house. This allows you to also pass on the cost of water to the tenants. However, there is also a large upfront cost to create the new water service. It is a tradeoff worth considering.

Most of our clients chose to just branch off of the main house water supply. This is because of the added upfront costs of installing the new service. In order to do this the city asks you to sign a Separate Water Service Agreement having the owner sign off on the fact that one bill is serving multiple units. Here is a sample of the agreement paperwork:


Modern Residential Design Blog Post Series


Our team at Propel Studio is passionate about designing beautiful, modern, high-performance buildings that our clients and communities will love. To us, there are a series of primary qualities that lead to a successful project that is loved by its users and meets our design standards:

  1. Beauty
  2. Functionality
  3. Healthy and Comfortable
  4. Energy Efficiency & Sustainability
  5. Durability
  6. Materiality & Tectonics

Over the coming weeks, we will be writing a series of blog posts to elaborate on how we approach each design project and incorporate these qualities into our work. Although these themes can be applied to projects of any genre, we will be focusing on the design of modern residential projects - Single Family Houses and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs).

Although we have broken down these themes into distinct posts, there are many topics that overlap or bridge between the categories. For instance, choice of materials and how they fit together is an integral aspect of the beauty of a project, sustainable strategies often lead to healthier environments, durability and functionality go hand-in-hand. Through the design process we balance the solutions to hundreds of problems and weigh them against these focusses, and ultimately arrive at a solution that meets our clients’ needs and fulfills our desire to address these important topics.

By no means is this a complete list or cover all the issues and challenges that architects deal with on each and every project. They are just a few of the prominent themes that we focus on throughout our design process as we work with new clients.


To see how we have incorporated some of these ideas into our work please visit our residential portfolio.

Healthy Learning - Primrose School of Hillsboro

Primrose School of Hillsboro - sustainable site plan
Primrose School of Hillsboro - sustainable site plan
A school design orchestrated by Propel Studio intricately focuses on the interior environment, promoting healthy living and nurturing imagination for early childhood development.

In their latest design project, Nick Mira and Lucas Gray, partners at Propel Studio Architecture in Portland, Oregon, are at the forefront of where architecture meets sustainable design and healthy living. They are leading the design team for a new Primrose School, a national brand of accredited early education schools committed to childhood development, on the outskirts of Portland in Hillsboro, Oregon.

The Primrose School of Hillsboro, is the first project in Oregon for the national brand, and there are plans to create a few more in the Portland metro area. Bringing years of architectural knowledge and sustainable design strategies to the project, Mira and Gray’s focus at the school has been to maintain the exterior aesthetics of the national brand, while developing a healthy and sustainable indoor environment. The mission shared between the clients and design team is to provide a healthy, environmentally friendly, and comfortable space for the teachers, staff, and students of all ages.

Specifically, great care was made on specifying materials that are healthy and not environmentally hazardous in the interior space — from ensuring that materials and finishes do not emit unhealthy gases, and using natural materials wherever possible, to sourcing local materials and products. Propel Studio and their consultant team has also made a dedicated effort to implement a highly efficient heating and cooling system, reducing energy consumption and saving the client money on utility costs. For example, Mira and Gray are incorporating radiant floor heating for optimal user comfort. This feature provides a peace of mind—it will keep students comfortable year around, particularly during the cool autumn and cold winter days, the times when parents are most concerned about keeping their children warm. It also limits the need for utilizing forced air and ducting that can often collect dust and and increase particulates in the air - a particular issue for asthma and other respiratory problems.

The sustainable lighting strategy starts by incorporating as much natural daylight as possible, supplemented with the best artificial technologies. Mira and Gray emphasize extremely energy efficient lighting and therefore have specified LED light fixtures throughout the school. Moreover, the natural and artificial lighting seamlessly balanced throughout the space, creating a mood of tranquility, allowing for maximum productivity and keeping children focused on learning. Finally, great care has been executed towards the acoustical design of the building, including the selection of finishes that are sound absorbent, further creating a soothing environment for children and allowing for a lively, even sometimes boisterous, environment without worrying about an unpleasant, discordant mixture of sounds.

In addition to the classrooms, other areas of the school that received an emphasis on healthy and sustainable environments include the kitchen and the indoor and outdoor play areas.  The school’s kitchen is equipped with energy efficient appliances, once again reducing the operating costs and energy consumption. Further, the school will serve high-quality, wholesome, and nutritious food, encouraging health conscious minds for life. In order to encourage exercise, play, and imagination, the team chose play equipment suitable for each age group.  In order to spark imagination and promote positive development both physically and mentally, this included giant foam blocks which can be creatively assembled to provide an infinite number of environments.

Along with sustainable materials and systems, Propel has worked with the developer of the learning curriculum to prepare for increased technology in the classroom - the future of learning. The school will utilize iPads throughout their teaching methods, and as a result, Mira and Gray have incorporated the necessary infrastructure into their design. They have designed extra outlets for charging many iPads at once, and ensured the wifi and internet systems can fully accommodate for simultaneous videos and downloads. The robustness of the integrated technology should have the school well prepared for future advances in technology as teaching tools.  

In terms of the school’s design, there is no question: health, safety, comfort, and functionality were the primary focuses. Mira and Gray worked closely with their clients to develop a design that met the requirements of the franchise while incorporating sustainable strategies to create a healthy learning environment. Propel’s focus is always on balancing the needs of the clients, the project budget, and their focus on sustainable learning environments.

Project Team

Architecture:Propel StudioStructural Engineering:VLMKLandscape Architecture: Ecotone EnvironmentalMEP Engineering:InterfaceClients:Timeless Education Academy, LLC

How Much Will My Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Cost?

Sustainable NW Modern ADU in Portland, Oregon
Sustainable NW Modern ADU in Portland, Oregon

One of the first questions we get from every client is: How much does an Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU cost? At the same time, we get a lot of clients that come to us with a budget and ask if an ADU can be built for their available funds. The problem for any designer is that it is impossible to answer that question without knowing more about the unique aspects of the design that addresses the client's needs, wants, and site conditions. However, we thought we should at least share  a breakdown of the costs for a recent ADU project to give a realistic guideline for you to base your budget on.

Below is a rough construction cost breakdown for a 795 square foot sustainable ADU that was built in the summer of 2015 in Portland, OR. This design has a few unique elements that are reflected in the cost breakdown. The design includes a high performance envelope - typical wall construction with standard BATT insulation, plus an additional 2” of rigid insulation on all the walls, 3” of rigid added to the roof, and a fully insulated slab. We also designed in radiant floor heating with an on-demand hot water system. There was also a couple of unique custom windows that are significantly more than a standard window would be - however they were important to the design and function of the spaces.  Finally, this breakdown is for the construction costs and doesn't include architectural or structural design work. The design fees vary depending on the complexity, size and budget of your project. 

Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Cost Breakdown



This includes the current Portland SDC Waiver that is expiring in July and all of the individual trade permits.



around a 600sf slab area including the exterior decks. Also included excavation for a couple landscaping retaining walls on the property.

Footings & Retaining Walls


This includes work needed for the ADU plus a couple of retaining walls needed as part of the surrounding landscaping.

Framing and Sheathing


typical 2x6 stud wall construction and 2x12 roof joists and supporting structural posts and beams



Hardi siding with vertical tongue and groove cedar highlights in some areas and cedar soffit



Standing seam metal roof

Windows and Doors


2 custom windows, 3 skylights, 8’ front door with side lite, 8’ two panel sliding door, and a few standard vinyl windows.

Concrete Slab


exposed concrete slab for floor of main level



includes radiant floor installation and on demand hot water system



electrical panel, electrical wiring and outlets



batt insulation in walls and ceiling stud cavities, 2" rigid on exterior walls and 3" rigid on roof



drywall, mudding, taping

Interior Doors


2 standard doors, 1 pocket door and 3 closet bi-folding doors

Paint - Exterior


Paint - Interior


Trim Work


painted MDF, plus clear coated fir window sills



Ikea kitchen and some custom work



Wood butcher block



Kitchen backsplash and shower - materials and labor



off the shelf spiral staircase

Flooring - loft


solid white oak, prefinished

Cable Railing


off the shelf system



stove, oven, washer, dryer, refrigerator

Electrical Fixtures


lighting fixtures, installation, etc.

Additional Plumbing


plumbing fixtures, installation, etc.



Includes all materials, labor and contractor fees

This is a relatively typical cost breakdown for the ADUs we work on. This isn't an extravagant project, and although there are a few places where the client invested in a bit of a premium (custom windows, skylights, radiant floor heating), the rest of the project is pretty straightforward. I think this is a good resource to base your project's budget on.

One thing of note, is that each site condition is different. Excavation and concrete work costs can vary greatly depending on the complexity of the site, ease of access, and amount of fill to be added or removed. Cost can also rise dramatically depending on the exterior siding materials and interior finish materials. There were some unique aspects for the concrete work that drove up the cost and we did have some premium siding materials in certain areas of the exterior. Even then we don't really see the cost of a custom designed ADU dropping below $150,000 when all is said and done.

It is also important to consider that a cost per square foot calculation is not a great way to determine the cost of a project like this. With smaller projects, the money that goes towards the expensive parts of a house - kitchen, bathroom, mechanical systems, excavations and concrete - don't get offset by the cheaper square footage of bedrooms, dining rooms and other spaces.

If you have any questions don't hesitate to contact us. We are always happy to talk about the unique aspects of your projects and discuss your ideas and goals for a sustainable Accessory Dwelling Unit. If you would like to see some of our other ADU designs click here.

Young Firm Propels School Project - from the DJC Oregon

Funds are still being raised to build an outdoor classroom and community garden for the Vernon School in Northeast Portland. Propel Architecture has donated its design skills to help build the project that was originally conceived by middle school students at the school. (Courtesy of Propel Studio Architecture) Beverly Corbellin Architecture and Engineering, NewsDecember 15, 20153:29 pm

When Lucas Gray and his girlfriend, Kristin Slavin, bought a house in Northeast Portland a few years ago, they quickly became involved in their neighborhood.

Both have their master’s degrees in architecture, so they approached the Vernon School PTA and offered pro bono professional design services.

“We said, ‘What do you want? Is there anything you need professional design services for?’ ” Gray said.

As it turned out, the K-8 school had a play area that flooded in rainy weather, Gray said, so a team from the firm he co-founded three years ago, Propel Architecture, designed a covering.

“The idea was to do a quick rendering to get people excited (and) to put on their website,” Gray said. “Then the PTA talked more and discussed more with the parents at the school what they really needed, and narrowed it down to focusing on the community garden.”

The little garden on the school’s west side is open to both neighborhood residents and students, and the PTA decided that it could become more of an educational tool if an outdoor classroom were created. Propel donated design services and finished preliminary plans. Fundraising has begun – though more dollars are needed to cover the cost of construction and materials.

“We’ve designed a split-roof structure with the idea that one of them will be a planted roof facing south,” he said. “The other will be a metal roof to collect rainwater, and they can use the rainwater to water the gardens and keep the plants growing.”

The project will create opportunities to teach kids not only about gardening, but also about sustainable building and making a structure “environmentally conscious,” Gray said.

The project started with contributions from students and plenty of input from PTA members, said Eileen Hendrickson, PTA committee chairwoman for the outdoor classroom. About three years ago, students in grades 6-8 created concepts that the professionals were able to build on, she said.

“Propel and parents (on the committee) took it through several iterations to enhance the durability, simplify the mechanics and try to find an affordable way to build,” she said. “I’ve been really touched by this team’s work, which is not just four posts and a roof. They’re doing it in a very thoughtful manner.”

Propel has provided leadership via “constant attention and feedback over the course of the last year,” Hendrickson said.

Developing the drawings for design and engineering of the outdoor classroom and garden has been a tedious and time-consuming task, Hendrickson said, and Propel has been a guiding force.

“Propel has always been on the forefront, helping our PTA moving forward,” she said. “But it has very much been … a collaborative effort, with other parents who are architects and engineers who have worked with Propel.”

Hendrickson said she hopes that Propel’s involvement will encourage other design firms to get involved with community projects.

“It is very beneficial to have a local architecture firm doing a lot of the grassroots projects and outreach,” she said. “By the very nature of them talking with other groups and companies it encourages others to build community where it needs to be built.”

But construction costs money, Gray said, and the Vernon School project will receive none from Portland Public Schools. His conservative cost estimate is about $50,000, but that would include donated materials and reliance on volunteers to contribute some of the labor.

Hendrickson said a general contractor is needed, and she is hoping that a local construction company will contribute some man-hours.

Donations of cash as well as materials to the Vernon PTA are tax-deductible, Hendrickson said. Anyone who wants to help can contact Gray at

“They can contact me and I’ll put them in touch with the right people,” he said.

Project construction is just the beginning, Hendrickson said. She hopes the outdoor classroom will become an evolving space based in part on input from future students.

“The subcommittee working on the drawings was also thoughtful on how the structure can evolve,” she said. “We hope to have future students play a role – maybe an art project or some other idea so that students will have hands-on experience.”

--- To Download a PDF of this story click here.

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


【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

Custom Residential Design - Construction Update

Custom Residential Design - Construction Update! Here are some quick construction photo updates for one of our custom residential design houses in Portland, Oregon. Together with our client, we created this unique and sustainable home.

For more information on this and other ADU's we've designed, check out the links below: 
Propel Studio's  Portland Custom Modern Home Designs

For more information on our ADU design services, please follow this link:

Portland Oregon’s ADU resources and information:

Completed Portland ADU

Completed Portland ADU
Completed Portland ADU

We designed this ADU a couple years ago and construction was completed last summer. This spring the landscape was updated as the last step!  We also have a few ADU renovations that are complete, and 4 new ADUs under construction. Still, this is the one that got the ball rolling. Thanks to Brendan for being a great client!

For more information on this and other ADU's we've designed, check out the links below: 
Enright Accessory Dwelling Unit
Sustainable Portland ADU
Northwest Modern ADU

For more information on our ADU design services, please follow this link:

Portland Oregon’s ADU resources and information:


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

Cut away view of a 2-level, spatially efficient ADU.
Cut away view of a 2-level, spatially efficient ADU.

When thinking about building ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) it is imperative to not think of them as full houses. That is the first thing you need to realize when deciding to build one of these Accessory Dwelling Units on your property. It is often difficult for clients to make informed decisions that seem like sacrifices to their normal lifestyles when conceptualizing the layout of a new ADU. Space is at a premium and it is necessary to consider smaller appliances, less storage, and less stuff. As we have been working with a variety of clients on ADU projects over the past year we have been gathering appliances and other space saving tricks that we highly recommend considering.

Small Kitchen Decisions

When considering kitchen layouts it is important to understand that there will be minimal counter space. It is usually difficult to fit in large islands and other features common in contemporary kitchens. However, there are a few ways to maximize counter room by scaling down the appliances you are used to. The biggest space saver is by rethinking the fridge. Considering only one or two people max will be living in an ADU there is no reason to have a full, family sized, refrigerator. It is easy to allow the grocery store to store your food and thus save space within the dwelling. It does mean a change of lifestyle, shopping more frequently for one or two meals at a time rather than large shopping trips. This can also help save money by reducing the amount of food that goes bad, ending up in the compost or trash. To address these issues we highly recommend under the counter, drawer style refrigerators. They are simple, elegant, are easy to access and allow the counter to be extended over it. It can even be finished to blend in with the under-counter cabinetry so it doesn't stand out as an appliance but rather blends in with the kitchen aesthetic.They are a bit more expensive than your standard fridge but in our opinion they are worth the investment to increase the usability of the kitchen.

Another kitchen related decision is whether or not to include a dishwasher. Again, it is our belief that small living doesn't necessitate all of the same conveniences we are used to in full sized houses. We feel that with smaller spaces and less people, there will also be less dishes and kitchen mess. For this reason we suggest removing the dishwasher altogether. It is an added expense and takes up a lot of space that could be better used for storage. However, if you can't imaging living without the modern convenience of a dishwasher than we again recommend a smaller sized, drawer style unit. This takes up much less space than a standard dishwasher and can also be blended in with the cabinetry materials.

Combining an under counter fridge, small drawer style dishwasher, as well as considering a extra narrow, apartment style stovetop/oven can make compact kitchen more efficient and usable. Counter space is always at a premium in any kitchen layout and these small tricks or lifestyle decisions can make a huge impact on the livability of the space.


The other appliances that are challenging to accommodate in a small living space are the washer/dryer units. We almost always recommend stackable units and are now even suggesting that clients invest in a 2-in-1 Washer/Dryer combo, which one client recently did. Even though stackables save floor space, every inch of volume needs to be efficiently used in an ADU. The vertical space above a 2-in-1 combo can be better used as a linen closet or storage for detergent and other items. In the Sustainable Portland ADU we had to fit the laundry under the stairs and thus a 2-in-1 unit was the only option.

Downsized Furniture and Storage

This downsizing must occur beyond just appliances. Rooms, closets, furniture also must be conceived as smaller and more efficient than what we are used to in full sized homes. Whittling down our personal items, like clothes, linens, books and other accumulative things is a must if you are considering moving into the ADU. Otherwise, you have to assume any tenants will be doing a similar purge of personal belongings. Closets will be small, necessitating less clothing. Beds should be in the Double (or Queen size max) to fit comfortably in a small bedroom. Loves-seats might replace full couches and small tables are chosen over full dining tables. To make an efficient ADU built-in shelving, creative cabinets and hidden storage can be incorporated throughout the design. We recently designed a fold-out murphy bed so a room could double as a bedroom and office. We have designed built-in cabinets below staircases, fold up benches with storage below for dining areas, and multi-tiered closets with built in dressers. Each client has unique needs and the storage throughout the ADU needs to creatively solve their specific challenge.

 For A Design Guide to Portland ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) - PART I click here:

Video: Accessory Dwelling Units - Take the First Step

Oregon DEQ Accessory Dwelling Units Explainer Video

Oregon DEQ Accessory Dwelling Units Explainer Video

Here is an excellent video by the Oregon DEQ about building Accessory Dwelling Units or "Granny Flats." It offers lots of great reasons to build an ADU on your property, either for rental income, relatives to live in or visit, or even to move into yourself as you rent out your main house. Propel Studio has been designing many of these projects over the past couple years and think they are a fantastic way to increase the value of your property, bring in supplemental income and creating sustainable, affordable housing stock in our wonderful Portland neighborhoods.

You can check out our previous post titled A Design Guide to Portland ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) for more information on this project type, frequently asked questions, and how we can help you create one on your property.

Lents Story Yard Grand Opening


Monday August 18th saw the grand opening of Lents Story Yard, Propel Studio's first public project. Over 100 Lents community members and business owners converged on the site to celebrate with us. With a grant provided by the Portland Development Commission, and collaborating with ROSE Community Development and photographer Dawn DeAno we turned a vacant lot in Lents Town Center into a community asset. We utilized gabion baskets to build walls that defined space, paths, and supported the photography exhibit, and wood benches. A stage was located in the center of the site and we hope it will be activated throughout the next 18 months by local community groups and neighbors. Tis project is a great example of our dedication to Pubic Interest Design. We believe architects have the ability and responsibility to improve our communities and quality of life. We take this responsibility seriously and are looking for new opportunities to collaborate with communities on projects like this. If you want more information about the photography exhibit, or would like to hold an event at the site, visit the website


Portland Development CommissionRegional Arts and Culture CouncilThe Kinsman FoundationLents GrownDawn DeAno PhotographyPortland Youth BuildersLents International Farmers MarketMt. Scott Fuel CoPro Photo Supply

To see the project page with renderings and more information go here:

Contemporary Cob Architecture


Throughout Portland, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, cob (an ancient building technique of mixing clay, sand, and straw) has found new appeal. Associated closely with the Natural Building movement, cob benches, ovens, interiors, studios, sheds, and even entire homes now accent our community. Most recent cob structures carry strong ‘organic’ and capricious’ imagery; evocative of an expressive and whimsical way of building. Though cob has found acceptance among alternative builders and do-it-yourselfers who embrace these features, it remains almost wholly absent from the Architecture community as a whole. Even in one of the most progressive, sustainably minded cities in the country, cob and cob building remain fringe movements.

But as a material, cob need not be defined through a certain appearance. This 'alternative' approach to building embodies many redeeming characteristics that most people would embrace. In residential, commercial, and community work, cob’s potential remains largely untapped. Sculpted cob elements can become creative and functional centerpieces in an entertainment space, provide unique seating in a sunroom, or create the focal wall in a restaurant. If we can move past certain preconceptions of what cob has to be, we will find at its core a material fully compatible with contemporary design. This post aims to challenge those preconceptions, explain what value cob can bring to a space, and offer ways for the design profession to embrace this most elemental of materials.


The approach to unbaked earth most common in this region is known as ‘Oregon Cob’; the latest in a line of adaptations having evolved over centuries to suit a vast range of climates and cultures. In fact, handmade, unfired earthen mixtures comprise one of the oldest, most ubiquitous building materials employed by humans. Its endemic use spans across Northern Europe, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America, and throughout Asia as well. Through the 18th century, cob building became commonplace throughout much of England and Wales. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, this and other forms of vernacular construction tended to give way to the new, prefabricated materials now readily available.

Still, earth building remains in widespread use throughout much the world. And over the last several decades, cob has made a resurgence within England and the United States. Here in the U.S., this revival began off the grid, as an alternative movement lending itself to use in eco-communities and small, unpermitted projects. As interest has grown, so has the push towards bringing cob into the spectrum of ‘accepted’ materials. But even with greater acceptance and understanding, cob’s use within conventional architecture and design remains limited.


Cob is ECOLOGICAL (in the very real sense of the word); composed of unadulterated, and, ideally, locally sourced materials, most cob buildings maintain a low embodied energy which don’t require large-scale mining or other destructive practices to obtain.

Cob is HEALTHY; in both its final and component forms, cob contains no synthetical chemicals, nor poses longterm concerns for indoor air quality due to off-gassing or VOC’s. This remains true throughout its lifecycle.

Cob is SAFE; with only your hands, feet, tarps, buckets, and a few hand tools, most phases of a cob project can be completed without the dangers of power tools or machinery. This means anyone, regardless of age or ability, can learn to safely work with cob - and often they will actually enjoy the process!

Cob is FLEXIBLE; and can be made to take on nearly any shape. Unlike concrete, cob is fashioned from its base up, not poured into formwork. This methodology lends itself to asymmetrical and undulating forms, varying wall thickness, custom built-ins, and creative openings all personalized to the specific contexts of a project.

Cob is SUBSTANTIAL; its mass has implications both in terms of passive solar heating as with the tectonics of building. Load-bearing cob is structured similar to bearing stone; it likes thick walls that taper as they increase in height, and are strongest at their curves. Openings, vaultings, and niches are all constructed with a similar respect to stereotomy.

Cob is FORGIVING; just as with building a sandcastle, until dry, cob can be continually edited and changed as you perfect your work. Even once set, cob does not cure in the way concrete does; there is no chemical alteration to the materials. If allowed to sufficiently soak, cob will turn back into exactly what it was at the time of installation.

Cob is IMPERFECT; as with anything handmade, the print of the maker is always left in the final product. Contrast your favorite hand-thrown coffee mug to a factory-made ceramic one. The imperfections vitalize it with character and feeling. Just as with people, our idiosyncrasies define us, make us unique, and ultimately special. Picture your mug again; now imagine living in it!

Cob is TACTILE; compare the pleasant physical connection of wood to that of steel. That is analogous to the difference between a cob wall and most fashioned from concrete or gypsum board. Formed earth is warm, inviting, and somehow soft even when it is hard.

Cob is INEXPENSIVE; all necessary materials can usually be obtained cheaply. It is however a labor intensive way of building. Under a conventional model, the human hours needed to complete a cob project may outweigh the initial savings. This is one reason many cob projects have been owner built.


Sustainability, safety, personalization, and warmth are all commonly sought characteristics by people wishing to build or renovate their home. So why is cob construction mostly missing from contemporary design? There are perhaps several contributing factors, but two stand out in particular.

The first is that cob has developed to cater towards a certain aesthetic. Since cob lends itself so well towards organic forms and sculpture, many cob buildings end up expressing these qualities. The effect has been to suggest this is the only way for the material to be used. Although not true, this mentality seems nevertheless to have framed cob’s use within a narrow context. Materials don’t necessitate style, and cob can be articulated as ornately or plainly as the maker desires. This can range from the sculpted animals, trees, or patterns presently common, but could also include a more minimal interpretation, one where the use of sleek lines and subtle textures carry their own power.

The second reason comes down to finances and logistics. Although the raw materials are inexpensive, cob itself requires a lot of manual labor. This of course translates into many hours and/or people to produce. As a result, practicing under the conventional building model, a house built from cob could be comparable or even more expensive than a stick-build one. Even someone who desires the intrinsic characteristics that make working with cob advantageous, the added financial burden may still make it difficult justify.


To succumb to these concerns would be to miss what could be the real potential for cob within our modern context. A material so positive at its core should not be neglected by the design profession, but embraced and pushed to into new arenas. Here are two scenarios where the use of cob, under the focused leadership of an experienced designer, may be financially viable.

Where cob is concerned, there is actually a potential group that might be employed to circumvent those high labor costs; ourselves. Here is how this might work. Your community has decided it wants to add a shade and picnic shelter in the local park. Typically, any funds need to be donated, raised or otherwise obtained to cover every stage of the project including the materials and labor. But what if instead a significant portion of those materials were excavated from the site itself, and the vast majority of labor was donated by the very families whom the shelter would later benefit?

Because cob is fun, safe and conducive to large, unskilled groups, the entire building process can become a community event! Families with children, local politicians, students interested in learning, or simply anyone otherwise curious could join in. The experience would be educational, productive, and most importantly social, as it fostered real interactions between people. With direction from an experienced designer/builder, the greatest challenge would become organizational, not financial. After a few weekends, the new shelter would be well on its way, and the beautiful walls, benches, and floors would have been hand-made by the very hands that would continue to use them. The completed structure would add identity and character to the community.

A second set of situations looks at using cob and natural building practices as a supplemental rather than driving force within design. For both new construction and renovations, if cob was viewed primarily as a great material to accentuate those special moments in a home and not necessarily as comprising the main envelope itself, associative costs would become less prohibitive.

Imagine folding the thermal mass of an elegant cob wall around the wood stove in your contemporary cabin. Your study could enjoy the warmth of a cob floor which sweeps up to form a cushioned window bed mimicking a chaise lounge. Maybe you renovate your standard dining room to flaunt chamfered corners and elliptical walls which bulge around a live-edged table. An accent wall with custom niches and openings could display your praised artwork or travel collections. Or perhaps your favorite room to meditate, which appears rectangular from outside, could actually flow and undulate in ways evocative of nature.

The potential here is limitless, restricted only by our creative ability to reflect personality and preference in built form. Accent walls, hearths, window seats, niches, floors, sculpted room transitions, daybeds, deeply set fenestration, room partitions, or even completely reworked larger spaces are all viable targets. So too would outbuildings, additions, or any other number of elements relating to the specifics of a space. Juxtaposing the handmade character of cob with our common repertoire of factory fabricated materials could truly vitalize a space and infuse it with identify. These would, almost by necessity, be truly customized and formed to compliment the lifestyle, habits, characters, and passions of the owner(s). By focusing on elements and not the whole, we could contain their expense without restricting their expressive nature and the aura of authenticity they bring.


The true spirit of cob lies in its flexibility, flexibility of form but also in how those forms are articulated. By using cob in combination with and as part of a greater sustainable whole, we open ourselves to its vast, overlooked potential. The use of earth in building is as ‘modern’ as we make it; and depends entirely on how it is conceived. Through challenging current assumptions of when and where cob is deemed appropriate, these possibilities for handmade community buildings and accent architecture become viable. Both scenarios embrace the nature of the material itself and the ways it ‘wants’ to be used. Through these practices and others, we can explore, and redefine the notion of ‘contemporary cob’.

Curious about contemporary cob building? Interested in seeing if this unique material might be a good fit for your new construction or renovation project? We are looking for opportunities to explore contemporary uses of Cob in Portland, Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Contact us for a free design consultation.

SOURCES - Weismann, Adam, and Katy Bryce. Building with Cob. - Evans, Ianto, Linda Smiley, and Michael Smith. The Hand-sculpted House. - Elizabeth, Lynne, and Cassandra Adams. Alternative Construction. - Lehm und Feuer |

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?


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.

Propel Studio Proposal Selected for Lents Urban Renewal Area


The Portland Development Commission has approved three temporary-use proposals on vacant PDC-owned sites in the Lents Urban Renewal Area, and will pursue further discussion of qualifications and feasibility of a permanent project as well. The proposals were among six responses to a PDC-issued Request for Interest in permanent or temporary uses of the Lents properties, which are located in close proximity to the historic and re-emerging commercial heart of the Lents neighborhood at SE 92nd Avenue.PDC Executive Director Patrick Quinton said, “We’re very pleased to see these Lents sites activated with community-driven projects inspired by the Lents Grown brand and adding to the growing positive energy in Lents.” The Belmont Goats will locate temporarily on the site at SE 93rd and Woodstock; PDC has also offered to work with the project proposers to locate the herd on PDC-owned lots at SE 91st and Foster Road on a seasonal basis when the Lents Farmers Market is in operation. At PDC’s request, two of the proposers, Propel Studio Architecture and ROSE Community Development, will co-locate at 8801 SE Foster Road. ROSE Community Development’s proposal, “Lents Grown – Our Stories” will be an installation of photographic portraits with text and audio produced through a collaborative effort by members of the community. Propel proposed an installation of gabion (wire mesh) furniture to create a gathering space and placemaking identity. PDC’s evaluation committee, made up of community stakeholders and staff, noted that these two uses combined on one site would be more successful than separated on individual properties.

Nick Sauvie, ROSE Executive Director, said, “As a community builder and property owner, ROSE has a deep commitment to the Lents Town Center. This project is a great opportunity to feature the diversity of Lents and to add life to the town center.”

Lucas Gray of Propel Studio Architecture said, “We love the idea of collaborating with ROSE Community Development and incorporating the stories of local residents as a way to better integrate our installation with the community. We actually met with them last summer to talk about ways we could work together so this is a perfect opportunity.” Speaking on behalf of the Belmont Goats owners and caretakers, Christopher Frankonis said, “All of us are excited for this next phase of Portland’s original resident urban herd. We look forward to working with PDC and, especially, the residents of Lents to make this ongoing urban experiment in rural community truly Lents Grown for the coming year.” Each organization will receive a $7500 grant that can be used for design, construction materials or labor, or construction project management. The temporary uses will range from one to three years. Community members on the evaluation team were Sarah Broderick, Lents International Farmers Market/Zenger Farms; Carolee Harrison, Vice Chair, Lents Neighborhood Association; Jerry Johnson, Johnson Economics/ Neighborhood Economic Development Leadership Group; Ed McNamara, Mayor’s Office. The evaluation committee also recommended that PDC continue discussions with a Lents property owner who proposed the only permanent use project, a mixed use building at 93rd and Woodstock.

“We’re very pleased to see these Lents sites activated with community-driven projects inspired by the Lents Grown brand and adding to the growing positive energy in Lents.” - Patrick Quinton Executive Director, PDC Lents Grown

PDC Announcement Link

How Utilizing Autodesk Revit and Building Information Modeling Saves Time, Money and Delivers a Better Design


Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a digital 3D model of all aspects of a building including architectural, structural and mechanical elements. It creates a virtual replica of the finished building to allow us to troubleshoot the entire design as well as take accurate estimates of costs, energy use, functionality, and constructability. Revit is a BIM software program that Propel Studio has adopted that allows an entire team of experts, from architects to engineers and other consultants to access and collaborate on a single model. With everyone working within one file it is easy to see what information is missing and what areas of the design need to be focused on or refined. The program saves time by being a dynamic tool that tracks changes throughout the model. If we move a window in the floor plan, the software automatically adjusts its position in the elevation and sections, etc. It also allows quick 3D snapshots and basic renderings so the design team and clients can visualize the project as they make important design decisions.

Whether you are a client interested in a great building, part of the building’s design team, or involved in its construction, Revit design software allows the project team access to a holistic pool of valuable information. The information is simultaneously organized in both 3 dimensions and 2 dimensions, and is also dissectible into time, materials, parts and costs. As a project stakeholder involved at any point in a building design, having this information available and being able to see it in these ways leads to better decisions and better results. It streamlines the complex process of design and construction.


We have been using Autodesk Revit software in building design and construction documentation since 2006. Prior to Revit we used AutoCad, a program more like traditional hand drafting, which is typically used as only a 2 dimensional program. Since making this switch, we have continued to innovate and adapt our design processes to utilize the tools of Revit and find powerful, cost-saving ways to get mileage out of it’s abundance of quantitative abilities.

The design process is all about communication, exploration of ideas, leveraging opportunities and understanding limitations. We start by putting everything on the table, pulling as much information as we can together, then pulling it apart through analysis and reorganizing it to help inform our design decisions. This iterative process continues until the entire team agrees on a final solution. Revit helps us balance the clients needs, budget and schedule, the site’s context and climate, the architect’s design expertise, various consultant’s input and recommendations, and ensures all of this information works seamlessly together to create a great project.

Using Revit we are constantly modeling each project in 3D - eliminating the hassles of coordinating changes through independent 2D CAD Drawings. This virtual building is then sliced in order to generate 2D views for common floor plans and elevations. You may think of it as setting up a bunch of webcam’s inside a virtual building so that anytime something changes, all the webcams that are looking at that area will automatically represent the most recent state.

If your focus is engineering and construction, having the correct dimensions and coordination is only part of the equation. Revit allows these teams to go further and analyze buildings for energy use, lighting, acoustics, safety, and even calculate volume of materials without leaving the project workflow.

We use Revit for any project large and small and love it for the ability to quickly make aesthetic decisions - balancing functionality with quick references to the 3D form from unlimited vantage points. Building Information Modeling with Revit allows us to continually evolve our design, all while maintaining a coordinated document set. Our process can now be more about doing, seeing, and reacting. Managing design, rather than managing change itself.

Nick Mira, Propel Studio Architecture

Portland Street Seats Design Competition


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!