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.”

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